WATCH YOUR BACK........
"Backs are the blokes who go to the bar and get the beer for the forwards after a game", is how legendary coach Ron Willey use to put it.
But how things have changed. The once minor, if not easier, role backs were once deemed to have partaken, has now shown a form reversal of Ron’s old adage. Before you start thinking what would a big, clumsy forward know about back line play let me tell you plenty of them caused me tons of heartache over my playing days.
I’ve decided to take a fine tooth comb through today’s new generation, and nominate a back from each club who I think would have caused me plenty of migraines if I was still running around.
Adam "Mad Dog" McDougall reminds me a lot of my old teammate of the late 80’s, Alan McIndoe. Big, strong and fast. A back that could easily wear a forwards jersey with great aplomb. A back who when trying to make a big hit on simply won’t budge.
Brett Hodgson is one of those players who plays well above his weight. Whether he’s chiming into the Eel back line or backing up his rugged forwards, Brett’s unpredictability is his finest trait. Deceptive speed is also a bonus for this jockey size fullback.
I know he’s been selected at hooker in recent games, but I believe that Preston Campbell is definitely a halfback. It remains to be seen if the heavy workload in defence detracts from his awesome attacking ability. While I’ve played against some small men in my time Preston is like a mouse running at elephants and is an absolute nightmare to predict where and when he’ll bob up. Huge asset for the Sharks wherever picked.
Willie Talua is the type of centre who stops forwards from hanging wide. While a pretty flamboyant attacker, it is his bone rattling defence that would make any forward look and see just where he is standing in defence. Very much in the Chris Mortimer, Mick Beattie mould.
When you have a winger that’s 105kg, stands 6ft 3 and runs 100 metres in 11 seconds you would have what many would call the perfect prototype rugby league player. With Lote Tuquiri that’s exactly what you get. An awesome specimen (even for a back). Look for him to be even more dominant now that his twin "Wendell" has flown the coupe.
Trent Barrett is a halfback very much like my brother-in-law Greg "Brandy" Alexander. While Trent does more in defence and Brandy was that bit quicker, they both have (had) the uncanny knack of bamboozling opposition forwards with their brisk switch of plays. Barrett has certainly matured into a real handful for all opposition teams (especially forwards).
Brett Mullins when fit and switched on is a prolific game breaker. I know a lot of our game plans at Penrith in the early 90’s were designed to stop Mullins’ blistering speed. The scorer of some of Rugby League’s most astonishing tries; I really hope he’s found his feet at the Roosters pen. I think Sticky will make sure of that.
The one Auckland player, forward or back, who always gave me grief in defence, was Stacey Jones. No matter where I stood on the field he always did his best to try and make a fool out of me, and it worked………..once. In a game in Auckland he literally ran straight through my legs only to have me clutching at thin air, all the amusement of both teams concerned. If he were an Australian he would cause plenty of selection dilemmas come State of Origin time.
At 115kg and 6ft 8 that Matt Geyer would have been a player that I would have shit myself if I had to play against……ha ha ha.
While I will be looking for a big year from the little brother, the Storm’s indestructible, immovable object is New Guinean Marcus Bai. From Gold Coast reserves to cult figure status and premiership winning player in Melbourne. A winger no forward is eager to tackle.
While he is probably past his best, Terry Hill has ability to transform the Tigers woes. After last years public spat with coach Terry Lamb was sorted out he showed that he still has what it takes to make a difference. His leadership skills must be exploited for the Tigers to be a force.
I mentioned him in my column a couple of weeks ago as a huge improver for the Raiders. Mark McLinden is a back that forwards just hate playing against. With his "now you see him now you don’t", jack in the box style; it will be his combination with the equally crafty Brett Finch that will be a real handful for all opposing pigs.
Look, if he puts all his antics aside John Hopoate is a very, very dangerous player. Just about the biggest back in the whole competition he can offload the ball at will and is an excellent kick chaser. Come on Hoppa show us that talent we all know you’ve got. If you fire so will the Eagles.
In my last season of 2000 I came across a cheeky little upstart with the uncanny ability to back up all of his tongue wagging. Nathan Fien is right out of the Ricky Stuart school of halfbacks. Cheeky but confident. A player all forwards would love to get their hands on but just always seem to slip by. Origin selection must be close.
Let’s be honest every forward hates good looking backs. With Ryan Girdler you don’t get just a pretty face you’ve also got one hell of a footballer. An ordinary last year by his extremely high standards look for his move to five eighth to give the Panthers even more of an attacking arsenal. He’s determined to break back into the rep scene.
After only seeing a handful of his games Brent Grose is a player I know I would have had my hands full with. He is a very strong dummy half runner and is never once to sherk the hard stuff up the middle. With him and young McKinnon at halfback the Rabbits have one of the best kick return duos in the competition.
So there you have it, my guide to the backs in this years competition, who if I were playing would definitely receive my undivided attention…..legally of course.
(This story first appeared in League Week Magazine, Issue 20 March 2002)