The Lost Generation: Where Have All the Halfbacks Gone?

Filed in Other by on December 5, 2010

The talk in rugby league circles this week and last and probably the week before that has been about the modern day halfback and who will wear the number seven for New South Wales. With Andrew Johns now dead as a playing entity, the question is valid. It is also covered somewhat in dust and cobwebs because we have not seriously asked that question since the mid-nineties. Whenever he was hurt, whoever wore the Blue number seven was merely keeping it warm for Joey. When Johns retired from representative football, nobody truly believed he wouldn’t be back. The real question of succession was never seriously considered. Andrew Johns was some form of demigod and most believed he would play forever and a day.

But time beats us all and some more brutally than others. It beat Andrew Johns and it beat the jakey who had given his life to the purple tin and gets through his day with urine-soaked trousers and the hollow howls of living death.

Most punters and so-called rugby league analysts seem focused on who will replace Andrew Johns for New South Wales. They seemed caught up in the short-term and tangled in the hype of Origin. But nobody wants to tackle the real issue. The issue of the halfback in the modern game. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Rugby league is a game built on brutal toughness, no doubt. It is a game with a foundation of strength and confrontation and controlled (and, at times, uncontrolled) violence. But there is a sublime beauty to the sport as well and that is primarily a result of the role of the halfback and the skills the proponents of the role exhibit. Backlines are useless without a decent halfback, teams don’t work without a decent pivot, tries do not get scored without a skilled number seven. History has proven this statement correct and anybody who wants to disagree is probably nothing more than a sadomasochistic rugby apologist who gets his kicks getting beaten down due to his stupidity.

And today, in the modern game, we have only one exceptional halfback, some decent number sevens and a whole heap of incompetent fools running around masquerading as playmakers and pivots. Modern coaching structures, the removal of initiative through rule changes (such as changes to the scrum and the removal of contests for the ball from the game) and the lack of set-play rugby league have seen to that. So now we have the elite rugby league competition in the world with very few quality halfbacks.

Every now and then, we get a dearth in a particular position. Only three years ago, there were very few quality props at the top-end of the game, particularly on the level below Origin. In the mid-nineties, the game lacked depth at both fullback and hooker. And today, we have very little quality in the ranks of the halfback.

For sport, your humble rugby league commentator will rank the halfbacks in the NRL. From sixteen to one, all starting halfbacks in the NRL for the upcoming round will be measured against each other. The likes of Ben Hornby, Kurt Gidley and Brett Finch will not be thrown into the mix as they are playing in other positions while the likes of Ben Roberts, Shane Perry and Michael Dobson who cannot get a start will also be overlooked, regardless of where I stand on their playing ability.

16. Joel Moon: Yet another being tried in the seven for the Broncos. Unseen there and an unlikely long-term solution. Wayne Bennett has developed a game-plan devoid of the need for a halfback and thus, seeks only someone competent to fill the role. Unproven and unlikely to get a chance to do so in this position under the Bennett regime.

15. John Morris: Not a halfback. A solid hooker. The Tigers should do themselves a favour a buy a halfback to play number seven.

14. Grant Rovelli: He is capable but has done nothing to set the world on fire and is another who looks more like a facilitator than a halfback in the classic sense. There appears to be little upside to him. Still, he is safe enough that he will not go about costing the Warriors too many games and Ivan Cleary is bright enough to not focus the
Warriors plan on him.

13. Joe Williams: He has plenty of skill and may develop into something resembling a good halfback. At the moment, his kicking game is poor and his leadership is lacking. Combined with a penchant for poor options and some unconvincing defence, he has plenty of holes to fill. Williams is the reason Souths are struggling to score points.

12. Scott Prince: An absolute myth and the most overrated halfback in the game. His short kicking game is appalling, his constant whining is a bad example to set and he refuses to play to the open side, constantly hopping back to the blindside, a sign of a player who lacks composure. He has been shown for the player he is with no Benji by his side and only won a premiership due to the genius of Tim Sheens, the brilliance of Marshall and the strangeness of that season. How he could even be mentioned as an Origin contender is beyond the realm of sanity.

11. Matthew Head: He has the skills to be the best halfback in the game but a body and a head that will never allow his potential to blossom into real talent. He has a great passing game, tremendous kicking skills and that old-school number seven nouse though consistency is his problem. He will never succeed at St George or under Nathan Brown. He needs to move on.

10. Tim Smith: Inconsistency is his biggest problem. Well, after the fact he is paired with another halfback at five-eighth. The best thing to happen to his career is Brian Smith heading to Newcastle. Brian Smith wouldn’t know how to use a beer on a hot day so what hope did a halfback have. If Hagan can hone his skills and level out his flustered temperament, Smith will still be around in a few years. 

9. Mitchell Pearce: One of the best young halfbacks in the game and one, along with Jarrod Mullen and Todd Carney, who provides hope that the halfback will once again reign supreme. It is just a damned shame his gutless forward pack won’t work for him. He has shown tremendous hustle in his few top grade games and his kicking game looks very tidy. Leadership will come with experience. His decision-making needs work.

8. Brent Sherwin: At his best, a true superstar. But that best has not been seen since he signed a five year deal. His kicking game is hot and cold and he can go missing when it counts. He struggles to hold out Ben Roberts, which probably says it all. If Sherwin stepped up and played like he did in 2004, the title would be the Dogs. He is the biggest weakness at Canterbury. In hindsight, it may have been better to keep Johnathan Thurston.

7. Craig Gower: He is a hooker and always has been. Penrith should take note of that statement because until they take heed, they will wallow in the mire. In yer Gorgie slums, ye rake in the buckets for somethin' tae eat, ye find a deid rat and ye think it's a treat, in yer Gorgie slums. He is incapable of creative football and is too slow to threaten with the run, nullifying the Panther outside backs and ensuring mediocrity for the chocolate soldiers of Pantherland. He still has plenty to offer Penrith but not in the number seven. There is no way he should even be in the running for the Blues gig and his City selection ahead of Matt Orford borders on criminal.

6. Jarrod Mullen: He has tremendous potential with his greatest asset being his apparent football brain. He is a smart footballer and these types are few and far between these days. His kicking game is advanced and he seems a natural leader. If he can overcome two things- the legacy of Andrew Johns and the common-denominator approach of coach Brian Smith- he could be great. While he is not there yet, it looks but a matter of time.

5. Brett Kimmorley: In the NFL, they call his type a system quarterback. A player who, with the right coach and the right system in place, can be effective because their strengths are highlighted and their weaknesses protected. System players have most of the decisions taken out of their hands, deferring to the system optimal approach. System players can excel in the right environment and structure but tend to fail when asked to fulfill other functions outside the system. Kimmorley is exactly that type of player. He excelled in Melbourne and Cronulla under Chris Anderson yet has shown he struggles when asked to play the role of a traditional half-back by coaches who don’t understand his game. That is shown when he plays representative footy. It is still to be seen how he works under Ricky Stuart but the initial signs are not good. The one time heir apparent never quite made it to the throne.

4. Todd Carney: The best young halfback in the NRL, he is just waiting to explode. In two years time, he will be regarded as one of the premier players in the game. He has a wonderful kicking game, a great head, explosive speed and the time that separates the great players from the pack. Imagining him behind a great pack is something to behold. If he had been fit all season, he would have been in the running for the Blues gig. Watch him. He will develop into something great.

3. Matt Orford: Your venerable columnist has just never been able to figure out Orford. He has been unlucky never to play rep footy but by the same token, he goes through periods where his abilities are greatly overrated and he looks like just a fair to middling player. He is good at Manly- though he was awful against Canberra last time out- and when hot, plays like a genuine halfback. Still, the years may have caught him and I just can’t peg him at the moment. Still, better than most.

2. Cooper Cronk: More consistent than Orford, he can push a team around a paddock as well as anybody. He is a real thinker, his number one asset being his good decision making. His kicking game is also top notch. He just lacks that superstar quality that separates the good halfbacks from the great. In any other era, he is just another good club halfback.

1. Johnathan Thurston: The best with a space between him and second. He is no Andrew Johns but he is on the verge of becoming the next great halfback in the game. No team will fail with him at the helm and playing well.

So that’s the scene. And that is how it is. In a few years, the halfback should be back, assuming the likes of bonehead coaches like Brian Smith, Nathan Brown and Ricky Stuart don’t suck the life out of them. Bettors can bet it, followers can follow it and critics can criticise it. But it is a correct assessment.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.