Rugby League has evolved so much over the years.
Not just in terms of structures or the physicality of players, but also the effectiveness and importance of positions. The wingers nowadays are some of the most important members in a team, vital to how a team starts their sets and how clinical they are at finishing.
Take, for example, Blake Ferguson at the Parramatta Eels. He’s helped transform last year’s wooden spooners into a genuine finals contender, something they lost last year with the departure of Semi Radradra.
Or the number 9, where the dummy halves are now so important in attacking structure, highlighted by how influential current hookers are, namely Cameron Smith and Damien Cook.
However, the one that seems most interesting to me is the way the number 13 position has been re-revolutionised. From the ball-playing locks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, such as Jim Dymock, Ellery Hanley, and even for periods through their career; Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler.
Two players who were equally adept at five-eighth, centre and lock forward.
Moving into the mid-2000s until very recently, the lock position has transformed into big, middle units, essentially a third prop, who are utilised as battering rams, compounded by their usually strong running metres.
They differed slightly from a prop in the sense they usually play bigger minutes, for example, Jason Taumololo, Paul Gallen or Sam Burgess. The power game had come to the fore in the NRL and coaches were favouring monstrous packs to roll over their opposition.
Coaches were insistent this was the way to go, and they had good reason to believe so. The past four or so grand finals have been won by teams who’ve held the more dominant engine room; the Bunnies in 2014, Cowboys in 2015, and the Sharks in 2016, who were led by Andrew Fifita and Gallen.
This is why I find the emergence of small lock forwards so interesting. The current list of small number 13’s, who possess speed and footwork and the ability to ball play is headed by players from the top sides in the game: Brandon Smith at the Storm, Victor Radley at the Roosters and NSW representative, Cameron Murray from the Bunnies.
It’s a formula that brought a premiership to the Roosters last year, where Radley’s ability to utilise his leg speed and also ball play, caused a lot of trouble for sides who weren’t used to having a middle forward who could link up with his halfbacks.
I believe it’s become such a useful asset for a side because of the variation they provide for a team’s go forward.
Instead of three very similar forwards carting the ball up, often with no intention of passing, it’s easy pickings for the opposition defence. However, when a small player carries the ball, the big middle defenders become worried because of their leg speed, footwork and ability to take different options.
Cameron Murray is a prime example of a player who defies the trend, he stands around six-feet tall, weighing 90kg, he’s in complete disproportion to the hulking giants of other side’s number 13’s.
Yet, this season, he’s arguably been the best lock in the competition, his play of the balls are the quickest in the competition, he never seems to be put on to his back and churns through a lot of running metres (115 per game).
It’s a massive factor as to why Damien Cook is having another great year, as Murray provides the platform for him to run through his play of the ball speed.
Brandon Smith at the Storm is a hooker by trade, yet his performances off the bench in the number 13 position force Craig Bellamy to pick him.
He scored a double at the weekend and it was through his strength and speed which allowed him to spin away from the defenders. From a big middle’s perspective, the smaller, quicker and athletic lock forwards are a nightmare for them to tackle as they force them to work harder to contain the footwork and leg drive.
I think more and more coaches are going to go this way with selections. The variation the smaller, quicker number 13’s provides in attack is hard to ignore, and it’s highlighted by the fact the current top three teams possess these types of players.
They can play bigger minutes, get through more work and that means fewer interchanges, ensuring the other big middles get plenty of rest and can come on fresh, which is integral with the eight interchanges at present.
From the Dymocks to the Gallens and now to the Murrays. Rugby league is a game constantly changing.
What works one year might not work the next, which is what makes it so special.