There is a classic saying that ‘forwards win matches, backs decide by how much’, which is as relevant across the NRL today as it was when Norm Provan and Arthur Beetson were leading their charges down the park.
From the outside you have to question the mentality of a guy who chooses to run as hard as they can into three to four other men who have a desire and every advantage in hitting them and dropping them into the turf – then they fight to get up as fast as they can.
Most clubs invest heavily in their spine and we rate the team’s premiership chances accordingly but few teams achieve any success without the engine room creating time and space for the highlight-reel boys to bounce around like they achieved something special.
Case in point, in 2021, the top three clubs for running metres and post-contact metres were the top three clubs – no surprises there.
What isn’t widely acknowledged is in a code where the rules change with every CEO, it is usually focused around the forwards. Starting all the way back in 1966, when the five-yard rule was introduced then extended to ten.
Now we have six-agains and play-the-ball for touch finders, with no rest for either pack should the kick produce a 40-20.
What benefit have the forwards received? Reduced interchanges!
On top of the rule changes is the way the game is structured. Backrowers are now ‘edge forwards’, and need to be as hard and tough as previous generations while looking after a smaller, spine player beside them in defence – as well as have an offload and a nice dab-kick for good measure.
Along with that, they are expected be decoys, run at the inside shoulder, to never stay in the defensive line and always expect the ball. Then they get back past the ruck and do it again and play the full 80 minutes.
Will the big boys ever get a break?
Props, now referred to as ‘middles’, are under the same expectation.
Call me old fashioned but I have as much respect for Martin Bella essentially throwing himself on the ground at the ten-metre mark as Junior Paulo running five metres, turning his back into the opposition and looking for an offload.
I say let them play to their strengths. If an offload is part of the repertoire, great – second-phase play can be a huge attacking weapon – but there is less risk and more consistent opportunity in another five, post-contact metres and a fast play the ball. Leg drive is much like my range of flannelette shirts: under-appreciated until you need them.
When an exhausted David Klemmer told that random nobody in the sheds to (paraphrase) ‘find somewhere else to stand’ after he offered advice on developing an offload, I supported Klemmer.
Ok, so what can the game do to help support the most important yet under-appreciated payers on the field?
Scrums are embarrassing.
Six guys, not necessarily forwards and no with recognised positions barely touching each other because the ball barely goes between two sets of feet.
At best it is a rest for the forwards, yet depending on the field position, we might have them standing off the scrum for a hit-up or defensive muscle. If not, they are required to break quickly and cover the inside. Ever wondered how a backrower makes the tackle on the centre of the scrum?
My simple suggestion is allow them to push. If the team feeding the ball is allowed to trap the ball chasing a penalty, the opposition should be allowed to push them off it.
I’m not talking the union version – too slow and messy – but when the feeding side believes they might get pushed back, they will bind tight in response.
The second benefit here is the attacking play opens up.
The notion around the scrum today is to open up the field for the backs. Today the attacking team has the option as to how far in they would like the scrum held.
A rugby league field is 68 metres wide. With a scrum ten metres in from the side line, after the first pass from the scrum, we would have 50 metres for a five-on-five battle of the fastest, most agile players on the park.
The attacking plays would be a thing of beauty.
Why does this classic tackle now penalise the defending team? We have all these rules about speeding up the game and getting rid of the wrestle, yet this one tackle provides for both if they were simply afforded the same time to clear as their wrestling counterparts do.
Of course they risk the offload if the ball isn’t wrapped up but we see far more offloads from the wrestle than when the legs are snapped out from underneath.
There is risk and opportunity for both sides but that one extra second offers so much more to the game.
So I have carried on a bit about harking back to the old days and forwards, this is a new one based on the game we have today.
This extra reserve has nothing to do with the head-high scourge, more about the speed of the game and the significant injury toll of the last few years.
Four forwards or three and a utility should be enough to cover the ever-increasing workload of the pack, as well as provide an attacking option for the pack.
My idea around a fifth reserve is to cover the backs. Too often a team is severely hampered by losing a back-five player, especially as wingers and fullbacks are far too important to simply shuffle a backrower out there and expect the usual structures.
Clubs should have the option of keeping a back on the bench to maintain a viable attacking formation. NRL teams train with 20 to 25 players, so there are a number of specialised players who can fill a back-five roll relatively easily.
Again, the idea is less disruption to the attacking style of the backs and the rotation of the forwards.