The centre position is dead in modern-day rugby league.
How did this happen? Centre was a pin-up position, which has given us some of the game’s greatest and most entertaining players. It was a position that often sat next to halfback as the most glamorous and coveted.
The value of the centre position has eroded significantly over the last 20 years. Try and think of some great centres of the ’80s and ’90s and the names flow pretty easily: franchise players such as Andrew Ettingshausen, Steve Rogers, Mick Cronin, Mal Meninga, Steve Renouf, Matt Gidley and Mark Gasnier all spring to mind.
Try and name the current centres in your own team let alone across the league and it’s a different proposition. In today’s game, centre has little identity and the players wearing three or four are often in transition.
Invariably they are young up-and-comers moving closer to the action or a mobile back-rower filling in for a week. In the most evolved version of rugby league, the centre position has become the most generic.
I’ve never heard of a player asking for centre money, it would be a joke, they all want fullback money. Who killed the centre position? The fullback did. Players like Darren Lockyer, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis, James Tedesco and Billy Slater all made centres redundant. They took what the centre offered and added it to their own game.
In the old days, the champion centre got early ball from the half, created the opportunity and then gave a well-timed pass to the winger. Who does that now? The fullback. It’s the most common back-line play in the game.
Every week we hear a commentator describing the fullback sweeping behind the half and throwing a beautiful cut-out pass to a winger who scores an acrobatic try in the corner. Who did the fullback cut out? The poor old centre.
In attack, the centre has become a specialist decoy runner, a largish body in motion, intended to attract the attention of the defending team. The person throwing the money pass to the winger in the modern game is the fullback off both sides of the ruck. This is progress in the modern game: one person doing the job that two people used to do.
While the fullback gets too much credit at times, the position is responsible for so much. The game only has two aspects to it: defence and attack. Somehow fullbacks have managed to make themselves invaluable to both parts.
They get the try assists, they are the back-up half, they organise the defence and they are their team’s bomb disposal expert.
The modern game is tight, and playing styles and team selections are conservative. Coaches are under pressure to play the percentages and having a spare fullback (or four) in the 17 is a good idea. The fullback already plays every position in the back line in attack, if they can tackle they are good to go. That’s why they get fullback money.
Remember the old joke about wingers and drummers? Drummers are people who like to hang out with musicians and wingers are people who like to hang out with footballers? Well, it’s now centres who like to hang out with footballers.
Not only has the fullback position become more important in the current game, so has the winger. I don’t have the evidence, but I am curious if there are wingers out there earning more than centres. They would be in my team.
I love the modern-day winger. They are tall, they are still fast, they are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and score amazing tries in the corner. They have great hands and they make courageous runs on kick returns.
They, more than any other position, have become the most specialist position in recent years. A good winger scores tries, saves tries and gets your six rolling forward. I can’t say the same for the centres.
That is all a bit harsh. The centre position is still an important one in defence. It is one in from the edge, with either a winger or a small half outside them. The centre has to make quick decisions: come in, stay out. Is the forward inside me fast enough? Can I cover my man and still help outside?
This is also part of the problem. The type of athlete suited to this role is the ubiquitous, mobile back-rower, the younger the better. A big body, just fast enough play in the back line who is also a good defender.
Exhibit 1: Kurt Capewell. Will Capewell be playing in the centres in three years’ time? I doubt it. The position is a transitional one. He will be toiling away closer to the middle, replaced by another 23-year-old, six-foot-two, 100-kilo athlete.
I went through the 16 team lists as an exercise from last weekend to see who was playing in the three and four. I found a few who had played a heap of games at centre, like Josh Morris, Dane Gagai and Will Chambers. Okay, there are exceptions to every rule.
Unperturbed I kept looking for evidence to support my theory. Like all good statistics, I found some that suited me better. The majority had played 50 games or less and several of the players with more than 50 games were the back line utilities such as Will Hopoate, Jack Bird and Adam Doueihi. You can get stats to tell any lie you want, so I’ll move on.
When I got to Adam Doueihi, it got me thinking, has he caught Latrell Mitchell syndrome? Maybe the players know that centre is not where the future is, the ones that believe they have superstar potential resist playing there. Mitchell so much so that he accepted less money so he could play fullback.
By happy coincidence, Joseph Suaalii lined up at centre for the Roosters last weekend. If he turns out to be a gun, I’ll wager all the gold in the NRL bunker that he won’t be remembered as a gun centre.
If rugby league is going to get the centres back up in lights, it needs to rethink how it recruits 13 players for a NRL team. Here is how I would approach it.
Are you a team player who is big and likes to bash into people all day? Please pick any jumper numbered eight-13 that fits.
Have you got leadership potential and find tackling a chore? Please pick a six, seven or one. Don’t fight over the jumpers, they’re all the same.
Are you big, fast, and able to work autonomously? Please pick a two or five.
Are you a little bit big, not quite fast, but like hanging out with footballers and have a bus license?
Welcome to the team, we can use someone with your skills.