Make no mistake about it, Martin Kennedy’s agreement to sign is big. Perhaps the biggest player movement at the club since Justin Hodges was ushered home from the Sydney Roosters. It is fairly rare event that a Broncos player flies the coop, only for him to return later in his career – but in that instance it was a masterstroke. Martin Kennedy is a young player of considerable ability, and appears to be made of the right stuff in the 8 inches between the ears. More importantly, he is a prop from the traditional mould that doesn’t leave the centre third of the ground. An ‘up the guts’ front rower in the same vein as former champions of the club Shane Webcke and Glenn Lazarus. This might seem rudimental and as common as pegs on a line, but as the game evolves (or dissolves) and all players are moving towards the same body shape and skillsets – roll up the sleeve players such as Kennedy make us question the direction the game is heading. Is there such a promised land where all players on the pitch are truly interchangeable or are we chasing fool’s gold?
When Kennedy first got to the Roosters from Matraville High School in Sydney he was so intense on making good of his opportunity, that legendary club trainer Ronny Palmer pulled him aside and helped him put his focus into perspective. “Today is a tomorrow, that you worried about yesterday,” mused the yoda of the Roosters for the best part of the last quarter-century. You can’t worry about what is in front of you, all you can do is work hard in the now.
All of this is well and good, but what’s so special about this bloke? Well let me make plain, Martin is of a dying species. A specialist bookend, who is more comfortable at the coalface than out-wide on the extremities. A player who thinks a cut-out is something you stick on your wall, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. That in itself is an occasion for the song and dance, but it’s only half the story.
A few years ago in an effort to counter the massive QLD pack, Paul Gallen was moved into the NSW front row. Purists couldn’t make sense of the decision; he was an out-and-out backrower. And you know what happened? He went out and tackled himself silly, carted the ball up all night like a draught animal. The experiment was a resounding success. This of course had been done at club level, but Origin was the litmus test and it proved to set the tone for the direction of team sheets from then on. It also threatened the pay-packets of the big boppers of the competition as their job descriptions were quickly becoming obsolete. Replaced by more athletic back-rowers who could play more minutes and move better laterally in defence.
There are exceptions of course, with Matt Scott being the obvious outlier. If Anthony ‘Hook’ Griffin is worth his salt, than he will have his newest addition studying footage of the proud Cowboys statesmen from day dot.
On the flipside Luke Lewis is the prime example of the modern day utopian utility player. He started his career as a schoolboy prodigy playing for the Penrith Panthers on the wing straight out of high school. As he filled out and embraced more responsibility he made the logical move into the centres. From there he flirted with both positions in the halves, and is now a representative backrower for NSW and Australia. As great of a player that he is, it is an absolute farce that he has played so many ‘positions’, because other than losing a yard of pace and gaining a few plates on the squat rack, his role within a game hasn’t changed that much. The crazy thing is, that Lewis could finish his career in the front row, and if not at prop he could certainly play hooker. Maybe I’m reaching hyperbole.
If Rugby League is to have any sort of future, and not just denigrate into Bogans fighting each other under the thinly veiled guise of ‘war’ and ‘attrition’, than the game need’s to reintroduce specialist positions. I realise the game is now without a set-piece and this has contributed to the ‘utopian’ ideas of the perfect player. But if we are just aiming to clone this ideal player, we are gnawing at the values and traditions of the game.
Great team sports, attract athletes of all body shapes. Rugby Union has it, and so does the AFL. Just as a 2-meter lock throws the ball down to the generally diminutive halfback from the highest point of the lineout, the power forward in the AFL relies on the hugely aerobic inside midfielders to secure possession and deliver the ball onto his chest. A similar analogy in today’s game doesn’t exist for the NRL, other than little blokes, needing big blokes to ‘mind’ them in the defensive line.
Tough front row forwards are not only the cornerstones of formidable forward packs, but they are the foundation of champion sides. Every team needs a bloke, who they can look to in a crisis to make the hard yards when things aren’t going to plan. At it’s simplest, Rugby League is a game of winning the collision, and forcing the defensive side to retreat which allows for fast play the balls and the creative blokes to work off the back of that ascendency. A good metaphor for a cohesive team is a pyramid. Your Billy Slater’s, and Ben Barba’s are the apex, but they can only work their magic in space when all the other layers doing their bit. The thin edge of the wedge is that you can’t create an apex without a sturdy foundation.
It all starts with the gimlet looking fellas in the middle. In Martin Kennedy, the Broncos have got an absolute ripper.