Written by John Davidson
Rugby league might have entered a golden age of lock forwards.
For a while the sport had reverted to using the 13 position as a third starting prop. A big, bruising ‘middle’ who can add more pressure around the ruck.
Run the ball up, hit hard in defence, make their tackles, carry out a simple task. Paul Gallen filled this one-dimensional role at Cronulla. It helped win the centre of the field and dominate the yardage battle.
But now we have gone back in time, gone back to a period where locks were ball-players, passers and creators who can do it all. Now we have a plethora of 13s who can smash opponents, create for teammates and unlock opposition defences with the ball in their hands, all at the same time.
Victor Radley is one such example at the Roosters. He’s only 22 and in his fourth year of first-grade, but has already become an integral part of Trent Robinson’s side. The way he plays the ball at the line, essentially become a third halfback for the Roosters, is seemless.
He has silky hands, can put his teammates through holes and also intimidate in defence. Cam Murray is the same at Souths. He’s only six foot tall and 90 kilograms but packs a huge punch. Murray has an outstanding passing game that makes him a huge attacking threat.
Jake Trbojevic, one of Manly’s ‘big three’, is one of the most respected 13s going round. He directs the Sea Eagles around the field almost as much as Daly Cherry-Evans. He is like a halfback in a lock-forward’s body and has an exceptional tackling technique. Most consider the older Trbojevic as the complete player.
There’s a few getting around in Super League too. Jon Wilkin filled this role at St Helens, and is now with Toronto. Jack Hughes is a creative option at Warrington, while the ageless Sean O’Loughlin has done it year after year at Wigan.
Some NRL teams still play with a prop in the lock position, or with a player who is more of a mixture of the two. Melbourne’s Dale Finnucane can ball-play a bit, as can St George Illawarra’s Trent Merrin. But others still prefer a front-rower at the back of the scrum, like Corey Horsburgh at Canberra or Tim Gladsby at Newcastle. Not all have the luxury of a Radley or a Murray.
When clubs do happen to stumble upon a once in a generation Jason Taumalolo, it can change everything. A player with that brilliant blend of toughness, smarts, creativity and pure strength is worth its weight in gold.
Ball-playing locks were common and exciting elements in the past – Malcolm Reilly, Ron Coote, Johnny Raper, Ellery Hanley, Bradley Clyde, Paul Sculthurpe. But for a while they seem to go out of the sport, with the advent of the wrestle and the power game.
However, now we have seen the evolution of the position back to what it was once intended. Silky smooth players with brawns and brains. The kind of players, with footwork and creativity, who can are match-winners.
And boy it is great to have them back.