Matt Bowen’s Place in the Fullback Era (Part II)

If you missed Part One of Matt Bowen’s Place in the Fullback Era, click here. If not, read below.

Before I get to the first player up for comparison in Part II, I want to say that Kurt Gidley will not be getting a run in this list. I don’t care that he has played more NRL games at Fullback than any other position or that he has been the NSW Captain playing from that position, he is NOT a number one.  Kurt Gidley is/should be a career utility player. This is not because his skill set is wide ranging and he can cover multiple positions, but because he is an ordinary footballer and should not be starting matches. He is not a shade on Matt Bowen. It’s important that I note this because the next 2 players didn’t even play the majority of their careers at fullback, but they are still good enough to make this list. Kurt Gidley is not.

Preston Campbell

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He started as a Winger/Fullback, but made his name with one of the most astounding one hit wonder seasons in the history of the NRL when he was moved to halfback mid-way through the 2001 season. He won the Dally M Player of the Year award that season, but remarkably, he only actually played a total of 40 NRL games in the number 7 jersey. He was moved to five eighth and played over 100 matches there, but it was his move to fullback at the Gold Coast Titans in their inaugural season that saw him cement his legacy. The games had (has) moved towards the ball playing fullback being the third creative option (a move that had a lot to do with Bowen’s rising stature in the game) as opposed to the Lock taking those responsibilities, and it was here that I think Campbell really found his niche. Relieved of the defensive responsibilities that had been his Achilles heel since his rise to prominence he was able to interject himself into matches as he saw fit and was the leader of a Gold Coast side that was able to do something no Gold Coast side had done before. Be genuinely successful. Campbell is the heart and soul of that club and without him I’m not sure they would ever have gotten anywhere. It’s a stretch to say that he was a better fullback than Bowen, but he certainly deserves a spot on this list*

Ben Hornby

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I’ll always remember Ben Hornby as a fullback. Presumably because that’s where he first caught my attention, but the fact is, he played almost TWICE AS MANY GAMES as a halfback as he did in the number one. He started at the same time a Bowen, and finished with 3 NSW jumpers (one starting at fullback, 2 off the bench) and a Kangaroos jumper. Hornby was like a better version of Luke Patten. His game was just as error free, but had seemed to have a bit more of a spark in attack, and certainly creatively. He first found a home at the back during the 2002 season and he did chop and change a bit, but was in essence a fullback until half way through the 2005 season where he was moved the halfback. It was a move that was hard to argue with as the Dragons fell one game short of a Grand Final. He chopped and changed between the 1 and 7 for the 2006 season as the Dragons fell agonisingly short again. He was moved around in 2007 and a few weeks into the 2008 season he found his permanent spot at halfback. The point of all this is that defining Hornby’s career at fullback is quite difficult because he chopped and changed positions. Perhaps it is my skewed view of him as a fullback, but in my mind (at least) he was the team’s custodian from 2002 to 2007. That was a pretty successful time for the Dragons, but in reality, he was the starting halfback for all of the 2005 and 2006 finals matches. On top of that, the real Dragons success was the 2009 season (not including the epic finals choke) and the 2010 Premiership win, both of which had Hornby at halfback. I think it is a more interesting question if you take out the Lockyer rule, but I have to invoke it here and give this one comfortably to Bowen.

Karmichael Hunt

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It’s hard to remember Karmike as a successful sportsman due to his dismal move to the Gold Coast Suns in the AFL where he is a run of the mill player on a below average team, but the fact is that he was an absolute superstar of Rugby League. In just 6 short years in the NRL he managed to rack up 10 Origin appearances and 11 Test Matches for Australia. He was the 2004 Dally M Rookie of the Year in 2004, won the competition in 2006 and left the game with a career winning percentage of 63.2%. I was critical of his move at the time, but the truth is, what more did he really have left to achieve in the game? He’d won at all levels and decided it was time to move on. He was good enough, that in this run of QLD Origin teams that is considered the best ever assembled, he was being chosen as the starting fullback and forcing 3 great fullbacks that are still to come on this list out to the wing, into the centres and even on to the bench! He did the same thing at national level, and while I didn’t go into this expecting to say as much, I think he blows Matt Bowen off of the park here.
We have our fourth member. Things are starting to look grim for Matty.

Billy Slater

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I’ve been pretty open about my disdain for Billy Slater. I think he’s a dirty player who somehow seems to get a free pass from the media for really grubby play, but I can’t argue with the fact that he is outrageously talented. He is the two time Dally M Fullback of the Year (2008, 2011), Golden Boot Award winner (2008), two time RLIF Player of the Year (2008, 2011), Clive Churchill Medallist (2009), Dally M Medallist (2011), 3 time Grand Final winner, with 20 tests and even more Origin caps. This is a first round knockout no matter how you frame it. Bowen is hanging by a thread now. 5 spots gone.

Jarryd Hayne

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This might seem like a first round KO as well, but you have to consider that Hayne has only played 60% of his NRL Career at fullback. Fairly shocking for someone that is so obviously a born custodian (at least at this stage of his career) and on top of that, of his 17 Origin starts, only three of them have been at fullback**. None of his starts for Australia have come at fullback either which does make this seem far more interesting. There is one problem though. Hayne has spent his career getting moved out of the fullback position because he’s good enough to handle it, he’s diverse enough of a player to adapt and he’s just undeniably talented, making him impossible to leave out. Additionally, he’s getting picked for these representative teams because of how well he is playing in the number one jersey. This isn’t merely a comparison of two players’ stats. The comparison is of who is the better fullback and on this one, because of the extenuating circumstances mentioned above, it’s only a points decision, but the truth is, Jarryd Hayne is a better fullback.

 

That’s our 6th player to defeat Bowen meaning that it looks like he is not one of the best fullbacks of the last 10 to 15 years. It’s a shame, because he is a great and entertaining player. But now we are left to find just where he sits. There are still 5 more players that I would consider in the top 20 fullbacks of this millennium. Does he JUST miss the cut? Does he even make the top 10? Guess we’ll find out below…

 

Brett Stewart

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The perception of Stewart is an interesting one. Before the scandals hit him in 2009 he was undoubtedly going to make the leap into superstardom territory. Coming off the back of an absolute demolition of Melbourne in the 2008 Grand Final, he was going to be the face of the game. But then accusations of sexual assault emerged (which he has been completely and utterly cleared of) everything changed for him. He has avoided all media (understandably) since then and due to some of his behaviour towards the NRL hierarchy, he has gotten the reputation of a petulant brat (rightly or wrongly). On top of this, it all coincided with a run of injuries that saw him miss almost the entire 2009 and 2010 seasons. He came back in 2011 in a premiership winning Manly team, and while he was still at his try scoring best, he wasn’t QUITE the dynamic superstar that was set to light up the rugby league world in 2009. Even still, he’s scored 135 tries in 176 games which is a phenomenal strike rate. He’s played 8 Origin matches and one test for the Kangaroos, won 2 competitions with Manly and has a chance to win another this season. This is a really tough call. If the bout is being held at Brookvale, I’d call it for Stewart, but outside of that it’s a split decision. It’s going to hinge on the fact the Stewart really proved himself as a big game performer in the 2011 finals series with 4 tries in their 3 finals matches. Split decision to Stewart.

Darius Boyd

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If this was an award for ‘Player Most Determined To Prove Himself To Be An Absolute Prick To The Media’ it’s be called the Boyd Award. But on the field, his talents have let him get away with far more than he should be able to while still maintaining a contract. He started as a winger but even as early as his first NRL season he played plenty of games at fullback. He’s proven throughout his career that he is a fullback that can play on the wing rather than the other way around, but he has played 17 origins and every one of them has been as a winger. He’s also played 11 tests for Australia with only 3 of them at Fullback. But he’s in a similar situation to Hayne. He’s getting selected for these teams based on his ability as a fullback. The diamond in his career so far is the 2010 season. He won the Origin Series, won the Clive Churchill Medal along with the Minor and Major Premiership with the Dragons, was named the Dally M Fullback of the tear and was JUST short of being the Player of the year. He was an absolute force on the premiership that season. I don’t think I can say that at any time in Matt Bowen’s career. The only real question mark over Boyd is his unwillingness to play club football for anyone not named Wayne Bennett. His rep career does show that he’s capable without his master though, so as much as I don’t really like putting such a seemingly ungrateful player above the model citizen that Matty is, I think that Boyd takes this one.

Ben Barba

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This is a short one. He had an amazing season last year, and if he can find that form again next season he may end up having a career worthy of Bowen. But I doubt it, so at this stage this is a one punch knockout to Bowen.

Josh Dugan

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Josh Dugan is undoubtedly a bit of a dickhead. But the kid can play footy. I won’t waste too much time on him, because he isn’t far enough into his career to be considered better than Bowen, but he has the potential to be. With only a handful of seasons under his belt (and about 80 injuries) he has still managed to accumulate several NSW jerseys and if he can continue on his upward trajectory now that he has left the nation’s capital, he can probably expect more. At this stage though, it’s a comfortable points victory to Bowen.

Greg Inglis

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Inglis is such a good player that you would have to rate him as one of the best fullbacks AND one of the best centres this millenium. He won a Clive Churchill Medal at five eighth and has played Origin as a winger. He can play anywhere in the backline if needed, but. The last 2 seasons have shown that fullback is probably his most natural position. Given the impact he’s had on South Sydney since moving back to fullback, it’s scary to think of just how good he could have been if he’d played at fullback for his entire career***! He may have only played 53 NRL matches at fullback, but he’s scored 39 tries from there with his winning ratio at a staggering 74%. He has been the dominant premiership force this season, with only his injury stopping the Rabbitohs from a likely minor premiership. Even with his limited time playing at fullback, I don’t think Matty himself would argue against this one. Inglis defeats Bowen.

 

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So while he doesn’t quite meet the initial claim, Matt Bowen scrapes into my top 10 fullbacks of this era.

It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of given the quality of players he is up against, and it really is a shame that he will likely get lost in the also-rans when people look back on this time. If he was born in a different decade, perhaps his legacy would have been different, but he’s certainly not the first great player to suffer that fate. Just ask Phil Blake or Greg Alexander.

Farewell Matty Bowen, if Souths falter, I really hope you get that elusive Premiership that you deserve.

 

 

*Which has unintentionally, kind of become a defacto “top 20 fullbacks of this millennium” list

**Nobody alert the selectors that they are playing our best player out of position, we may actually win something if they catch on.

***Though the flip side of that is that his time playing other positions probably gave him the insight to excel as a fullback.

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On Nathan Merritt; or The Shortcomings of the Selection Process for the Position of Winger for the NSW Rugby League State of Origin Team

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So just a short disclaimer here. This is the transcript of an email that I wrote to a friend of mine on 17/5/2013.

Before the NSW side was selected for the first game of this years Origin and before Brad Walter wrote this article in the SMH.

It was in response to a discussion about how unlucky Nathan Merritt has been to never be picked for State of Origin, and how that compares to Matt Orford never being picked.

I’ll get to the Matt Orford issue (or non-issue) in my next post, but for now, here’s Nathan Merritt’s side of the coin…

Ok, so my issue isn’t as much with Merritt not being picked, it’s with the NSW selectors inability to pick a player that’s proven himself over a career and their absolute faith in flash in the pan players, or players that just happen to be playing on a winning team, or even players with a nice story or gimmick! In short it’s about who has been picked ahead of him.

So Merritt has clearly been a great individual player for a long time, but that doesn’t mean he should have been picked early in his career or that you can even foresee that he is going to be that type of player. So I’ll go into this in a conservative way.

In 2006 South Sydney had an awful season and finished last, but amazingly Merritt still led the league in tries.

So I think it’s fair to say that by this point he needs to at the very least be on your radar. But realistically, at this point of his career he has scored 42 tries in 66 matches. He should probably more than just ‘on your radar’ – he should be front and centre in discussions – but by no means a walk up starter.

So leading into the 2007 season, his name should be on a short list of candidates to play for NSW on the wing.

You should be watching him closely.

So, it’s the start of the ’07 season and he begins the year with 7 tries in the 9 matches leading up to Origin selection.

His name may have been brought up, it may not.

For game one we go with Matt King and Jarryd Hayne on the wings.

Can’t fault the Hayne selection. He was still a winger at the time and has proven to be a quality player (but he was 19 and it was his first Origin game, showing that the selectors are more interested in the flashy young player than the more proven player)

Matt King was a staple of the national side by that point, but hadn’t played on the wing at club level in 2 and a half years (and didn’t even finish the series on the wing himself)

We stick with them for game 2.

We lose both games.

With the series dead, they give Hasem El Masri a run on the wing (another in the mould of Merritt who deserved it earlier in my opinion) and move King to the centres. Of course, we win.

Someone must have told Nathan that he missed selection because El Masri could kick, because he starts kicking goals for Souths after Origin finishes.

Souths make the finals for the first time in too many years and Merritt has a good year, but not amazing for his standards.

In 2008, he shows his versatility by playing at both fullback and wing for the Bunnies, but we have an awful start to the season losing our first 7 games. This is reflected in Merritt only scoring 4 tries in this period.

So we go into the Origin selection and fair enough, he hasn’t had his best year ever.

But Matt King has gone, so there’s an opening on the wing.

And we go with…Anthony Quinn. (really?) a guy who by that point of his career had scored 55 tries in 130 games. An amazing ratio of one try every 2.3 games.

Remember that Merritt is having a slow year and scoring at a better rate than this. But Quinn plays for Melbourne and has scored 5 tries in his last 5 games before the teams were picked. Of course they’ll go with him.

So fair play to him, he scores 2 tries on debut and we win the match, but before Origin 2, Hayne gets injured.

Yet again, the chance is there for a Merritt call up. This has to be it. The number one winger in the state is Anthony Quinn for god’s sake, surely this is Nathan’s time!

And we go with…..drumroll please…… Steve Turner.

Yeah.

That guy.

And what a shock he plays for Melbourne.

I don’t think you need reminding of how that went.

We lose 30 – 0.

Game 3 and Hayne is back, so not too many complaints.

Souths are having a nightmare season, Merritt is suffering because of it, and yet another Origin snub probably contributes to a bit of a lull for him as he even goes 10 straight games without a try.

But then something happens and a fire seems to be lit underneath the great man.

In the last 7 rounds of the season he scores 9 tries.

He rides that momentum into the start of the following season and not only does he score 7 tries in the first 9 games of the season, he kicks a magical winning field goal from the sideline to beat the Tigers at the SCG in front of a big crowd to keep the Bunnies in 6th (no small feat considering we finished 14th the year before)

And all of this just a week before the Origin teams are picked.

He’s shown he can handle the big occasion (I know it’s not THAT big of an occasion, but it’s a rare chance to play on any sort of ‘big’ stage for a Souths player at that point). He’s got over 120 first grade games under his belt. He’s scored 16 tries in his last 16 games. Souths are doing well enough.

It comes to selection night and on one wing we have Jarryd Hayne. Perfectly good choice. And on the other wing we have James McManus.

You have GOT to be kidding me.

He’s 24, he’s only at the beginning of his third season in the top grade and he plays for the Knights who have struggled for the last couple of seasons but are in the top eight at this point of the season.

Basically the opposite of what you would expect from a NSW selection.

He must have been a real star in these first few seasons of his though, right?

What’s that? 22 tries in 60 matches?

Well, obviously most of those must have come during a competition blitzing opening 11 rounds to the 2009 season then.

Oh, one try in his last 6 matches.

So, what’s the story here? How did he get selected?

Right, he’s from Scotland and there were multiple media stories about him being the first Scottish person to possibly be picked for Origin. I can see how that would get someone over the line.

 

Well thankfully that was a disaster and he lasted one game and mercifully got injured.

So Nathan Merritt did the right thing and went about his business, scoring 2 more tries in the 3 matches until the next selection day.

He’s on 9 tries for the year in 12 matches but he’s being let down by his team mates and the Rabbitohs have dropped to 10th on the ladder, but on the weekend of the next Origin selection, he scores in a valiant 6 point loss to NSW coach Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne Storm. Maybe that can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back to get him in this side.

Little did poor Nathan realise, there was a whole new criteria for being selected in this game. And Merritt couldn’t fulfil it. He didn’t have a beard.

The Wolfman Williams is our new saviour on the wing.

Person 1: Have you heard about this guy?

Person 2: I hear he’s actually part wolf!

P1: Well that would be awesome, but no

P2: Damn, well I’m sure he’s been on fire this year though. Scoring tries left right and centre!

P1: Well, 4 tries in 8 matches. So not AMAZING, but pretty good

P2: That’s cool though, I mean I know he’s got plenty of experience in the NRL so that will help

P1: Actually, I’ll have to correct you there too, he’s only played 28 first grade games

P2: Oh, I must have heard that wrong as well then. So how come someone of his age has played so few games?

P1: Well he’s only 23 actually

P2: Really?! But sometimes there are things that are hard to measure. I mean, you know, he plays on the wing for one of the best teams in the league

P1: Who Manly? They’re in 9th and haven’t even finished a single round in the top 8 this year!

P2: Oh my god! Does he even have a beard!?

 

So of course he scores a try on debut and gets given a second match.

And he’s so awful in that second match that any time someone mentions his name in representative circles again they are laughed at.

Who would have thought that a young inexperienced players could be so prone to inconsistency, particularly in big games?

Oh wait, every person that has ever watched any sport at any point of their lives. Ever.

As always, Nathan Merritt goes about his business and is such a good player now that South Sydney’s inability to have a winning season doesn’t even come into calculations for his individual achievements.

Souths finish 10th. Merritt still scores 19 tries in 23 games.

As we head into the 2010 series The Blues have had 4 straight series defeats and surely it’s time for a new strategy. A new idea. A new SOMETHING!

As is almost boring now, Nathan starts the 2010 season with 9 tries in 9 games.

But as you may have worked out, it simply doesn’t matter.

The NSW selectors have decided that they need a proven try scorer on the wing this series.

So of course Nathan Merritt is not given a look in.

They decide to go with Brett Morris for that spot. He’s proven over the course of one and one third seasons that he can really score tries (with a genuinely impressive run of 36 tries in his last 34 matches) and that’s always better than someone who has proven over the course of 4 and one third seasons that he can really score tries (73 tries in 102 games)

Now I’ll give you that in the long run, Brett Morris has probably proven to be the better player of the two**, but it still shows that if they have a choice between what’s hot right now and what is proven over the length of a career, they’ll go with hot right now.

Which is why we chop and change our team ALL THE TIME!

Either way, due to injury, Hayne is moved to Fullback and a wing spot, yet again, opens up.

They’ve clearly shown that this year they are going for try scoring wingers and it went SO close to working in game one, so now surely having Morris on one wing with the amazing try scoring abilities of the great Nathan Merritt on the other will be enough to stretch the QLD defence to breaking point!

So the only logical choice was to go with Joel Monaghan, a guy who plays his best football in the centres, was only 3 games back from an extended injury lay off, hadn’t scored a try in any of those games and has a propensity for doing things with dogs that can’t be sent from this email address.

We get slaughtered. Another series gone.

So the selectors come to their senses for game three (because it’s a dead rubber so nobody cares, though we still lose anyway) and get rid of Monaghan.

Who gets his spot?

The worldwide icon of Rugby League, Michael Gordon. Career record: 41 Tries, 81 games. But he kicks goals. If only Nathan Merritt had been a goal kicker.

Oh.

2011 rolls around and we have a new coach. Maybe this is the year. The great man gets picked to play for City in the City v Country game. Which is a serious Origin selection match you know! Because that’s what we need. One match in a country town in front of nobody to decide if someone is up to the rigours of Origin football. Not a career’s worth of work.

It’s a showdown between the proven performer and the hot right now. Merritt vs a young upstart from Fiji named Akuila Uate. He’s an explosive player. Kick returns at full pace, really headline grabbing stuff that the media eats up. He’s an explosive player. He’s not necessarily a good one. But explosive for sure. Disregard that he is an absolute liability in defence. Not helped by the fact that he’s only played about 50 first grade games so can’t read the game all that well. Particularly at the speed Origin is played at. He gets a points victory over Merritt in the City v Country match and gets the Origin spot. In fact he gets the Origin spot for the next 5 Origin games. He’s so good that he scores 2 tries in 5 games. And we lose 3 of them (including both the games he scores in)

By this point I don’t need to tell you what Merritt has done in this period to warrant selection. He’s like clockwork. It’s always the same.

Leading up to selection for the last Origin game (when Uate was finally dropped) Meritt had scored 15 tries in his last 11 matches.

But we went back to Morris and Hayne. A decision that I can’t say was a bad one, because they are both fine players, proven at that level and ultimately we played very well with the two of them on the wings. But when he’s the guy that’s hot right now, of course that’s not what they want. That one is just plain bad luck.

So ultimately, we are headed into Origin selection this year and he’s scored 10 tries in 9 matches. He’s in the top 10 try scorers in the whole league – OF ALL TIME!!!!! – and yet I know from history that there are about 10 ways not to pick him.

You see it’s not the travesty of not picking Nathan Merritt to play Origin football that upsets me it’s the list of players picked ahead of him. It’s a veritable who’s who of ‘really’s’ and Nathan Merritt is anything but a ‘really’

** That’s just a judgement call. The stats tell me that over their careers, Merritt has a try scoring record better than Morris (Merrit scores in 73% of games, Morris in 67%). And considering that’s kind of both of their games in a nutshell, I think it’s a fair comparison.