A moment’s silence for the demise of the centre

Ben Pobjie Columnist

By Ben Pobjie, Ben Pobjie is a Roar Expert

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    Rugby league fans of a certain vintage well remember the scything pace of Steve Renouf, and the juggernaut rampages of Mal Meninga.

    Those of an older vintage can recall the dazzling grace of Reg Gasnier. There might even be a few left who saw the great Dave Brown shattering records in the 1930s, and though it’s too much to expect that any current NRL watcher was around to witness the exploits of Dally Messenger, we all know his name.

    These are men who wrote themselves into the annals of league legend, and they all have one thing in common. As do, to take a small sample, Chris Close, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Michael O’Connor, Harry Wells, Andrew Ettingshausen, Herman Peters, Tom Gorman and perhaps the greatest of them all: Michael Pobjie.

    Yes, they were all centres.

    There was a time when centres took that part of the stage most aptly named. The great centres combined speed, power, footwork and ball skills to be the most potent weapons in their sides. The rest of the team strived as one to unleash their devastating attacks. They slashed through defences, crunched opponents in tackles, and scored as many tries as they delivered to their grateful wingers – who were often scintillating runners in their own right.

    That time is not this time. This time is the time when Australia announces its World Cup squad, and includes a backline contingent containing just one centre. Just the one player who features regularly in a number three or four for his club, in a 24-man squad.

    To compensate, however, there are five fullbacks. There were six, until Darius Boyd pulled out and was replaced by Josh Mansour. That was six specialist fullbacks, out of eleven backs total in the squad. Plus Cameron Munster, who would probably still be a fullback if he didn’t happen to play for the Storm.

    Cameron Munster breaks through a tackle

    (AAP Image/David Mariuz)

    Mansour, incidentally, is the only specialist winger in a squad which wouldn’t contain any if Boyd had been fit. But the wing has always been the position filled by the overflow of stars inside them – that’s why most of O’Connor and Ettingshausen’s rep careers and, indeed, Boyd’s – were spent on the wing. The decline of the specialist centre – that’s a newer development.

    The writing was on the wall for centres hoping to play for Australia during State of Origin this year. After Justin O’Neill’s disappointing showing in Game 1, three out of four centres in the remaining two encounters weren’t playing the position on the weekends.

    The Blues went the whole series with non-centres in the centres. The Maroons placed fullback Darius Boyd alongside Will Chambers in Game 2, and then pushed Michael Morgan wide for the third.

    Chambers was the only centre in the NRL deemed good enough to fill the role in Origin, and now he’s the only centre in the NRL good enough to play centre for Australia. Fullback Josh Dugan, he’s good enough. One might assume that fullback Dane Gagai or fullback Tom Trbojevic or fullback Valentine Holmes might slot in there at some point. Maybe even five-eighth Munster will have a go, or halfback Morgan can go back to the position he was apparently better at than all but one Queensland centre this year.

    Whence comes this fall in the standing of the centre, all the more poignant for the fact the Cup selections were made by Meninga, perhaps the greatest centre of them all?

    mal-meninga-rugby-league-nrl-2016

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    Part of it might be the modern partition of the field. Nowadays everyone has to be a right-sider or a left-sider. Centres are no longer the middle section of a field-wide backline structure, but occupants of a narrow channel on the edges. They’re expected to stay in their place and run their lines and don’t interfere with the work being done by the important parts of the team.

    Which is the other thing: the modern rugby league team is built around what has come to be called the spine: hooker, halfback, five-eighth and fullback. These four are the positions where attacks start and from where the team is directed. What this means is that if a club unearths a special talent, they rarely want to waste him in the straitjacket of the centres: you want your best players in the spine.

    This means the best players of the NRL all play in the spine. Which means when you’re picking an Australian team, there are so many great spine players that you want to fit them all in. Which means, in practice, a backline full of fullbacks.

    What it also means – what it must mean – is that centre is now considered the easiest of all positions to play. When Johnathan Thurston went down injured, the Queensland selectors never thought Will Chambers could maybe fill in. But when Boyd – who was only there because O’Neill let the side down – got hurt, it was fine to stick Morgan in his place, because while the halves are the province of specialists, when it comes to the centres, anyone can do it.

    No longer do you pick the best centre for the job, you just find the best player who isn’t already busy in the spine, and plug him in to the right side or the left side.

    Thurston-Origin

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    And so, while Chambers is apparently just good enough to warrant selection, the likes of O’Neill, BJ Leilua, Jarrod Croker, James Roberts, Dylan Walker, Tyrone Peachey, Michael Jennings, Jack Bird and Latrell Mitchell watch from the sidelines or take up with a Tier-two nation, knowing that as good as they might be, they’re not quite up to the standard of a fullback who doesn’t care where he plays.

    Which maybe – probably – doesn’t really matter. That centre is no longer so much a playing position as a hole to be plugged doesn’t necessarily detract any from the game.

    But a moment’s silence, please, for the demise of what was once the most thrilling position on the field, the place where the creativity of the halves linked with the finishing dash of the wings, and stadiums were set on fire by the game’s supreme athletes. And now, let us look to the future, and the beckoning brave new world of all-fullback backlines.

    Ben Pobjie
    Ben Pobjie

    Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms.

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 9:52am
      Nat said | October 13th 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      Have to agree with this sentiment. I was one that wrote that Mal wouldn’t do this but I was wrong. I guess the difference these days is the athleticism of the players today. In yesteryear a forward was a forward. Sironen. Peirce and Clyde morphed into a hole-hitting Beaver Menzies then SBW which offers the ball players so many more options. A good option, yes, but there is nothing more scintillating than watching Renouf or Roberts catch a ball 2m before the line and gone before their opposite can react. Being able to fill a position is a whole lot different to being a specialist.

    • Roar Guru

      October 13th 2017 @ 10:25am
      The Barry said | October 13th 2017 @ 10:25am | ! Report

      I sort of agree…but I think it’s more to do with rep selectors conservative natures than a dearth of quality centres.

      The author has provided a good list of quality current centres. There’s a few others too.

      From a NSW perspective does anyone think that picking pretty much any two on that list would have worked out worse than selecting Hayne and Dugan out of position? They were NSWs biggest defensive liabilities.

      As for guys like Morgan filling in. Sometimes you have quality players with the right skill set and need to fit them in. Brett Kenny played some his best footy for Australia in the centres.

      Fullbacks these days are a little bit of a false economy. They touch the ball more than anyone else so there’s an impression that we have to get them in rep teams somewhere. Ignoring the fact that there’s skills centres have like ball playing at the line and running correct lines that fullbacks don’t have to do week in week out.

      Centre is arguably the hardest position on the field to defend in.

      • Roar Guru

        October 13th 2017 @ 11:13am
        Nat said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:13am | ! Report

        You make a good point TB. A specialist in Chambers made an out-of-position Hayne look 2nd rate in defence, even in close quarters. To be fended away is one thing, to have your ankles broken is simply outplayed.

        • Roar Guru

          October 13th 2017 @ 1:22pm
          The Barry said | October 13th 2017 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

          The more I think about it the more I think this is a storm in a teacup.

          There’s plenty of good specialist centres in the NRL and the best teams use them effectively.

          There’s been some outrageously exaggerated comments here.

          The author referred to “fullback Gagai” who would have played 10 times the amount of football as a winger or centre as he has at fullback and has been selected in the Australian squad as a centre / winger not as a fullback.

          Ditto “fullback Holmes” who has played two and a bit seasons as a very effective winger and one as a serviceable fullback. He’s been picked for Australia pretty much exclusively as a winger who will be well down the pecking order as a fullback.

          Even “fullback Trbojevic” who no doubt will be a specialist fullback for the rest of his career would have to date played a similar amount of fullback to wing/centre.

          I reckon there are just as many players around who started as wingers or centres and switched to fullback permanently or temporarily as there are the other way around:
          Inglis, Boyd, Kahu, B Morris, Hopoate, Wighton, Holmes, Trbojevic, Gordon, Hayne, RTS, Elliott, French, Gutherson, Will Smith, Cody Walker and even Billy Slater all started as centres or wingers.

          Very few players (none?) play one positions all the way through juniors. I literally played every position on the park bar halfback between the ages of 7-27.

          We perceive them as specialist fullbacks or centres or whatever because that’s where we first see them or think that’s where they’re best suited.

          By the way I assume you meant “tackles” broken not “ankles” haha – took me a while to work out !

          • Roar Guru

            October 16th 2017 @ 1:03pm
            Nat said | October 16th 2017 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

            Agreed. I admit, due to no pay TV at home, I rarely get to follow the NYC to see the juniors and their respective positions compared to where they make their way into the top team. Mainly those in the Q-Cup. Boyd was schoolboys FB but with Lockyer and K Hunt at the Broncos, he had to bide his time. Further, maturity and form allows them to play in most positions well (Dugan, Boyd). While Hayne had a shocker in SoO this year, he was my Player of Series in 2013 in the Aust team-out of position. Aust is very fortunate we can offer an abundance of players to fill roles but (as an ex 9,6,3 myself) I love to watch dominant centers ply their trade.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 10:49am
      bbt said | October 13th 2017 @ 10:49am | ! Report

      Chambers is the best centre in the game today. (Well I am a Storm supporter!) I think that Vunivalu owes quite a few of his tries to Chambers’ efforts.

      • October 13th 2017 @ 2:53pm
        Bonza said | October 13th 2017 @ 2:53pm | ! Report

        Agree completely. Jennings is still a class act, Roberts very dangerous and Walker is a true centre. Explosive, backs himself and sets up his winger.
        Qld must breathe with relief when we wheel out that tired old Duges/whoever in the centres.
        Sigh.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 11:17am
      Albo said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:17am | ! Report

      Great article Ben ! The loss of the specialist centre is just another indirect negative result of the interchange rule which has completely changed the game to its current predictable and one dimensional style of game we have today. Today’s centres just have to plug holes in the wider defensive line, run block for their fullback under the bomb, take one dummy half hit up each set and run the occasional block run in concert with the edge forward. Basically fit into the modern forward based power game of 5 hit ups and a kick and chase. Don’t waste a tackle trying to step and make a break or split a tired defence, just get your metres and a quick play the ball. Stick to the pattern. Just like the interchange has produced this one dimensional power based game and eliminated the variety of playing types from our game, the specialist centre too has gone by the wayside in favour of the no risk plug sitting inside the winger and outside the edge forward. Plenty of backrowers, fullbacks, or utilities can now wear the 3 & 4 jumper and coaches will be more than happy.

      • October 13th 2017 @ 11:57am
        Ron Norton said | October 13th 2017 @ 11:57am | ! Report

        Well said Albo. Today’s game is so predictable. Centres have to go looking for the ball or they never see it. It’s not that there’s a shortage of good centres; their skills just aren’t being used any more. How long is it since Australia had a combination like Harry Wells and Reg Gasnier in the side? It was worth every cent (sorry penny) of the admission price to watch them in action.

        • October 13th 2017 @ 3:03pm
          ja ja klazo said | October 13th 2017 @ 3:03pm | ! Report

          Mark Gasnier and Greg Inglis went alright.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 1:09pm
      RandyM said | October 13th 2017 @ 1:09pm | ! Report

      Jamie Lyon was the archetypal modern day centre. I don’t think I’ve seen a player who was better at setting up his outside man.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 1:12pm
      Box said | October 13th 2017 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

      Renouf played a lot of his footy as a left centre. Mal towards the latter part of his career played at right centre. I think the use of the block play has contributed to centre’s not being as enterprising as they used to. Renouf used to get a lot of ball early from Walters when he was playing, giving him time and space to show his skills. have look at how Chambers plays and you see he gets the ball early allowing him to either take the line on or position his winger. Roberts at the Broncos plays his best when he gets early ball. When they do the block play he is cramped for room and doesn’t look as dynamic as the defense is up on him. He played his best football at the Titans where Sezer with his left to right pass hitting him early and giving him space.

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