The fullback cocktail that has coaches selecting double

Jason Hosken Roar Guru

By Jason Hosken, Jason Hosken is a Roar Guru

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    Kangaroos legend Darren Lockyer was one of the first to make jumping positions the norm.

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    Grand final pair Anthony Milford and Michael Morgan’s transition from fullback to five-eighth was seamless. Many believe Penrith’s prospects will sky rocket with Matt Moylan’s speed and guile shifted to the front line.

    So what does a coach expect from a fullback? What is it about the modern version of rugby league forcing traditional five-eighths to glance nervously over their shoulder?

    To unravel the current fullback obsession it’s worth rolling the tape back 60 years to the premier custodian of the time, Clive Churchill.

    The Little Master’s unique brand of skills filled training manuals for subsequent generations. However a try-scoring drought, one that unbelievably lasted his entire career, shows just how far the role has evolved.

    In 157 career games for the Rabbitohs, the Team of the Century fullback only crossed the line on 13 occasions. Astonishingly for a backline legend he went try-less in 37 Tests.

    By modern try scoring standards, the uninitiated could well interpret the diminutive speedster forged Immortality from the front-row. He has a strike rate remarkably similar to George Rose – who tallied 10 tries in 151 appearances.

    Obviously racking up three-pointers in the old currency wasn’t Churchill’s forte but a rare ability to orchestrate attacking raids proved revolutionary.

    Since then there’s been the dazzling sidesteps of Graeme Langlands through to the kamikaze raids of Gary Jack and the mesmerising hands of Gary Belcher.

    Not until Darren Lockyer has a player possessed such a diverse range of skills and athletic power synonymous with multiple key positions.

    Australia’s most capped Test star dominated from fullback for five years until 2003, before doing the same in the halves for another eight. In 59 Tests the Queenslander twice claimed the Golden Boot for international player of the year – remarkably, once from each position.

    He raised the bar in both positions, trail-blazing what is now a recurring theme where ball players blessed with speed and vision are readily interchangeable between the two positions.

    High flyers Greg Inglis, Josh Dugan, Ben Barba and Jarryd Hayne have all covered five-eighth. For the new generation led by Milford, Morgan, Gareth Widdop, and Corey Norman the transformation fits like a glove.

    Interestingly, the perceived demise of traditional ball-playing halves has been a hot topic, particularly in New South Wales where experts blame inadequate junior programs.

    Yet the same programs have unearthed an abundance of fullback talent not only blessed with pace and power but creativity to dominate key frontline positions.

    Even a couple of old dogs with expanded attacking repertoires have kept pace with the younger brigade.

    With many years under Lockyer at representative level, it’s little wonder Billy Slater is now considered the best fullback of all time. The Storm veteran not only sits second on the premiership try-scoring list but in recent seasons has added try-provider to an exhaustive bag of tricks.

    Yapping at Slater’s heels for tries scored, Brett Stewart has similarly adapted into a quality all-rounder. The Sea Eagle finished second to Johnathan Thurston for try-assists in 2014 and is now touted as a possible five-eighth replacement for Kieran Foran in 2016.

    The diversification of skills means traditional halves combinations are on the slippery slope to park footy. The selection of two playmakers with limited line breaking ability is harder on the nose than Sam Burgess at a Bath rugby convention.

    It’s why Cronulla recruit Chad Townsend would be a surprise selection in combination with James Maloney. In would-be fullback Jack Bird, coach Shane Flanagan has a tackle busting five-eighth with the frontline nous to compliment Valentine Holmes’ strike from the back.

    Peter Wallace is in the same boat. Once again the former Bronco faces Anthony Griffin’s axe. Matt Moylan’s transfer would ignite the Panthers’ halves and unlock the dynamic skills of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak through the back field.

    In essence, pacey ball players are serving fullback apprenticeships before striking from centre stage.

    Rugby league’s spine is now bigger. The spur growing mid-ship is a proven winner and coaches missing the boarding call risk sailing a course wide of the finals.

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    The Crowd Says (56)

    • Roar Guru

      January 8th 2016 @ 7:09am
      peeeko said | January 8th 2016 @ 7:09am | ! Report

      good read, the evolution of the fullbac role of the last ten years has been amazing. remember Morgan was a half the year before he was a fullback, Will smith at penrith is another that switched. Agree on Townsend, he wont make the 17

    • Roar Guru

      January 8th 2016 @ 7:17am
      Jay C said | January 8th 2016 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      I still reckon Bird is a centre, with a good chance of a Glenn Stewart type back rowers role in the future.

      The main reason for the changes would have to be the nature of the modern game. Quality defences and limited tackles mean it’s much more difficult to break the line.

      Having an extra playmaker that can pop up anywhere creates confusion in the defence.

      On top of which, skill sets are alot less dynamic than they used to be meaning we see players moved between positions more regularly.

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2016 @ 8:39am
        Jason Hosken said | January 8th 2016 @ 8:39am | ! Report

        And then there was light..good to have you back, JC. How was the UK, did you find a local side to follow?

        Your last comment worries me. Makes the game sound robotic where the combatants are all of equal size and skill set. I get your drift but hope the game doesn’t become that, although plenty believe it has.

        • Roar Guru

          January 8th 2016 @ 9:36pm
          Jay C said | January 8th 2016 @ 9:36pm | ! Report

          Hey mate. The holiday is going great. In London at the moment. Might have to wait until i see a bit of footy before picking sides.

          The age of the robot is upon us.

          It’s been said already but alot of these guys that switched actually grew up playing in the halves.

          I think the very best players push their peers and those that follow to a new level.

          Another way to look at it. We get arguments all the time about whether Inglis is better than Billy, or Hayne, even Stewart.

          I don’t recall many arguments with Locky. He was the best.

          When you also take into account captaining your team, state and country. And the records he set while doing it. It would be hard to argue he wasn’t the best. Smarter men than I obviously saw something.

          Greggy did get the CC from 5/8. He has a monster boot on him. I miss watching him put bombs up.

          • Roar Guru

            January 8th 2016 @ 10:20pm
            Jason Hosken said | January 8th 2016 @ 10:20pm | ! Report

            Pretty sure it was GI’s spiralling torpedo of death that brought an end to Snake’s 2007 GF. Hayne too could launch a cloud busting bomb.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 8th 2016 @ 8:18am
      Squidward said | January 8th 2016 @ 8:18am | ! Report

      I’m still struggling with the Bird at fullback thoughts (albeit with out seeing him play there but need to see if he can catch bombs position himsel etc)
      Val has to play there if not this year but next year. And probably isn’t a player that will move to 6 either

      Townsend was good when he was helping out Johnson in NZ. Let’s hope Maloney stays fit cause then that’s when Chad turned to water

      • January 11th 2016 @ 1:00pm
        Albo said | January 11th 2016 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

        Spot on Squidward !
        Holmes is the obvious choice as a brilliant fullback for the Sharks.
        Bird is a backrower ! I would play him at lock and keep developing his ball playing skills to match his enthusiasm and high work rate.

    • Roar Guru

      January 8th 2016 @ 10:31am
      Epiquin said | January 8th 2016 @ 10:31am | ! Report

      Quality read!
      I’ve seen fullback evolve into the kind of position that kids want to emulate in the backyard. Where we used to say that no side can win the comp without a quality halfback, I think the same is now said about a quality fullback.

      In addition to the increased playmaking role that fullbacks have taken on, they are still required to direct the defensive line from backplay and are still required to pull off one-on-one tackles at speed as the last line of defense. Fullbacks are required to have physical brilliance as well as a “good football brain.”

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2016 @ 2:30pm
        Jason Hosken said | January 8th 2016 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

        Thanks Epic. You’ve been away too, on hols with JC? Always good to read your thoughts and your pic always provides a chuckle – plenty of Don Burke about it!!

        Directing the defensive line: one of the best aspects of watching a game from the fence s is seeing/hearing the efforts of the fullback coordinate a group of tired and busted forwards.

        • Roar Guru

          January 8th 2016 @ 3:50pm
          Epiquin said | January 8th 2016 @ 3:50pm | ! Report

          Haha cheers Jase.

          Started a new job with less time for slacking off, so haven’t been able to check The Roar as often.

    • January 8th 2016 @ 10:41am
      AJM said | January 8th 2016 @ 10:41am | ! Report

      I wonder whether you might have this the wrong way around. A lot of the players you mentioned came up through the grades as five eighths and broke into first grade as fullbacks, often because the team already had an established star five eighth eg. Walters at the Broncos. Then later in their careers these fullbacks moved into five eighth when they got their chance.

      Comment from The Roar’s iPhone app.

    • Roar Rookie

      January 8th 2016 @ 11:43am
      JOHNY BULLDOG said | January 8th 2016 @ 11:43am | ! Report

      Good article thanks Jas-you must be entering this season with high hopes mate,your boys will be more than competitive especially at Brooky & a big HELLO to the prodigal son Jay C…hope your well mate & over your heart break from the GF. Happy new year to all.

      • Roar Guru

        January 8th 2016 @ 4:48pm
        Jason Hosken said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:48pm | ! Report

        Cheers JB. Big changes at Manly and a rookie coach under the pump even before a 5/8 has been selected. All looks good on paper, hopefully it doesn’t take half a season to settle on combinations. Much better feeling than the 2015 build-up, so here’s hoping it translates to a finals return.

        Your Doggies will be up there no doubt..good coach!!

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