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The death of the ball playing lock forward

Greg Bird (Digital image by Shane Wenzlick, copyright nrlphotos.com)
Roar Guru
2nd September, 2016
13
1427 Reads

Over the years we have seen a number of positions evolve as the game of rugby league has changed.

Centres, second rowers and halves now all seem to have their one side of the field that they play on, or even their own narrow ‘channels’ that they run down.

Fullbacks are no longer just the player who can catch bombs, but are expected to be a damaging runner and extra ball player.

But one role that I notice the most change is the lock forward.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s where the lock forwards I remembered were seen as an extra five-eight. Tough enough to tackle all day, but expected to have plenty of ball playing skills.

Names like Brad Clyde, Ellery Hanley, Jim Dymock and Brad McKay Spring to mind. I remember Brad Fittler being named in the 13 for NSW in State of Origin. You wouldn’t see that now. It’s a different story these days, with these kinds of players in the minority.

At present the only ball playing lock regularly named is Greg Bird at the Titans. This is not to downplay the offloading skills of other regular locks like Corey Parker or Sam Burgess, but let’s be honest – you wouldn’t play either of them in the halves. Glenn Stewart was the other name that played what I see as the ‘classic’ lock forward role.

The majority of clubs are now playing a lock forward that is in essence a third prop. Look at the players wearing 13 this weekend.

Sam Moa played at lock last night for the Roosters. Burgess, Parker, David Klemmer, Trent Merrin, Jake Trbojevic, Jason Taumalolo and the quintessential lock/third prop, Paul Gallen are big units whose job it is to tuck the ball under the wing and go forward in a straight line. Sure, they offer more than your standard bookends, but not much.

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The other option for clubs seems to be the Dallas Johnson/Alan Tongue style of player, where the lock is expected to tackle all day. Dale Finucane is this kind of player, as is Elijah Taylor or Shaun Fensom.

Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott play a similar role, but more as enforcers than workhorses.

But these kinds of players are increasingly on the outer, as both Taylor and Fensom can attest. Taylor needed a mid-year move to get a start, and Fensom currently running around with Mounties and the hard-running Sia Soliola preferred in Ricky Stuart’s starting line-up.

And when you look at these names, there isn’t that much youth there. Is the time of the tackling machine also limited?

Is the future of the lock forward role being narrowed to just that third prop style? In a game where coaches talk about ‘centre thirds’ and ‘middle units’, where completions are king and structure rules all is there a place for a ball-playing lock?

It feels like the game has moved on.