It’s All Relative

Earlier this week, my Dragons supporting buddy Richard and I were trying to work out which Rugby League player, past or present, has benefited the most from having a famous relative.

The following email exchange is what we came up with.

 

ME: So, any discussion on Rugby League players that have made their career based on their ‘name’ has to start with a few ground rules.
Now, these are just my ground rules, and since this is a completely arbitrary thing, you can feel free to make your own ground rules.

To be considered, a player has to fail these tests –

1.       The player passes if he surpassed his father/uncle/whoever the relative is, in greatness. This does not mean that he played more tests or Origins or whatever, it is the intangible greatness of which we will be the judges. I’m calling this the Jarryd Hayne rule. He’s clearly a much greater player than his old man ever was.
 2.       The player passes if they never rose above where their ability would have taken them regardless. I’m calling this the Eric Grothe Jnr rule. He may have the exact same name as his old man, but he didn’t get any more rep jumpers than his ability deserved.
3.       Not so much a test, as a note – The player doesn’t actually have to have the same surname as the relative to be eligible. This could also be the Jarryd Hayne rule, but to keep it clear this can be the Braith Anasta rule.
 

Image

Now, I’ve already had my say on Kurt Gidley’s career in a previous article so I’ll leave him out of this, but I’m still going to aim high and I’ll kick it off with Mark Gasnier.
The Gasnier name is one of, if not the, most prestigious name in the sport.
Having it gives you more than a significant leg up. It gives you a club that doesn’t want you to play for anyone else, it gives you increased media attention, and apparently it gives you 15 tests and 12 State of Origin appearances.
Mark Gasnier was a head wobble in a Red V.
He made his entire reputation on a handful of good games – Scoring a try on debut against a weakened Knights backline, being given a spot on a Kangaroo squad and scoring a try in his first match against the powerhouse of Rugby League the Kumuls, being given a second chance at Origin after being sacked for being a bit of a toey human and in turn scoring 2 tries in a NSW side that was dominant all over the park. The remaining 11 games of his Origin career resulted in a total of 2 tries.
He was a flat track bully that was always shown up when playing anyone of quality.
He scored most of his tries against struggling Souths and Tigers teams and continually failed whenever he was pushed.
He fails the Jarryd Hayne rule (which was always going to be the case, Reg is an immortal!) and he fails the Eric Grothe Jnr rule.
I put it to you that Mark Gasnier benefitted from his surname more than any player that came before him or has come since him.

 

RICHARD: Well-structured argument against Gasnier. Our assessments of him differ due to differing forms of bias. I agree with the parameters you’ve set and think we best approach this by presenting our arguments for relevant players rather than trying to run long counter-arguments, etc, on one another’s entries. So here’s my nomination for Scott Fulton:

Image

For me this is the most authoritative precedent for riding on the coat-tails of a famous surname in the history of rugby league. Like the Gasnier entry, his relative is also an Immortal, so it was always going to be hard for the young Fulton to step out of his father’s great shadow. Well founded suspicions of nepotism are underlined not only by the fact that he played his entire career at the same club where his father made his name, but was coached by him the entire time as well – it’s more than just a co-incidence that when Bob Fulton stepped down as Manly coach in 1999 that Scott’s playing career abruptly ended the very same year.

While Gasnier may have scored hat-trick after hat-trick against weakened Wests and Souths teams – these are, at their base level, achievements of some description. I can’t point to a single highlight in Scott Fulton’s career aside from the fact that he almost played a full season in 1997 when he racked up 21 games in the ARL competition. Even then, you can reasonably suspect that he wouldn’t have been up to the rigours of first grade rugby league had there not been split competitions due to the Super League War that year (he averaged 4.5 appearances per season over four years prior to 1997). He benefited from playing during an era where the Sea Eagles were practically unbeatable, and the shortcomings in his game were no doubt blanketed by being in squads which included gifted and talented players such as Matthew Ridge, John Hopoate, Steven Menzies, Mark Carroll, Ian Roberts and even Craig Field.

In a 49-game first grade career spanning seven(!) years, he averaged 7 appearances per season, never really nailed down a starting spot or made any position his own, scored a solitary try, achieved no representative honours whatsoever and just left plenty of questions as to how he maintained a contract with one of the league’s best clubs despite his limited playing ability. The answer is most likely that in order to appease Bob Fulton, the front office at Brookvale had to ensure that a spot in the squad was made for the coach’s son.
 
To be fair to him, and as highlighted before, he came through during a great era of dominance at Manly and he would have been hard-pressed to usurp any of the incumbent halves or hookers (his preferred positions) that played during that time (count them: Cliff Lyons, Geoff Toovey, Jim Serdaris and Owen Cunningham) without drawing a great deal of suspicion or scepticism from team-mates and journalists alike. He always could have pursued opportunities at another club but, come on, who else would have actually signed him?
 
Also in his defence, you might argue that he came through at a time where there was this expectation that if you were the son of a rugby league player, you were expected to play rugby league yourself as some way of carrying on the family legacy – I suspect that there’s  room to infer that Scott Fulton was only really thrust into the game at the behest of his father/family rather than genuinely ever wanting to pursue a career in rugby league himself.

 

ME: Scott Fulton is a good one, and on the whole ‘front office needing to give him a contract to keep Bob around’ situation – I actually have a vague memory of accusations being openly made to that effect around the time by some pundits in the media.

Incidentally, I always assumed Liam Fulton was a relation too, but apparently not! (though if he was he’d be inadmissible based on the Grothe rule in my opinion)

Image 
While I’m in my tall poppy syndrome mode, I’m going to take Mitchell Pearce down a peg.
Wayne Pearce was an idol of mine growing up, and I was genuinely excited to hear that he had a son playing league (though a little disappointed he wasn’t a back rower)
But that kid has been given a leg up his whole career because of that name.
He’s given a free ride under the “learning curve” excuse whenever he has been poor, and has NEVER been dominant enough in matches at any real level to have earned double figures in Origin appearances.
He’s certainly not the only one thinking that if he fails to win this Origin series, his representative career is over (as it probably should have been a while ago)

The only thing that maybe pushes his limit on the Grothe rule is that if he wasn’t picked all these times, who else was more deserving of the spot? This year the argument is for Reynolds, but previous years? I don’t know.

 

RICHARD: On Pearce – I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I find comparing and contrasting father-son players a little tricky when they don’t play the same position (I envision similar difficulties down the track comparing Curtis and Paul Sironen’s careers). When Mitchell’s name first popped up in rugby league press, I automatically assumed he was a back-rower like his father and I was very surprised to hear that he was a halfback. The silver spoon in his hand wouldn’t be so glaring if his father hadn’t had such a stellar representative career for the Blues and coached them such that you can’t help but feel he (Wayne) probably still has some degree of influence in the NSWRL such that it’s parlayed into the number of games that Mitchell has amassed over the past 4-5 years. I think he’s been lucky to have been in the Blues set-up for as long as he has because guys like Terry Campese and Todd Carney really could have made those halves jumpers their own if it weren’t for injuries and personal issues respectively, and if they were given as many chances as Pearce has had – in peak condition, both Canberra products are supremely better than Pearce in my opinion.

Image
Daniel Mortimer – You could say that he made a wise move in electing not to play for the club that the Mortimer name is synonymous with – Canterbury-Bankstown – as for him to turn out in the Blue and White would have had people assuming his jumper was based more on strings being pulled at Belmore rather than on merit alone. And as it turns out, his rookie season with Parramatta was remarkably successful as he formed a surprisingly effective halves combination with Jeff Robson that took the Eels on a fairy tale run to the 2009 Grand Final, the first team to do so after finishing in 8th position at the end of the regular season. Along the way, he scored 10 tries in 18 matches – a very respectable haul for a five-eighth, whose role is usually to create tries rather than score them. At this stage, you sensed that if he could keep this up, freeing himself of the shackles of the Mortimer name was going to be a formality, representative honours loomed (no doubt his name was bandied about as a long-term half solution for NSW at some stage) and that it’d only be a matter of time before he’d create his own legacy alongside his father and uncles.
 
The nature of Parramatta’s run to the 2009 grand final will likely be listed next to the entry for “hot streak” in the rugby league lexicon for years if not decades to come. In this context, it was always going to be remarkably difficult to maintain the form that took them so close to the 2009 premiership. Unfortunately for Parramatta, this proved too difficult a task and Mortimer’s form noticeably slumped in a lacklustre 2010 season. He found himself increasingly on the outer in 2011, making only 9 appearances and eventually joined the likes of Paul Green, Feleti Mateo and Tim Smith as casualties of the pressure that comes with wearing the #6 or #7 jerseys for Parramatta in the post-Kenny/Sterling era. Despite a move to the Sydney Roosters in 2012, he spent significant portions that year plugging away in the NSW Cup for the Newtown Jets, showing decent enough form and capturing the lower-tier title, interestingly enough after finishing in 7th place during the regular season. His regular inclusion on the Roosters’ bench this season has signalled a mini-revival of sorts, but you can’t help but wonder if the Roosters administration simply signed him based on reasoning to the effect of: “Surely he would’ve learnt so from his dad Peter, as well as his uncles Steve and Chris when he was growing up? Let’s hold on to him just in case.”

At this stage, it’s difficult to see him as anything other than an average to decent utility option coming off the bench who’ll produce a solid performance from time to time – if the next few years continue like this, it’ll be fair to assume that his admission into first grade sides will be as a result of him flashing the “Mortimer” ID card than anything else. This is amplified particularly when you consider that guys like John Morris, PJ Marsh and Isaac De Gois (all representative players at some level) don’t generate anywhere near as much media attention or “excitement” despite having broadly similar statures and abilities to Mortimer and each having notched up several consistent seasons in first grade before Mortimer even debuted. You can argue that Mortimer’s stock skyrocketed on the back of twin factors: i) an unforeseen and frankly unparalleled run of form by Parramatta (more specifically Jarryd Hayne) in 2009; and ii) his surname. The market simply corrected itself in the aftermath and what we were left with were assets that were no longer performing and had little prospects for growth in the immediate future.

 

ME: I think the trick with the father/son comparisons comes in just having to compare that ill-defined greatness?

In Mortimer’s case, there’s no doubt his relatives were all greater than him. On top of that I’m almost positive that his surname opened more than its fair share of doors for him. But does he fail the Grothe test?

I mean he’s not even played much first grade, and when he spent last season in reserves, they won the comp, which suggests to me that his talent alone isn’t deplorable (like Fulton – the more I think about him, the more I remember how awful he was) so it kind of seems like he hasn’t gone anywhere a player of his equivalent wouldn’t have…?

 

RICHARD: Yeah, as I was writing up my thoughts on Mortimer yesterday, I did wonder to myself whether it’s too early to make a call on his career and conclude that it’s largely been buoyed by his surname.

He’s the freshest player we’ve raised in our discussions so far, he’s still pretty young and only floated in and out of first grade for four years. Gasnier and Fulton are both retired and spent a good number of years on the books at their respective clubs, allowing us to better gauge their careers and achievements. This makes me wonder, do we need set a further parameter – do we consider only retired players, or at least those who’ve played a certain amount of years or first grade games where we can say “Look, you’ve had more than enough time to step out of your relative’s shadow or at least demonstrate that you have the potential to, but you haven’t done so” and to take that into consideration when making our assessments? – I think this ties in well with the Grothe rule and gives us a measurable standard to work with?

 

ME: I like it. It’ll be the Daniel Mortimer rule.

And we’ll put a time limit on it.
 
I think we can agree that Mitchell Pearce has had sufficient time to prove himself in his 6 and a half years in the NRL, so in the interest of me being able to keep him in the mix, I’m going to say that if they’ve been in first grade for the last 6+ years, they are fair game.
 
Which gives me a segue into my next nomination (who is in his 7th year in the NRL so just scrapes in)
Josh Morris.

Image
I know this is controversial, but I’m also taking a slightly different approach to this one.

I’m going to say that Josh got his start on Steve’s name, but has coasted on Brett’s name.
Hear me out.
Steve “Slippery” Morris was a legend of the sport (the nickname helped) in his day. His representative caps might not show it, but between 1982 and 1985 – when point scoring was at an all-time low – Slippery scored 64 tries in 100 matches. That is HUGE for that era. Hell, it’s pretty good now!

Slippery Morris is a great of the game, and his twin sons rode the Slippery horse (wow that sounds dirtier than I mean it to) into the Dragons offices when they signed their first contracts.
But Brett has always been the better of the two.
He made his first grade debut 10 months before Josh. He started for Australia first. He’s won an NRL title. He’s played more matches for NSW and the Kangaroos than Josh, and he’s scored more tries in less matches in the NRL.
 
Josh was let go by the Dragons because Wayne Bennett (are far more astute judge of talent than you or I) declared he was not good enough for first grade.
Not that he wasn’t good enough to be a great player, or a rep player. Not good enough for first grade.
Now, in my humble opinion, he has proven to be good enough for first grade.
But NSW and Australia? I’m not so sure. He’s inconsistent, unreliable in defence (in his 6 Origin starts, QLD have scored 9 tries down his side) and frankly, no better than say a Beau Champion.
 
He’s riding on the back of a good season in 2009 and his father and twin brothers reputations.

 

RICHARD: Both brothers were prone to massive brain explosions and experienced roller-coasters of form when they played together at St George Illawarra such that the question of who was the better (or worse?) of the two was one that was remarkably difficult to answer!

I think Bennett was vindicated in his call to release Josh, particularly with Matt Cooper and Beau Scott at his disposal – why take on a potential defensive liability? Sure, he went on to have a good 2009 with Canterbury and was neck-and-neck with Brett for the try-scoring title that year, but I think Brett has proven to be the better of the two over the past few years and has pretty much become an automatic selection for a wing spot both for NSW and Australia while Josh’s name seems to intermittently come into consideration depending on availabilities and form. Let’s also not forget Josh’s axing into NSW Cup by Jim Dymock when he was interim coach in mid-2011 – pretty ignominious honour for a NSW and Australian representative (I’m sure he and Michael Jennings are sharing stories about that in NSW camp at the moment). And I say all this with as little pro-Dragons bias as possible!
 
The Morris issue got me thinking about whether Matthew Johns rode on his brother’s greatness and whether I could formulate an argument for it, but a glance at his statistics shows that he was solid enough in his own right to consistently earn his spot with the Knights – it just so happened that he was eclipsed by arguably the greatest player of all time, something he couldn’t really control.

I’ll think about my next candidate, but happy to hear your thoughts on the Johns brothers while doing so.

 

ME: I actually think that Matthew Johns is one of the most under-rated players of the last 25 years.

I was stunned to see that he had only played 4 matches for NSW (yet 8 for Australia).
He was a victim of the numbers 6’s of the era, no doubt, but I think at one point in his career, he was in the top 5 players in the world.
That Andrew was his brother seems to overshadow all of that – and his appearances on the Footy Show where he shows his comedic side seem to take some gloss off too unfortunately.
His career also fizzled out a bit as he was punted by the Knights due to salary cap issues (and almost came to Souths!) forcing him to head to England for a year before coming back to the Sharks and having to retire through chronic injuries.

I think he’s one of the forgotten greats but I have no doubt that he understands the game just as well as Joey did – was just a victim of circumstance it seems.

 

RICHARD: Yeah, I quickly realised that there was no strong case to be made for his inclusion in our discussions, and I agree that all the Reg Reagan antics make people forget that he was a solid footballer in his time. Here’s my next entry:

Image

Scott Sattler – That tackle on Todd Byrne in the 2003 grand final. The number of times that it’s been replayed or alluded to in the past 10 years in the context of “big plays” is enough to make you think he was making those kinds of tackles in every game he played in during his career. But fact is, prior to joining the Panthers in 1999, Scott Sattler hadn’t even really played that many first grade games at all – 63 in total – despite having turned professional in 1992! That’s an average of 9 games per season over 7 years and would be enough to force most players to start handing out resumes to cafes and consulting the classifieds to find new work, but my suspicions are that the “Sattler” surname – made legendary by his father’s rough-and-tumble reputation and heroics in the 1970 grand final against Manly – kept him in the game for just long enough that he was able to find a home at Penrith.
 
What’s interesting is that prior to joining the Panthers, the clubs where Sattler plied his trade were all basket cases: the Gold Coast Seagulls, a pre-Fittler/Gould Eastern Suburbs that hadn’t enjoyed any meaningful success since the late 70s and the South Queensland Crushers – the fact that he couldn’t consistently find game time with any of these teams until he signed on with the Chargers in 1997 (in the midst of the Super League War I might add) is pretty demonstrative of his overall ability (up until this stage, he’d played 15 games over 5 years). He was lucky not to have already hung up his boots by that point, but the fact that his father moved the family to Queensland and settled there in the latter stages of his career to play with Wests and Norths in the Brisbane Premiership and represent the Maroons on four occasions in the pre-State of Origin era no doubt endeared the Sattlers to the South East Queensland community and ensured that Scott would always have a safe home and paycheck to come back to if things ever went pear-shaped for him in his own rugby league journey. Unsurprisingly, save for one appearance off the bench for Easts in 1994, he spent his entire pre-Penrith career at two versions of the Gold Coast franchise and the Crushers!

To his credit, he developed into a very solid team player at Penrith and took the opportunity given to him by adding another 140 first grade appearances to his tally and an Origin appearance from the Queensland bench in 2003 before retiring. You could say he was a late bloomer, but fact is he probably wouldn’t have been able to stay in the game for long enough to bloom at all if it weren’t for his father’s reputation and likely influence in the Brisbane-Gold Coast rugby league fraternity.

He fails the Hayne test – aside from the aforementioned tackle and the sole Origin cap, I think most people who aren’t Panthers supporters would struggle to highlight anything else he did in his career aside from being John Sattler’s son. And he fails the Grothe test – no unrealised potential that I can reasonably identify.

 

ME: I think Scott Sattler was definitely a late bloomer. He turned into a solid but unspectacular forward who would get through some dirty work for you and always made up for a lack of talent with effort.

But does that earn you an Origin call up?
I think that was a sympathy/nepotism selection for the Queenslanders.

It’s funny though, you could spin it two ways – he was so average that he was let go by 5 clubs, or – he was so good that he convinced 6 clubs to give him a contract.

I think he might have become a plumber, playing for the local pub team if it weren’t for the surname though. As much as I like him, I’ll back you on that one.

I’m going for a “Letter B Lightning Round” here and I’m going to rattle off some “lesser knowns” for you to chew on –

Anthony Bella – Rode on the coattails of Martin Bella – played 25 games over 3 seasons for the Crushers

Barry Berrigan – In spite of the fact that he is older (and has an awesome name to say out loud) he got a contract at the Broncos in 2003 on the back of Shaun Berrigan being both a Qld and Australian representative – played 24 games over 5 season for the Bulldogs, then played Qld Cup for 3 years before making 32 appearances over 3 years for the Broncos

Brenton Bowen – Surely got his start at the cowboys due to his cousin Matt Bowen. Had speed and nothing else – Played 45 games over 5 seasons for the Cowboys, then took a contract from the Titans, played 5 games and never played again. Says it all I think.

And this is a special one that I noticed – Brett Fulton (Yes there was a worse Fulton!) played 2 NRL games (in his whole career, and over a 2 year span, and both off the bench) for the Eagles. And you thought Bobs first son got pushed through at Manly!

 

RICHARD: Sattler’s humility and gratefulness for the opportunity given to him at Penrith made him very likeable. He was helped by the fact that he achieved his success in Sydney, a place where his father no longer exerted any considerable degree of influence (if any). Compare this to Scott Fulton, a complete asswipe who was clearly getting a ride simply because daddy was coach.

The allusion to Brett Fulton in your Letter B Lightning Round is hilarious, as he’s briefly referred to in this piece I read earlier today written by a Manly supporter who waxes lyrical about the disgust shown by Manly fans at Bob Fulton’s maintenance of his sons in the Sea Eagles’ first grade squad. It also interestingly touches on the major falling out between Paul Vautin and Bob Fulton when Vautin publically stated that Scott was rubbish and had no place in the first grade squad (which takes us back to the vague memories you have of public ridicule levelled at him at the time):

www.silvertails.net/ex-player-profiles/3340

 

ME: Ha! Good stuff in that article! And he really gives a good insider’s perspective on just how much Scott got by one the Fulton name!

I think we might have ourselves a winner!

 

RICHARD: Just want to emphasise that any similarities between the content of that article and my observations on Fulton in my entry on him are all co-incidental. I was amazed at the parallels between his piece and mine: number of games played, the solitary try and being dumped from first grade pretty much in sync with his father’s resignation from the head coaching job.

Really makes you wonder who Bob Fulton thought he was fooling when even someone like me, who doesn’t even support the Eagles, can produce a mountain of evidence for this blatant case of nepotism-gone-mad at Brookvale.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked to you about those League Of Their Own books that came out in the early 90s – essentially compendiums of anecdotes and funny stories by high profile rugby league players at the time (your dad probably owns them) – but I clearly remember one entry by Terry Hill (I know you hate him, but cast that aside for a moment) where he recounts his first encounter with Scott Fulton at Eagles training and was being called “Baulkham” by him, presumably as some lame joke alluding to Baulkham Hills and, in turn, Terrey Hills, and that he did this repeatedly such that Hill was about to lay him out before someone like David Gillespie pulled him up and told him he was Bob Fulton’s kid. Apparently Scott did this to many unwitting team-mates in the hopes of getting a rise out of them. Now if that’s not textbook shithead-son-of-the-coach behaviour, then they must have redefined the notion!

 

ME: That’s it I’m calling it. Scott Fulton gets the championship belt.

I will finish this off however with some honourable mentions that didn’t make the cut here…

 

Kane Cleal

Bronx and Bryson Goodwin

Matt Geyer

Graeme Wynn

All MacDougall’s not named Adam

All Hughes’ not named Graeme

And about 60% of the whole extended Mundine clan

Advertisements

The Defence of Nathan Merritt

Image

I lobbied for Nathan to be given a go at Origin level, and last Wednesday night he was given that chance.

Unfortunately it all went wrong, and he was predictably made the scapegoat by an unforgiving and at times uneducated public.
Nathan himself has said that he wasn’t happy with his performance, and to argue that he (or any of the Blues) had a good game would be foolish.
What I am here to do is to provide a defence of his spot in the team and to attempt to take the sacrificial lamb off his head.

 

Defence 

The first few times that QLD attacked down Merritt’s wing, both he and Morris jammed in and disrupted the play before the Maroons were able to get anything happening (see this video – at 1:26, 6:15, 7:24. 12:22, 12:46. 14:33. 16:55. It was clearly a deliberate tactic. Also, just keep the video open) It’s a common defensive tactic these days where the outside men push in, rather than stay marking the man directly in front of them, to disrupt the play, while the inside sliding defenders continue to slide across behind these outside men and provide cover should the attacking team get through. This means that the opposition winger is open, but because of the bodies in motion the only safe way to get the ball to that winger is a floating pass that takes time to get there and gives the sliding inside defenders time to get across to him.

It works if it is done with good communication. For example, both the winger and the centre can push in while the inside defenders push across, or just the winger can push in, but then the centre has to slide across (if for no other reason than because the winger has now covered the man he would ordinarily be defending).  So the winger has to communicate well, and the centre has to be ready to push or slide at a second’s notice.

The tactic is successful because it causes a lot of dropped balls when the pass goes to the inside man, as he is blindsided by the rushing wing defender. Alternatively, if the ball goes to the winger the inside defenders who are tracking across are on a good trajectory to take the winger into touch. But there are some caveats. It doesn’t work if you are TOO close to your try line (say, within 5 metres). It’s basically like switching defenders in basketball – it can backfire if both defenders aren’t ready for it – you can end up with one player with the ball in his hands, wide open.

So after successfully shutting down the first couple of attempts from QLD to attack down the NSW right side defence with this tactic, Merritt went to do it the same way as they had the previous few times and Morris didn’t (17:15 in the aforementioned video). It’s the ultimate sin when you are playing with this defence. As a Centre, you either have to push in or slide out. Making NO decision and just backing off is the worst thing you can do.

To the layman, Merritt is the one that looks woefully out of place because it’s his “man” that gets the ball unmarked, but Rugby League defences are more complex than that.

Ultimately you would want Merritt reading the play and picking his timing better etc, but at the same time if he doesn’t rush in, the ball probably doesn’t get passed to Boyd to cross in the corner, it goes to Inglis to run over the top of everyone in front of him as he tends to do once he gets any sort of room to move.

That’s the reason that Merritt was instructed to jam in on Inglis whenever the ball came that way. You can’t give Greg Inglis ANY sort of a start and the only hope you have of slowing him down is to get in his face before he even has the ball. That was the clear defensive structure that was put in place and when it was adhered to, it worked well (enough). But when it wasn’t…

As for Boyd’s second try, it was a carbon copy in terms of defensive structure gone wrong (7:07 in this video of the second half); however Merritt did go very early which made it a lot easier for Jonathan Thurston to see him coming and get the pass to Boyd. On the other hand, the argument can be made that if Merritt went early enough for Thurston to see it and take advantage, then Morris should have had enough time to see what Merritt was doing and slide across to cover him.

Merritt is by no means blameless here, but the fact that Josh Morris’ name hasn’t even been mentioned says more about the understanding of the people criticising than his lack of culpability

 

Kick Returns 

One of the arguments I’ve heard against Merritt’s inclusion since I wrote my previous article is that he doesn’t have enough impact on kick returns – essentially because he is too small

The first point I’ll make is that on all long kicks, all night, Queensland kicked away from Nathan Merritt. You don’t do this if someone’s weakness is kick returns.
Secondly, Nathan Merritt’s average metres made per kick return in the NRL is as high as any of the other candidates for his position (16.4m).

Either way, he didn’t get a chance to show this as QLD were not willing to give him the chance.

 

Attack 

Merritt’s obvious strength is with the ball in his hands, and it would have been nice to see him get it in Origin two (or either winger for that matter – I don’t think Brett Morris was passed the ball all game). Josh Morris passed Merritt the ball twice in the entire match. One of them was a hospital pass where Merritt had to immediately step inside from his wing to avoid being bundled into touch. The other pass went over his head (16:32). NSW picked an attacking winger, one of the most prolific try scorers in the history of the game, and he didn’t get an opportunity. Partly through some selfish play from Morris, but mostly because that’s the way the match played out. QLD were dominant and NSW had very few opportunities. But this was certainly not the wingers fault.

 

What Really Went Wrong 

So we are left to wonder why NSW were left in that position.
And the answer is the same as it ever is in Origin matches.
The forwards and the kicking.
The Queensland starting forward pack ran for 621 metres.
The NSW starting forward pack ran for 424 metres.
The Queensland back three ran for 110 metres from kick returns.
The NSW back three ran for 34 metres from kick returns.

So in short, go easy on Merritt. He didn’t have a blinder but he didn’t cost us the game.
And if he gets picked for game three holster your weapons and just support him.

 

 

 

Footnote – One other point from this video

7:18 How this isn’t a strip I’ll never know.

The Right Man For The Right Job

ImageWe are all spoiled.

As modern sports fans, we are spoilt for choice. Spoilt for coverage. Spoilt for talent.

We are living in a time where on a Sunday afternoon, I can choose between 17 channels showing different types of sport. Where I can watch “Live European Track and Field”. Where the world’s best sporting talent – of all time I might add – is on display whenever I want it*

Perhaps this is why the modern sports fan demands absolutely everything of their best and brightest players. We want every player to be able to do everything on the field. In fact in some areas our obsession with the complete player comes at the detriment of our ability to see if these players can do what they are meant to do, first and foremost.

Sometimes it is because we want our players to be able to counter specific threats from opposition players, other times it’s because we’ve seen that the world’s best are capable of it, so we want our players to do the same. We’re all guilty of wanting the best for our team, but sometimes we can be over ambitious.

Image

Football (and particularly the A-League) is probably the best example of fans seeing the skill set that the world’s best players have and wanting their own players to have those same abilities.

Supporters want Centre Backs that can pass like Attacking Midfielders. Forwards that can harass and mark opposition players like Defensive Midfielders, and Fullbacks who are both impeccable crossers of the ball that can constantly charge up the lines to create scoring chances inside the opposition’s 18 yard box, as well as tackling dynamo’s that are never out of position.

The first hurdle to overcome here is to remember the level that the A-League is at. If the players were good enough to do most of these things, they wouldn’t be playing here. That’s the reason that your Manchester United supporting mate doesn’t go to the Newcastle Jets games with you on the weekend. The players that play in this league are limited. That’s not to say that they are poor. By no stretch of the imagination is the league’s standard low – and it is improving every year – but these are players that almost by definition are limited, either physically, tactically or skilfully. If they weren’t they wouldn’t continue playing in the A League for long**

But the second hurdle to overcome here is to stop overlooking what the players CAN do in search of what they can’t do.
The thing with players of limited ability that reach this level is that they are good at SOME things. Whatever things they are good at, is pretty much what has determined the position they play in, probably for their whole lives. These players grow up with natural talents in certain areas and they build on them as they grow.
The kids who had a natural ability to find the back of the net are made into strikers. The ones who could mark a man and tackle him were made into defenders. The tall are made into goalkeepers. It really isn’t rocket science. This is simply how it is done and how it has always been done (at least here in Australia, rightly or wrongly).

This isn’t to say that it is not possible for a defender to have a strong passing game, or for a striker to be full of energy and able to cause wayward passing from the opposition centre backs. When you find one that can, it’s great, and you don’t want to lose them (but you will). The problem is when people watch Barcelona and think that every team should play that way*** and in turn start looking for defenders who can pass and strikers who can run after defenders all day, without taking into consideration the abilities that they are meant to have.

Take Sydney FC last season. They started the year with Coach Ian Crook looking to play an attractive brand of football. His recruiting was set to reflect that. He already had ball playing Centre Back Pascal Bosschaart on the books (albeit recovering from injury) who was a converted defensive midfielder. Whatever faults Bosschaart had shown in the previous season were not related to his ball skills. He would occasionally misread plays and/or miss tackles, but his passing was generally superb. Crook then brought in Adam Griffiths, who was also a converted defensive midfielder, again, known more for his passing than his defending – and his defending turned out to be pretty awful.

However when the signing was made it was seen by most as a very astute signing. A ball playing Centre Half is what every team wanted. And to get an Australian one, thus saving a precious foreign spot on the roster, was the icing on the cake. What nobody realised is that a passing defender is only as good as the amount of times he can get the ball off the opposition. If he isn’t very good at that, he better have someone next to him that is.

Image

The best defensive pairing Sydney have ever had (and arguably the league has ever had) consisted of Simon Colosimo and Stephan Keller. Colosimo was a ball playing defender, but also had a great ability to read the game in front of him and make interceptions, which in turn put him in good positions to make the passes he wanted.  Keller on the other hand was a hard-nosed defender who was able to cover for the times that Colosimo misread the opposition’s intentions. They were the perfect pairing, and played more than the sum of their parts. They were the foundation that Sydney won their title on.

Yet throughout the entire season, there was never more than a week that went past without fans and commentators bemoaning Keller’s long passing from the back.

Take another example in Mark Bridge. Sydney FC fans constantly criticised him for being a lazy player (and he is) typified in his inability to shut down opposition defenders. But what always seemed to be ignored was his goal scoring ability. Now, by the end of his stint with the Sky Blues, even that ability had disappeared, and Bridge himself admitted after the fact that he simply wasn’t giving it his all. So of course, Sydney was completely correct in not renewing his contract.

However when he travelled across town to the NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers and was told to simply focus on his goal scoring (and to actually try), he found his form again. There was a spring in his step, and by the end of the season, he was even chasing down defenders, though not consistently, but it was a start.

Image

A similar thing has been happening at the State of Origin level in Rugby League, with the NSW selections.

This time the selections are being made to counter specific threats on the opposition team.

QLD have had differing variations of probably the best backline ever assembled. They are a menacing side that can strike from anywhere on the field and they pay no mind to who is in front of them, and everyone who has been tasked with defending them in these last 7 years has essentially failed.

There is an obsession in the NSW origin selection room, which appears to be shared by most NSW fans, that for any backline player to play origin, they need to be very big, very strong and very good defenders.

Of course, those are great assets to have and ideally the players selected would tick all of these boxes. But shouldn’t the first priority of a Rugby League backline be to SCORE points? Again, you obviously want to be able to stop them as well, but sometimes the best form of defence is attack.

The example I’ll use is Matt Cooper, who is thought of as a specialist defensive centre. He’s attempted to stop this formidable Queensland backline 9 times since the juggernaut began, and QLD have run over the top of NSW on 7 of those occasions. In those 9 matches he scored just 2 tries.

You obviously can’t blame a single player for the losses (and I’m not), but I’m using him as an example because his selection is indicative of what the NSW selectors have gone for in those matches – particularly in the latter stages of his career. In his last 4 matches for NSW (all losses) QLD averaged 27 points per game.

The point I’m getting at here is that no matter who you put in front of them, Queensland are going to score tries. NSW should be trying to score more rather than try to tackle their way to wins.

Which is why people should not be asking what Nathan Merritt was doing in conceding the two tries he did**** – but perhaps should be asking why Josh Morris only attempted to pass him the ball twice all match (one of which went into touch), when he is one of the most prolific try scorers in the history of the game.

The Queensland backline are no slouches in terms of their defence, but every one of them is picked for their attacking ability first and defending second. As it currently stands, their left side defence has 2 Fullbacks playing at Centre and Wing. The defensive readings there can be shaky at times, but it’s not something that ever really gets exploited because the Maroons are always so busy attacking.

So it’s up to us sports fans to start getting our priorities in order. If we stop demanding everything of everyone, we might just get what we all really want.

Wins.

 

 

 

 

* Not necessarily at the “Live European Track and Field” events

** Let’s be honest here, even most of the players that DO get snapped up by overseas clubs are fairly limited, so a player that ticks all the boxes would be on the first flight to the United Arab Emirates.

*** Which would be just as boring as all teams playing long ball all match in my opinion.

**** I’ll write a defence for Merrit in my next column. It’s the least I owe him after jinxing him with my previous article