Elite show you always have to look out for No.1
AN OLD coach once told Tim Sheens that you can feel like you've got 14 men on the field when you boast a good fullback - and 12 men if you don't. Yet both old and young coaches would surely agree that has never been truer than today.
Consider the remaining teams in the competition. All boast top-shelf fullbacks: Ben Barba, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Brett Stewart, Matt Bowen and Josh Dugan. It is surely no coincidence that the best six teams in the premiership have six of the best fullbacks.
''If you look at every NRL team, fullback is the key player in that team,'' Sydney Roosters No.1 Anthony Minichiello said.
''I think teams rely on fullbacks a bit more now. There's a bit more importance in the position. It's a role that covers everything in the game.
''You need to be the whole package as a player - you need to be able to do everything. It's not just one skill: catch and kick, ball-playing, defending and supporting as well.''
Yet this is no ''jack of all trades, master of none'' scenario - some of the fullbacks still in the finals are true masters of the sport.
Melbourne's slump coincided with Slater being injured, Souths generally perform well when Inglis does similarly, North Queensland's Bowen has been superb in recent weeks while Manly have rarely looked like premiers without Stewart.
Then there is Barba, the Bulldogs' No.1, who is the Dally M winner, which makes him arguably the most valuable player in the premiership at this moment.
The statistics back that up. Sportsdata's CVR (contribution value ratings) have Barba at the top of the pile across the season. When it comes to the CVG (the same ratings per game), the remaining fullbacks in the premiership make up six of the top seven positions.
Parramatta's Jarryd Hayne is the anomaly here. In the ''per match'' statistics, Hayne is the top-ranked No.1. So how did his Eels finish with the wooden spoon?
One reason could be that Hayne only played 12 matches this season. The fact they were without their key fullback was a key reason why they faltered to such an extent.
Sheens, the Wests Tigers and Australia coach, stopped short of saying that ball-playing ability had become a prerequisite for fullbacks, yet he acknowledged the importance of having those skills.
''Fullbacks in the past had to catch and run the ball,'' Sheens said.
''Now, they're runners, ball-players and kickers, and they've got to have pace for the position - virtually winger pace. They don't just kick-return. They need an ability to kick, run and pass.''
Sheens is not certain when the transition began. It might have done so with Darren Lockyer, a fullback who clearly had the skills of a five-eighth, given that he eventually shifted into that position and became one of the greatest No.6s of all time.
What he does know is that many current fullbacks have a history at five-eighth or halfback. Bowen and Barba are former five-eighths, while Inglis was a Clive Churchill medallist with Melbourne in 2007 at five-eighth.
But Inglis only shifted into a full-time fullback role a few games into this season. More renowned as a centre, he was switched to fullback by Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire, and the move has been a remarkable success.
Yet Inglis has long maintained he has much to learn in the position - predominantly, he needs to hone the ball-playing skills that the likes of Slater, Bowen, Stewart and Barba show so regularly. ''I've worked on it a fair bit,'' Inglis said.
It has become clear to him that, even through his career, the position had evolved.
''Fullback's definitely changed from when I started,'' Inglis said.
''Their ball-playing … the six teams that are left, if you look at the other five fullbacks, the teams are here for a reason - because they're on fire.''
Poll: Which NRL fullback has had the best season in 2012?
- Ben Barba
- Billy Slater
- Greg Inglis
- Brett Stewart
- Matt Bowen
- Josh Dugan
Total votes: 3204.
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