The game of rugby league seems to go through phases at the top level. A few years ago the lock forward position was used as just an extra front-rower, the best example of this being Paul Gallen, but in the last two to three years the position seems to be going through another phase.
The likes of Dale Finucane, Cam Murray and Victor Radley are helping to change the position once again but perhaps the two best locks in today’s game are Jake Trbojevic and Jason Taumalolo. I love watching these two players and their wildly different styles.
Taumalolo might be the most damaging, explosive, ball-running forward in the game’s history. When he fails to run over 200 metres, it feels like a quiet night. Taumalolo requires at minimum of two players to put him on the ground. He regularly makes 15 to 20 metres a run. He combines hulk-style size with some of the most impressive foot work and speed in the game. The fact that it comes from a man his size can make him unstoppable.
Trbojevic, on the other hand, is a Swiss army knife of a player. He combines a solid running game with perhaps the best tackling technique in the NRL. He also acts as perhaps the best link man in the game. His selective passing game is outstanding and allows the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans to play wider with more time, which is a critical aspect of the modern attack.
Jason Taumalolo seems to be ignored by the wider NRL community. This may be because the Cowboys are struggling, or it may be because we have just come to expect his excellence, but he was able to continue his fantastic numbers in 2019. For the year Taumalolo scored three tries and set one up, he averaged about 17 runs a game and a massive 196 metres a match.
He made ten line breaks for the year and was able to break nearly 70 tackles. He was also able to produce just over one offload a game. Taumalolo also tackled at a very respectable 92 per cent. Clearly the strength of Taumalolo’s game is his running. He makes ground at will and forward packs still haven’t figured out how to limit his impact.
I have two issues with Taumalolo’s game. The first one may not be his fault but in fact may be the fault of the coaches. I cannot understand why Taumalolo is only used as a battering ram. The Cowboys have perhaps the most gifted forward since Sonny Bill Williams and he is used the same way that Martin Lang was.
This makes no sense to me. Paul Green has to run some plays for Taumalolo. He has to get him one on one with halves or have him charging against the grain. Taumalolo can go to another level if the Cowboys realise what they actually have. Green’s use of Taumalolo should be criticised.
My other issue with Taumalolo’s game is that he can fight for too much ground, which can result in a very slow play the ball, meaning the next play results in either the runner being smashed or the set play being put under a lot of pressure with a rushing defence.
It sounds counter-intuitive to suggest that earning extra yardage affects the set in a negative way, but this aspect of Taumalolo’s game is holding back the Cowboys.
In 2019, Jake Trbojevic scored two tries and assisted on another three. He averaged close to 12 carries a game and 122 metres. He was able to create nine offloads for the year and tackled at a very impressive 94 per cent. These stats are uninspiring. I thought they would paint a much better picture for Trbojevic.
These numbers still point to a great player but don’t go close to painting the whole picture. The greatest strength in Trbojevic’s game is his ability to ball-play, which allows him to make more damaging runs, but also allows him to play a brilliant link man for the likes of DCE or Nathan Cleary at Origin level.
His ability to ball-play like a half allows his halves to play with much more width and attack the edge at speed. This ability creates new areas of attack and gets his playmakers onto the front foot.
The other strong point of Trbojevic’s game is his defence. He leads the defensive line and is part of arguably the best middle in the game with Marty Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake. His ability to lead the line and create line speed and then cut ball-runners in half is incredible and just makes ball-runners check where he is in the line.
So who do you pick? These two players – although playing the same position – have very different styles, and I am going for Jake Trbojevic because a team can use him in a number of different ways.
While Taumalolo may be the greatest ball-runner of all time, outside of his running, he has a very limited ability to impact a game whereas Trbojevic can take control in a number of different ways.