The positional shift increasing value in middle forwards
Evolution is a natural occurrence. Over time, through adjustment and understanding, we find the most efficient way to get something done, and we trend that direction – often quickly.
Rugby league is no different. A quick glimpse of any game from the early-2000s seems amateur in comparison to the structurally superior, polished product of today. Once we’ve made the big leap, it becomes about slight tweaks in the roles of different positions and tactics that continue the evolution.
Cam Smith took the No.9 role to new heights of importance, becoming a linchpin in the attack. The effect of Billy Slater’s work at fullback reimagined what could be done from that position and revolutionised offensive strategy. Both changes paved the way for the spine-oriented structure that is universal in the game today. Two quick examples of how stylistic changes lead to a widespread alteration. Foundations were laid before them, and through a combination of ability and awareness, they were able to reinvent the wheel.
Lock, comparatively speaking, offers arguably the most variance among positions in terms of playing style. This is due to the undefined nature of the role: not to oversimplify the game, but at base level, the general duties of each position is somewhat obvious. Sure, individuals add their own flair dependent on their abilities, but are more or less taking different routes to the same location. At lock, requirements tend to shift between the needs of the team. As such, it becomes most susceptible to change, mirroring the constant change of the game itself.
Essentially, we’re currently seeing a shift at lock from a typical middle back-rower to a hybrid, ‘third prop’ role.
As ball-playing forwards became a coveted skill, the size decreased as the required skill level went up. Through the mid-to-late 2000s it could almost be considered a cross between a hooker and a second-rower: focused on a combination of high workload, strong defensively ability and versatility. Skimming through the Dally M Lock of the Year winners through this period supports this notion, the likes of Shaun Timmins, Alan Tongue, David Stagg and Dallas Johnson all fitting the ideal mould.
Ball-playing has shot up across the board, with the majority of props at least competent in simple catch-and-pass scenarios — it is no longer a coveted skill, but an expected one. This reduces the need for specialists, and coupled with defensives simply adjusting over time, the need for some variance had the position evolving once again, to where we find it today.
The modern-day lock, or at least those at or around the elite level, possess a power-running game that is used as both a dependable metre earner and strike weapon, not expected to reach the defensive workload but still utilising that ability when necessary, allowing them to harness their energy and focus it towards their strengths.
In this sense the logic is quite savvy (and follows a similar pattern to the evolution of other positions): identify the need at the position and the players elite skills, put them in a position where they do as much of that as possible and as little of everything else required. Its proven immensely effective to have an elite ball-running tackle-breaker filling that role, lifting the productivity to unforeseen heights.
Two players have pushed the development further than anyone before them: Paul Gallen and Jason Taumalolo.
Gallen is essentially a hybrid — a link between the traditional style and the new — with the size and skill of a regular back-rower, but the bulk and work ethic of a traditional prop, where he has also played competently throughout his career, most notably at Origin level. Gallen isn’t the exact prototype, but rather the first to combine the roles of prop and back-row efficiently. The other two who performed similarly through that era were Corey Parker and Sam Burgess, both who took home Lock of the Year awards and played on finals teams, having their most productive years playing this style.
Gallen won two positional awards and a premiership. He set the blueprint, then Taumalolo changed the game.
Entering the league as an agile, robust edge forward with an incredible power-running game (think Cohen Hess ultra), coach Paul Green, fully aware of his potential, demonstrated some brilliant tactical foresight and shifted him from the edge into the middle third, separating his game time into smaller spells to increase his productivity.
To say it worked would be one hell of an understatement: Taumalolo jumped from an already effective 142.2 meters per game, to 154.1, with his run efficiency (metres per run) shooting way up. Aside from his own improvement, the ripple effect had a considerable impact on the entire Cowboys team, boosting their running game from an already league-leading 1597.1m in 2014 up to an incredible 1785.5m, also ranking first. He was named Lock of the Year.
Oh, and they won the premiership.
As he continued to develop the nuances of this new role, he made another tremendous leap, improving to 165m per game in 2016, anchoring the Cowboys pack as they led the league in running metres yet again.
That year, he took home the Dally M Medal, recognised as the best player in the game (co-winner with Cooper Cronk).
And it doesn’t end there — 2017 has been Taumololo’s best year yet, outright carrying a Cowboys team decimated by injuries to the tune of 203 meters per game (!), sitting as the second-best performer in the competition, behind only the incomparable Cameron Smith.
So to recap, he’s jumped from solid strike weapon putting in a solid 140 metres each night, to dependable leader contributing 200-plus, picking up a title, two Lock of the Year gongs and a Dally M Medal in the process, with more on the way. JT possesses talent of historic proportions; Green and the North Queensland brass found a way to extract as much value out of that as possible. And thus, a precedence was set.
Due to that overwhelming success, we’ve seen a few similar moves take place recently:
• Josh McGuire: 136m, 1.03tb, 0,3ofl per game at prop up to 143.2m, 1.1tb, 0.7ofl at lock
• David Klemmer: 147m, 1.5tb, 0.4ofl per game at prop up to 162m, 1.7tb, 0.6 at lock
• Nathan Brown: 94.7m, 1.0tb, 0.1 ofl per game at prop up to 154, 1.7tb, 1.9ofl, at lock
Base numbers, as well as involvement (runs per game, line breaks created etc) and efficiency (tackle percentage, meters per run etc) were up across the board. Considering the success, this feels like the calm before the storm.
This isn’t to say the old style is dead — Jake Trbojevic and Jake De Belin stand as prime examples, but even they represent an evolution to the vanguard, hints of a hybrid game incorporating the new and old: the work ethic and ability to play as prop with the traditional abilities of a back-rower who are comfortable handling the ball and running holes.
In the same way that hookers and fullbacks can still be productive without matching the abilities of Slater and Smith, this isn’t suggesting that the benchmark set by the likes of Klemmer and Taumololo have to be matched by all at their position, but the elite talents lead the way, and the rest of the league follows suit.
It may not have entirely swept the competition just yet (think Simon Mannering, Dale Finucane and Elijah Taylor) but expect this trend to continue as coaches realise how to best utilise the strengths of their most talented contributors.