Fullbacks are money babies but the position also comes with a lot more responsibility.
In the last 20 years or more this position has evolved from the quick kid who can catch to one of the main threats in attack and the defensive line coordinator. Most backs can fill the role but few have the nous to break a game open no matter where they show up.
In the four comparisons below, I’ve tried to highlight like-for-like fullbacks from the recent past that have stood above them all.
I’m not going to fill these comparisons with stats – this is to remember their contribution, their entertainment factor and stimulate discussion around the respective players.
James Tedesco versus Anthony Minichiello
I don’t think we hold up the man known as Mini as much as we should. He played 302 games over a 14-year career and won two premierships, was Dally M Fullback of the Year and a Harry Sunderland medalist. That year, when we all lauded Andrew Johns’ State of Origin masterclass, it was Minichiello who picked up the Wally Lewis Medal – he was that good.
Minichiello got his Australian chance because Darren Lockyer shifted into the halves but not only did he make it his own, he picked up the RLIF Back of the Year and the Golden Boot as well. Further, you’ll rarely see the bloke without a smile on his face. He was a champion fullback and person for a long time.
When Tedesco took his chance to go to the Roosters his career was always going into the stratosphere and it did. From a huge talent to a back-to-back premierships, back-to-back State of Origin series and being widely regarded as the best player in the game. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this man too much.
Both these guys were super elusive, had exceptional footwork in tight spaces and always were there to start and finish a play. Minichiello did have a deft touch with his hands and that’s a skill Tedesco has developed and mastered in recent years and he is only getting better.
Where Tedesco has it over Minichiello is his strength. His larger frame and huge core has him pulling through tackles or just carrying defenders with him to score. I am a big Minichiello fan but this one goes to Tedesco.
Matt Bowen versus Ben Barba
You can’t teach what these guys had and you would retire early if you could bottle it. They were just excitement personified. Barba owned the 2012 season. He scooped the pool of awards and topped the try scorers list as the Bulldogs ran roughshod over the competition to a minor premiership and grand final appearance. While they were beaten by Melbourne, Barba would have his revenge for Cronulla a few years later.
On the other hand, Bowen would come to prominence in North Queensland for tearing up a schoolboys comp where he took the tiny Abergowrie College to the state schoolboys final. He picked up player of the tournament. If you can appreciate the size of Abergowrie, coming up against the big league system schools you’ll understand why this is significant.
This is where he met Johnathan Thurston and struck up a friendship that turned into one of the deadliest combinations in the NRL. Bowen has every skill in the game. His hands were as fast as his feet and he had an instinct to play off Thurston that was often described as telepathic. He was the smallest bloke on the field but the one feared the most.
Every day this comparison goes to Bowen. Barba was brilliant on his day but Bowen was next level and pure entertainment.
Tom Trbojevic versus Brett Mullins
At the peak of their respective powers, both can make the impossible look easy. Mullins may have been fortunate to come into a stacked Raiders squad but I’ll challenge anyone who can think of more individual highlights from that team than this man produced.
With an easy running style, he was one of those players who knows he has beaten a defender before they come into contact and racked up over 100 tries while doing it. Taking the reigns from Australia and Queensland fullback Gary Belcher are big shoes to fill but even Belcher became the second best fullback in Canberra within a few short years.
Trbojevic, as astounding as it is to consider, is still on the rise. Trbojevic is generally the most influential player on the field, not just for Manly but in the game. With his loping stride, he never seems to be moving too fast but he is always on the spot when needed. He is an out-and-out competitor and the first bloke NSW wants in the team, even if coming off an injury. Trbojevic could play anywhere in the back line and be the best in the role no matter the opposition.
This one is harder to pick. At their peak I would likely choose Mullins but I’m not sure where Trbojevic’s peak is just yet.
Darren Lockyer versus Billy Slater
The Prince versus Billy the Kid. Talk about splitting hairs. One of the most debated comparisons and two of the most evenly matched players in every facet of the fullback position. They are both 300 gamers, played for one club and ticked every achievement imaginable.
Slater was a magician. His speed and game awareness has him above everyone else mentioned so far. Slater was fearless in his hole running and would attack from anywhere at any time. Plus, Slater was analytical. It was the big three for a reason and Slater would be chatting to Cooper Cronk the whole game and if you’ve heard him in commentary, he’s watching players move and calling plays before they happen.
I’ve witnessed that so many times live at Storm, Queensland and Australia games. There hasn’t been a better defensive fullback in 20 years at least. His all-round game grew into such a force that those who’ve watched the game longer than I have will say he’s the best fullback they’ve seen.
It is hard to disagree but I will. The benefit Lockyer has over Slater is that Lockyer was always a half as a junior but with a bit more size, speed, ball playing and kicking options than all but very few before him. When Lockyer arrived in Brisbane he had a pretty handy squad around him and formed the most lethal back three there has been between him, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri.
Lockyer came into the game an all-round better player than everyone else on this list and remained that way. He usurped Mullins and handed it onto Minichiello when it was decided he would move positions and become the best in the world in another position.