The commander in chief, the general and the playmaker. Just a few of the synonyms and phrases one could use to describe the modern day rugby league half.
They’re pivotal to a team’s ability to create point scoring opportunities, they’re required to control an attacking set and their kicking game must be able to make up any differences in the field position war that takes place between opposition forward packs.
Yes, the modern day half has to be able to do it all. At the end of the day it’s why they command the big bucks, but just what role does a half play in 2017? Well before we do so, let us fire up the DeLorean and take a trip back in time to see just how these positions have evolved over time.
Traditionally in rugby league your halves were your Halfback and your Five-Eighth or at times, Scrum-Half and Stand-Off. Their names were derived from the positions they assumed at the scrum base. The Halfback would feed the scrum and the first-receiver of his pass was the Five-Eighth, who was stood about 5/8s of the way across the field. Makes enough sense, right?
They were both generally considered the most skillful players in the team. The Halfback was usually the smallest and assumed most of the playmaking and kicking duties, while the Five-Eighth was a slightly bigger body who assisted with the playmaking and kicking duties, but also doubled up as an extra runner. A hybrid of the traditional Halfback and Centre, if you will. It was a very rugby union looking backline in those days.
However, as league evolved as a sport with the introduction of limited tackles and the 10m rule, the halves started to assume slightly different roles. What were traditional responsibilities of the Halfback and Five-Eighth started being assumed by the Hooker and Fullback. Similarly, Halves were now expected to have the defensive capabilities of the men in the middle of the field. It was no longer enough just to have an attacking presence on the field, they could no longer be the weak-link in the defensive line. And so we lend ourselves to what is now the modern day halves roles.
I’ll let you in on a little secret Eels fans, one that I’m sure some of you already know. The Halfback and Five-Eighth positions don’t exist anymore. We still call them as such because it’s one of the few things our game chooses not to tinker with (thank goodness, there’s enough of that already, right?). No, what we have now is one of the following two set ups. The first being a ‘Primary Half’ and a ‘Secondary Half’. The second being halves that are split onto edges who only operate within their left or right corridor.
In the edge formation you actually have “three halves”. Either one of the Halfback or the Five-Eighth are posted on the left or right edge and they operate exclusively out of that side of the field. The theory is that it helps their combinations with the second-rower, centre and winger on that side of the field, both with the ball in hand and communication for when they have to defend together. The third half, the Hooker, controls the middle third, with the Fullback being the only player to roam all three thirds of the field. The play-making duties are usually split across both halves, while the Hooker purely worries about his forwards coming onto the ball and making metres. The Manly-Warringah Sea-Eagles used this to effect in their 2011 premiership winning campaign. Kieran Foran controlled the left edge, Daly Cherry-Evans the right and Matt Ballin the middle third.
The other set up, being the ‘Primary Half’ and the ‘Secondary Half’. This is where one player assumes the bulk of the playmaking duties and will often lead the try-assists statistics and assume a bulk of the kicking duties, while the other half chimes in to support the primary half when he is otherwise incapable of fulfilling those duties. E.g. The primary half is tackled on the fifth, so the secondary half assumes the kicking duties of that set. This set up works particularly well if you have a Fullback who has the ability to chime into the line and get on the outside of his man with either his passing and/or running game. It’s something that the North Queensland Cowboys have used to particular effect since they recruited Johnathan Thurston to the club and likewise the Melbourne Storm over the last decade.
Both these set ups have proven to work, with premiership-winning examples for each, but what really determines whether it’s successful or not comes down to the balance of the rest of the team. Manly’s set up worked brilliantly because they had great forwards coming onto the ball from their Hooker Matt Ballin who was defensively brilliant in that campaign. Both edges were lethal and well controlled by their respective halves and Fullback Brett Stewart was a damaging ball runner who could get on the outside of his man on either edge to create opportunities for the men outside him.The Cowboys set up works brilliantly as well. Thurston is the go-to man and everything works off of him. He is well supported by Michael Morgan who is a great runner and defender and can support the playmaking duties when Thurston is otherwise unavailable to do them. So too Fullback Lachlan Coote.
So how does this relate to our Eels halves? Well, we’re moving in the direction of one of these set ups and I’m sure you can already see which one it is that we lean towards, but before I reveal just what that is, let’s have a look at our halves options for 2017.
2016 started so brightly for Corey Norman. He lead the Eels to victory at the 9s and was a strong contender to win the Daly M Medal for player of the year, right until personal scandal ended his season prematurely. He comes back to the field this year with a renewed hunger and vigour, knowing what could have been last year.
Norman brings so much to the table as a playmaker and in my mind isn’t too far away from being considered one of the most elite in the competition.
With light feet and the ability to break tackles easily, many mistake Norman for simply being a runner. In fact many rugby league fans who only see glimpses of Eels games label him as a traditional Five-Eighth. While that may be the case in some regards, he is also a Primary Half.
With a fantastic passing game and a kicking game that continuous to improve every match of First Grade he plays, Norman has become quite used to being the chief playmaker and controller of the Eels attacking sets. His combination with his fringe runners either side of the ruck have made him a truly attacking threat whatever side of the field he graces.
Additionally, he is a very sound defender who holds his own in the line. Using his bigger body to great effect in the tackle.
A lot of pressure will be on Corey this year to be the Eels orchestrator, but that is what he is being paid to do and a role that he revels in, mostly in the kicking department as he is the only recognised long range kicker in the Eels squad. That being said, I believe he can take his game to new heights this season and leap frog a few other opponents in the successor line to a Queensland Origin half position in the years to come.
Corey Norman is critical to the Eels 2017 campaign and if he can stay on the field the whole season, we will be playing finals football.
Strengths: Creative ability, controls the game, plays the numbers well, pass selection, evasive runner, kicking game.
Areas of Development: Previous off-field indiscretions, combinations with halves partner.
Highlights: View here
This is an all round 2016 Norman highlights package. Check out the breath-taking soft hands at 2:07 for Jennings to score off a great line and overall, just how well he creates the overlap and his pass selection. Such brilliant and slick rugby league.
If there was a silver lining to emerge from Corey Norman finishing 2016 on the sidelines, it was Clint Gutherson. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow when he was thrust into the number 6 jersey at the backend of last year. However what came to light to the Eels supporter base was a naturally gifted footballer, who may at times might look somewhat unorthodox, but is tremendously effective. Gutherson played a key role in our end of season form when many experts had already put the red line through us and expected us to fold.
An incredible competitor with a great ability to break a tackle, Gutherson may not be a conventional half, but his development over the course of 2016 and the off-season has given plenty of Eels supporters reason to be optimistic about his full-time shift into the role.
A subtle passing game and an ever improving short kicking game showed that Gutherson has a neat bag of tricks to bring to the table. While it will be seen by many as a gamble by Brad Arthur not to go to market for another half following the departure of Kieran Foran, the decision to stick with Gutherson shows great faith from the man in charge of the Blue & Gold and is reward for a player that continuously does all the little things right.
The strongest performer over the course of off-season testing, Gutherson’s aerobic capacity means he will always be in the game and as the Club’s top one-on-one tackler in 2016, proved himself to be an ultra reliable defender.
The biggest question mark of the Gutherson move will come down to his ability to manage the kicking duties when Corey Norman isn’t available on a kicking play, as well as the goal kicking duties. If he can grow this fact of this game and can improve on the platform that he laid in 2016, there’s no doubt the Eels will fly up the table with considerable ease. It’s a big if in the eyes of many league experts, but for those of us in the golden west who have seen Gutherson evolve over pre-season, we have the upmost faith.
Strengths: Links well with outside men, subtle passing game, strong defender
Areas of Development: Long range kicking game, combinations with halves partner.
Highlights: View here
Those of you who forgot what Gutherson can do in the halves need only look at the following video and highlights from our narrow loss to the Panthers, and victories over the Dragons and Warriors last year, the kid has some tricks in his bag.
If you’re managing the salary cap of any NRL team, is there a player you get better value from as a backup half than Jeff Robson?
With 175 NRL games to his name Robson comes with a wealth of experience and plays the secondary half role perfectly. Add to that his brilliant defence on the fringes and there’s no wonder why coaches love to have Jeff on their roster. He brings a genuine First Grade half option, without the half price tag. You always get more back than what you pay for with Jeff.
Consider that this is a man who wore the number 7 jersey for the Eels in the electrifying 2009 Grand Final campaign, and did the same across many Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks finals series as well, and you see that you have a very experienced head that knows how to play his role.
Jeff has never really been given the love he deserves over the course of his career, and personally at one point had he been converted to a hooker, I think he would have been one of the most in demand number 9s on the market. That being said, he has always been a fantastic support act to teams that operate with a primary half setup.
Should the Gutherson plan not unfold as desired, Eels fans can be rest assured that Robson can fill in at a pinch and the Eels will lose nothing for it. He plays direct and cops the knocks other halves aren’t willing to endure, knows how to find his outside men and chimes in with a neat short kicking game, while providing the occasional long kicking relief for a primary half. He really is the perfect contingency plan for Brad Arthur.
For the time being however, he has signed on with the knowledge that he will be playing a role with our lower grades to help develop the players coming up the ranks and it’s great that Jeff can be involved with the Club in this capacity. Should he be called upon for First Grade duties again, we all know he can get the job done.
It’s a pleasure to have you back with us Jeff.
Strengths: Plays direct, can contribute to all secondary half duties, brilliant defender.
Areas of Development: Assuming Primary Half responsibilities when the Primary Half isn’t available.
Highlights: View here
We all know what Jeff can do, so I thought I’d re-live this great try he scored in the epic Eels-Tigers clash of 2009 on our run to the Grand Final. Enjoy the passage of play and try scored by Jeff at 13:56.
If you’re familiar with our U/20s side than you know who Troy Dargan is. Similarly, if you went to the Eels-Panthers trial last week, you’ll have gained a glimpse into what he is about.
A very naturally gifted half with a bag of silky skills likened to former Eels number 7, Tim Smith, Dargan has the potential to grow into a long-term half option for the Blue and Gold.
Finesse is the word that comes to mind with some of the plays he’s produced, with passes and kicks that would make any highlight reel, but it’s his temperament and defence that will determine whether he makes the transition into NRL over time.
Having trained with the First Grade squad over the pre-season, being named in the Auckland 9s squad and subsequently playing in the halves across both NRL trials, Dargan has proven that he may be a genuine option in the NRL at some point in 2017.
If he can continue to develop at the rapid pace he has over the course of the pre-season and build on the excellent form he displayed across the 2016 U20s Halfback of the year could find himself the latest Eels star.
Strengths: Great passing game, sound kicking game, wants the ball in his hand with game on the line.
Areas of Development: One-on-one defence, occasional erratic decision making.
Highlights: View here
Check out the match highlights from the Eels-Titans trial from a couple of weeks ago, Dargan played a pivotal role in our point-scoring plays. The best, a great cut out pass at 1:02.
After amassing an incredible 222 points in the Queensland Cup last year, former Burleigh Bears Captain Jamal Fogarty arrives at the Eels a QRL premiership winner and keen to establish himself as an NRL player.
Gifted with great pace and a very sleek set of hands, Jamal caught the attention of many NRL clubs before agreeing to terms with the Eels. Pre-season testing has shown proven to be very fit and earned him a spot in the Auckland 9s squad where he performed strongly on day one of the competition.
A great goal kicker, Fogarty established himself as one of the premier halves in the second-tier competition last year with his running game regularly tearing opposition teams apart, but it’s the development of his defence that will determine whether he becomes an NRL player or not.
Standing at 177cm and 76kg means Fogarty is one of the smaller players in the competition and this could stand in the way of his progression into the top grade. That being said however, his relative strength is incredible and when you stand next to him, you certainly wouldn’t think he measures to this weight. Pound for pound he is very strong.
Fogarty looks likely to start the year with Wentworthville, however if he can produce some strong form, there’ll be no reason he won’t come under consideration for NRL selection, be it starting or from the bench.
Strengths: Electric running game, strong passing game, goal kicking.
Areas of Development: Size, defence.
Highlights: View here
This highlights package mainly has Fogarty playing from Fullback, but there’s plenty of half play woven in there. Check out the pass he delivers at 0:30, beautiful!
So there you have it Eels fans, a number of options available across the halves positions for 2017. With a borderline Origin half, a developing half that showed great form over the back end of 2016, a seasoned campaigner, the U/20s Halfback of the year and the Queensland Cup Halfback of the year, we’re not as short on options as the experts may have you believe. Who makes your team and why?
All images courtesy of the Parramatta Eels, NRL.com and Getty Images.