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?


    (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.


    (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)

    • October 13th 2017 @ 8:40am
      Nambawan said | October 13th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

      Yes its true – thrustfull, yet creative ball players with the skills to set up wingers have all but vanished. Mores the pity . All due in my view for dumb rule changes brought in by administrators without the background, or football knowledge to forsee the únintended consequences’of their changes.

      There was never any compelling reason to move scrums into midfield or to surrender the proper compliance of scrums rules, but these changes have directly led to the absurdity of players only being able to play in right or left sections of the field, and how often do you see play coming to halt when ‘left or right 2nd rowers’ merely take the tackle and starve outside backs of possession?

      Similarly there was never any compelling need to introduce interchange (remember the farcical absurdity of unlimited interchange?) as that rule change has only served to alter and degrade the traditional roles of halves and 5/8s who now get unfairly battered out of games by unfatigued forwards.

      In my view the game is now more than ever held together by the quality and professionalism of the players despite the best effort of its mediocre administrators.

      In restrospect what what a significant loss to the code was John Quale.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 8:43am
      Raugeee said | October 13th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      I remember the BRL in the 70s. Centres were often interchangeable with second rowers. Locks and Hookers were specialist positions. I remember one Redcliffe player, Tony Obst, switching from Fullback to Centre to 2nd Row all the time. Guess he was ahead of his time 🙂 – Russell Gartner is a Centre you have left off the list. I used to love tuning into NSWRL replays at midnight (on Wednesdays in QLD) to watch his powerful running. Watch Gartner’s try at the 2:15 mark……..

    • Roar Pro

      October 13th 2017 @ 8:59am
      Cam Stokes said | October 13th 2017 @ 8:59am | ! Report

      Agree, and wrote something similar earlier in the year…

    • October 13th 2017 @ 9:32am
      Ron Norton said | October 13th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

      You’re talking about the days when there were inside centres and outside centres, not left and right centres. Imagine hamstringing Reg Gasnier, Steve Rogers, Steve Renouf or Mal Meninga to one channel down a particular side of the field? That’s why league has developed into a game of forwards charging the ball up for five tackles and the halves kicking on the fifth. We’ve lost the great spectacle of centres showing their skills and settlng up wingers.

    • October 13th 2017 @ 9:33am
      Not so super said | October 13th 2017 @ 9:33am | ! Report

      Dugan is cemtre for the dragons and will play there for sharks

      • October 13th 2017 @ 3:05pm
        zim said | October 13th 2017 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

        “play there for sharks” – potentially.

      • October 15th 2017 @ 6:16pm
        Riggs said | October 15th 2017 @ 6:16pm | ! Report

        Dugan plays centre… but he sucks at it. So slow

    • October 13th 2017 @ 9:50am
      Paul said | October 13th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

      Thanks for reminding me what great centres Australia has produced over the past 30 or 40 years. It seems a shame we have become so structured in our play at NRL level, the centre is merely someone who can defend, ie Chambers, or pass the ball so wingers can score spectacular one handed tries in the corner.

      The English Super League seems less structured so the centre has much more of an attacking role to play. They also seem to create more broken play, where a centre should be at their best. Might be something we can learn from them.