It’s hard to win a flag without a standout halfback to control the game and deliver on the coach’s plans.
It is possible to win without a top half if you have a great No.6 (see Brisbane 2006 with Shane Perry joining Darren Lockyer in the halves).
If you have both, well that leads to a dynasty – think Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling, Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart, Kevin Walters and Allan Langer.
At some point, this emphasis on the halfback and five eighth as the ones to bring home the bacon morphed into ‘The Spine’. I can’t even remember when it happened. Maybe somewhere between when Benny Elias brought ball playing flair to dummy half and Darren Lockyer became the Broncos fullback.
Top teams now need a third ball-playing option at the back. The fullback chimes into the backline to break up the defensive numbering and they also hold the defence together with their talk.
The dummy half, no longer a hooker, has the ball in his hands more than any other player. He is responsible for getting his forwards across the advantage line and making more ‘right choices’ than any other player during a game.
Simply put, all the Boyd Cordners and Matt Gilletts of this world don’t mean squat if there isn’t a spine to capitalise on their honest endeavours.
So who are this year’s standout spines? Let’s have a look, using a very simply ranking system. In each of the four positions I’ve ranked the likely starters for each club and allocated points.
The top fullback earns 16 spine points, the next best earns 15, and so on. Then I’ve just tallied the points for the four positions for each club and there you have it.
Now let’s see who comes out on top in the 2019 Spine Rankings. Here they are in reverse order.
(Points for each player is in brackets. 16 points equals the strongest in the position, down to 1 point being the weakest.)
16. Canterbury Bulldogs – 15 Points
Nick Meaney (1), Lachlan Lewis (6), Kieran Foran (6), Michael Lichaa (2)
Dear oh dear, it looks like being a long season for the Bulldogs. Their fullback and dummy half have not shown match winning capabilities, their five eighth has had one good half a season and their half is held together by rubber bands and hope.
15. Parramatta Eels – 19 Points
Clint Gutherson (7), Dylan Brown (1), Mitchell Moses (7), Reed Mahoney (4)
The Eels have two untried players in their spine and other two, while they are favourites among some fans, are middle of the pack at best.
14. Canberra Raiders – 23 Points
Brad Abbey (or Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad) (2), Jack Wighton (2), Aiden Sezer (3), Josh Hodgson (16)
The Raiders are saved from having the weakest spine by owning the single best dummy half in the game (there, I said it). But apart from that you have untried, out of position, prone to error and underwhelming.
13. Gold Coast Titans – 25 Points
AJ Brimson (9), Tyrone Roberts (5), Ash Taylor (8), Nathan Peats (3)
Nice and average for the Titans. No stand outs, but no terrible gaps either. AJ Brimson could make a mockery of this list after a full season at the back. He is the real deal.
12. North Queensland Cowboys – 28 Points
Ben Hampton (or Jordan Kahu) (5), Te Maire Martin (4), Michael Morgan (13), Jake Granville (6)
North Queensland are definitely suffering a post Johnathan Thurston hangover. A fit Morgan is obviously right up there, but he is surrounded by bit players and Granville is showing signs of the miles in his legs.
11. Newcastle Knights – 33 Points
Connor Watson (4), Kalyn Ponga (14), Mitchell Pearce (14), Danny Levi (or Kurt Mann) (1)
The Knights were really hard to rate. Watson has no decent history in the position and they have the weakest dummy half options. But I’ve erred on the side of optimism with Ponga’s shift to five-eighth and Mitchell Pearce – outside of Origin – is a top-three halfback.
The next three finished on equal points.
T-8. New Zealand Warriors – 35 Points
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (15), Blake Green (8), Chanel Harris-Tevita (or Adam Keighran) (1), Issac Luke (11)
Close to the best fullback in the game, a solid five eighth and a more than solid dummy half, but their post-Johnson half is a completely unknown risk, as is Green’s ability to provide the spark.
T-8. St George-Illawarra Dragons – 35 Points
Gareth Widdop (12), Corey Norman (7), Ben Hunt (9), Cameron McInnes (7)
Widdop is quality, but there other three are middle of the road, which is why they’ve ended up here. It is way past the time when Norman and Hunt can be spoken about for their ‘potential’.
T-8. Wests Tigers – 35 Points
Moses Mbye (6), Benji Marshall (or Josh Reynolds) (10), Luke Brooks (10), Robbie Farah (9)
Underrated and they have Reynolds waiting in the wings. I was surprised that Brooks ended up with only 10 points, but then if you look who is above him, it’s not far wrong. The key is whether Marshall and Farah can rage against the dying of the light, or whether they’ll end up sharing a beer together on the scoreboard.
7. Melbourne Storm – 36 Points
Scott Drinkwater (or Jahrome Hughes) (3), Cameron Munster (16), Brodie Croft (2), Cameron Smith (15)
No Slater, no Cronk and Smith losing his number one mantle. Melbourne are due a fall with inexperience at 1 and 7, but Munster is a superstar.
6. Cronulla Sharks – 37 Points
Matt Moylan (10), Shaun Johnson (12), Chad Townsend (5), Jayden Brailey (10)
A solid spine. Love him or hate him, Johnson is a top-five half. Brailey is quality, while Townsend is underrated, even by me. But it is time for Moylan to stand up and become an elite player.
T-4. Brisbane Broncos – 39 Points
Darius Boyd (11), Anthony Milford (11), Kodi Nikorima (4), Andrew McCullough (13)
Are my biases showing here? Maybe. Boyd for all his issues is still an elite defensive organiser and link man. Milford is a strike player forced to be a cart horse because of his half back and McCullough is in some ways like Mitchell Pearce – a seriously great club player if not quite suited to the next level.
T-4. Penrith Panthers – 39 Points
Dylan Edwards (8), James Maloney (15), Nathan Cleary (11), Wayde Egan (or Sione Katoa) (5)
Solid at the back and maybe a bit below par at dummy half, but Cleary is good (not as good as he is made out to be mind you) and Jimmy is on par with Munster as the best five-eighth in the game.
3. Manly Sea Eagles – 40 Points
Tom Trbojevic (14), Kane Elgey (3), Daly Cherry-Evans (15), Api Koroisau (8)
Well here is a surprise. The much-maligned Sea Eagles are top three. Their spine is inconsistent, with two top 3 players in their positions at fullback and half but a middle of the road dummy half and a five eighth on his last chance to prove he is up to first grade.
You can basically throw a blanket between our teams ranked from 3rd to 11th and an extra point here or there based on personal preference would make the rankings very different. But there can be little argument about numbers 1 and 2.
2. South Sydney Rabbitohs – 48 Points
Greg Inglis (13), Cody Walker (9), Adam Reynolds (12), Damien Cook (14)
Assuming a fit GI, the Rabbitohs have top five ranked players at fullback, half and hooker, while Cody Walker is not too shabby either. It’s all down to injuries for this group with Reynolds and Inglis held together by duct tape and the prayers of thousands of cardinal and myrtle fanatics.
1. Sydney Roosters – 57 Points
James Tedesco (16), Luke Keary (13), Cooper Cronk (16), Jake Friend (12)
Forget the fact that only one of these players wasn’t purchased in the last three years, the Roosters have somehow managed to dig behind the couch for loose change and put together a spine to drool over.
Friend is elite solid (although ageing) and Cronk and Tedesco are simply the best at what they do. The missing piece was whether Keary was able to step up and last year’s grand final answered that question emphatically.
So there you have it – on the spines alone you are looking at a Roosters-Rabbitohs grudge match to finish 2019.