Some point in the late 90s early 2000s, some genius decided to change attacking formations to where they wanted people to defend from. They wanted a smooth transition from attack straight into defence, and also from defence straight into attack. This has been the case ever since. I even remember being a young adult listening to some fossils in the pub refer to Ryan Cross as an ‘outside centre’.
So what happen was they introduced the left edge, right edge, and middle four, with 4 players in each, and a fullback behind them. This will be familiar to League watchers of today. If we take the left edge for example we will have the left winger, left centre, left half, and the left second rower. The same again for the right edge, and the middle four have the two front rowers, the lock, and the hooker.
So it would look like:
LW LC LH LSR|LK FR HK FR|RSR RH RC RW
You will notice that the bigger and traditionally the stronger defenders are the forwards and make up the middle 6 defenders. I don’t care what anyone says, if you can’t tackle, you’re not a forward. The first priority of being a forward is to TACKLE! As each position you move across the defensive line, you can expect the strength of the defence might gradually decline, all the way out to the winger. One thing I’ve always questioned though is why the half defends one inside the centre when usually the centre is a better defender? Some things I can think of are it splits the winger and the halfback, or the half might not have the speed of a centre. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it was due to symmetry, which is the basis of what I’m writing about. There are a lot of ideas in rugby league that are around in today’s game ‘just because’. No real reason other than ‘that’s how it’s done’. One by-product of this, or the above defensive formation, is we have lost certain positions and playing styles out of the game. That and the influx of interchange (which I do believe the interchange needs scraping, but that’s for another day).
The first position or playing style I think that has been lost is the old fashion second rower. Take Gordon Tallis for example. He would be named in my all-time (it goes without saying ‘that I’ve seen’) 17 as a second rower, but if he was playing today he would be a front rower. He was tall, mobile, and a damaging ball runner. You would try to run him out wide against smaller defenders, but he wasn’t stuck on one side of the field. And this is where it starts. Once they started being very strict on where players defended, it dictated where they attacked from. And god forbids a player ventures outside their defensive structure. Because the second rower has to defend 4 in from the sideline, he basically has to attack at that same point, which limits what he can do. Instead of following around the best ball player, he would stay on one side of the field and run that boring outside in line on the opposition half. And that’s pretty much it. We have players like Wade Graham and Luke Lewis who are arguably the best ‘footy players’ on the park and yet they’re stuck up on one side of the field. Wade Graham came into grade as a half. Eventually his size moved him into the forwards. But did he all of sudden lose all of his skills? Well maybe he did because he was told ‘all you can do is this’. Oh I’m sorry, he’s allowed to kick sometimes when they decide to shift to the left on the last. But why can’t you combine both Graham and Lewis in the same shape? “It will throw their defensive structures out. And god forbids a player ventures outside their defensive structure.“
We also used to have an old fashioned lock position that was the old 80 minute war horse of the team. They would be the guy who defended anywhere in the line and would clean up all the scraps. He was the one making cover tackles, diving on loose balls, and taking that hit up no one wanted to take when everyone else was battered. Some of them even had a bit of ball playing in them, to the point they could play 5/8, and probably did in their younger days, but as they got older they got a little bigger and a tad slower so found themselves packing in at the back of the scrum. Eventually, this defensive pattern didn’t afford too many locks defending too far out wide as much which slowly turned that 13 into another front rower. Now I heard Trent Robinson say recently there is a difference between a lock and a front rower in today’s game, which I somewhat agree with. You have players like Cam Murray and Elijah Taylor who resemble that traditional lock forward style, but the rest are all front rowers that can play on the edge if necessary. The development of the game has forced front rowers, or middles as they’re now referred to as, with much better footwork and mobility than previous. I look at teams now, and they give the 13 jumper to the most likely of the three middles to play on the edge.
What I think, is why can’t they all defend anywhere? It’s really only the halves, second rowers, and the centres that I’m referring to. If one second rower and a half end up on one side when there is a turnover, just defend on that side and let the other guys make their way over to the other side. The middles do have to defend in the middle and I understand that, but making your way to the middle of the field isn’t difficult at all. And if they find ANYONE else defending in the middle with them, it’s easier, as they generally have better footwork than a front rower and will help defend against more agile players.
This belief that they must defend in the above formation isn’t as necessary if the players can defend everywhere. If you look at rugby for example, the only guys who defend in the same spot the whole game are the wingers and the fullback. Everyone else defends inside the wingers, and does their job. They commit however many needed to the break down, and spread out from there with forwards closest to the ruck and backs outside them.
Now this next part is about fullbacks and their evolution over the past two decades. It doesn’t really have too much to do with the defensive formation above, but it does have to do with positions these days. When I was younger, a good fullback was someone who was fast, has strong kick returns, good under the high ball, always there in support, and could save tries. They were considered the last line of defence, and probably in a way still is. Why I say ‘in a way’ is because I feel the defence is a collective 13 man job now, not just 12 and 1. Some fullbacks are now finding themselves in the defensive line first off the ruck in some parts of the field.
Darren Lockyer went to Brisbane as 5/8, but with Langer and Walters already there he got a run at fullback. He had all the qualities of a fullback, and then some. He could ball play. But for so long he didn’t need to be chief play maker. He was considered a second 5/8. Not the rugby union style second 5/8, but a ball player who would pop up outside the 5/8 (I had to resist saying first 5/8). He would combine with the centre and the winger. He used to slice through defences like a hot knife through butter. Seeing Lockyer glide through untouched like he would, helped me understand how a hot knife would slice through butter. Eventually he made his way into the front line. But his job in attack didn’t change. As each year went on, his responsibility in attack grew. It grew further when Langer moved on, and again when Walters retired. By the time those two legendary halves left the whole focal point of the attack came from Lockyer. So moving him from fullback to 5/8 wasn’t as big a shift as it was made out to be. His work load in defence increased, but attack was the same. But during his time as fullback something happened. Teams saw the value in an extra ball player. There was more versatility and more options to attack from. Karmichael Hunt picked up the mantle straight away and displayed all the right attributes of the new fullback. In saying that, not all fullbacks had these skills. Minichiello, a golden boot winner, was not known for his ball playing attributes, which highlights the importance of all the traditional requirements for a fullback.
But as the game keeps progressing, that ball playing option as a fullback is getting stronger and stronger. But I’d like to propose something. Why can’t someone else ball play? I remember in U15s playing against a team where their fullback and 5/8 interchanged depending on defence or attack. In attack, the guy who wore no.1 and defending behind the line would become their 5/8, and the guy who wore no.6 and defended in the front line would all of sudden pop out everywhere on field, and very rarely passed. I think if a couple 15 year olds who trained twice a week can manage it, I’m sure guys being paid 6 figures and training everyday can figure it out.
The Sharks and Josh Dugan are a great example. Josh Dugan is an incredible fullback. But he lacks the selection of the pass when it comes to sweeping out the back. He always has. I use to watch him for NSW and whenever he would get the ball at the end of a shift play the movement would shut down. The threat out wide drastically decreases. But, what if Wade Graham or Luke Lewis jumped into second receiver and Matt Moylan play the sweeping role? “It’s outside the norm, and why you getting a second rower to play 5/8?” Some may say I’m a genius, I just think it’s common sense. What I would do when the Sharks get into the attack zone I would shift Dugan to ‘left second row’, Graham to ‘5/8’, and Moylan to ‘fullback’. When there’s a turnover, they fall back into the line and Dugan wonders back to fullback. It’s not hard. What I’m getting at is just because someone defends at fullback doesn’t mean he has to be the guy out the back as the sweep option, especially if you have other guys in the team who can do other roles.
And this is just one example. I’m sure there a plenty more out there where you can shuffle a few of the players around and get the desired result. Rugby League at any level is always about improvisation. You can have a plan or an idea of how you want to execute, but you’re not always going to get what you want, you just have to make do with what you have. I remember asking a school footy coach ‘What’s the best defence?’ he said ‘Depends on who you’re playing.’ This taught me that the right way to play footy is what is in front of you. If you stick to that idea your game is open to any style, not just the prototype.
In European Football, formations change from team to team depending on who they have. Before the game you would have a graphic of the each team’s formation, and they’re usually different. I hope one day Rugby League can be the same in way, where attacking and defensive formations are dependent on who is in the team, not how the Melbourne Storm have done it for so long (nothing against the Melbourne Storm).
Got all photos from google.