The Cronulla Sharks’ signing of Cam McInnes is one of the biggest talking points ahead of the NRL season.
Not only because the Dragons have lost their captain and best player of the past two seasons, but for the fact McInnes has signed a four-year contract to play lock forward despite the fact he has only started eight games in the position, with all of them coming during the 2020 season.
There’s no argument McInnes can play lock and play it well. He’s tough, strong defensively and has a great work rate. However, the signing signals a shift in the guard where a lot of teams will have a smaller body, whether that be starting or on the bench, to play in the middle.
The change has been happening over the past few years: Cameron Murray at the Rabbitohs, Victor Radley at the Roosters, and Brandon Smith coming off the bench for the Storm. There is also talk of Connor Watson playing 13 for the Knights this year.
The smaller forwards have a unique combination of great leg drive, footwork and quick play the balls that offers something different to a 115-kilo prop that NRL sides are trained to handle.
It’s a lot harder to get three in the tackle against the smaller forward as the defence struggles to get square on due to the late footwork, where they can wrap the ball up and wait for the other two players to come into the tackle to turn the ball runner on his back.
If a forward can find his front in a tackle, the play of the ball is two or three seconds quicker, which means the defence has less time to react to what attack is being thrown at them.
Why do Cameron Murray and Damien Cook make such a great combination? Murray creates the quick ruck speed Damien Cook needs to beat the markers and get in behind the A defenders. It’s the worst thing for a defence to be on the back foot. One play of the ball can change the whole momentum of a set.
Brandon Smith has a similar effect at the Storm. He offers a point of difference to the Storm giants such as Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Christian Welch. He has one of the fastest play of the balls in the game and it allows Melbourne’s star-studded attack to play on the front foot against a disorganised defensive line.
To allow the smaller forward to be most effective, however, they need to be complemented by other strong middles who are more dominant defensively against other big packs. If you had a set of middles who were all built the same as Radley or Murray, they’d get rolled over by the big NRL packs such as the Storm or the Eels.
Yet, having one or two smaller forwards who speed a game up can really change the dynamic of a side.
It’s no surprise the last three premiership winners have operated with a smaller forward who can complement the big men.
This brings me back to why McInnes is a smart signing for the Sharks. John Morris has recognised that with the upcoming rule changes, which are encouraging a faster game, it pays dividends to have a player who can play big minutes and provide speed and footwork around the ruck.
The Sharks have a reasonably strong pack, containing Aaron Woods, Andrew Fifita, Toby Rudolf and Wade Graham. McInnes brings a better balance and it will be interesting to see how players such as Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan can play off the back of him.
Hopefully, we can see more use of the small middle as teams begin to adapt to the rule changes.