Two Thursday’s ago, with a match against Brisbane in the balance, teenage Wests Tigers forward Thomas Mikaele found himself with the ball on the last tackle, with seemingly few options. Twenty metres out from the line centre-field, he looked up, faced a row of Broncos, and grubbered through before giving chase. For a moment it looked like he might sensationally regather and score, but the ball was recovered by the defence in the nick of time.
Something ventured, nothing gained. He may have copped a few quizzical looks from him team-mates, too.
In fact, so innocuous was the play, and so unremarkable its result, it hasn’t turned up in any highlights packages since. But Paul Vautin, commentating on the match for Channel Nine, saw something worth remarking on.
“Now there’s some football,” he said, before going on explain the modern rarity of witnessing a young forward with the enterprise to innovate – on instinct – when faced with an attacking opportunity. Mikaele may not have scored, but Vautin appreciated his inventiveness.
Vautin then contrasted his excitement for that play with his exacerbation with the primary method League teams use for attacking moves: the “block play”. This play, which sees the ball sent “behind” so-called decoy players (decoy is a generous term; it is more an exercise in subtle obstruction), has come to symbolise robotic attacking structures that are proving ever more painful to watch.
When close to the line, like clockwork, teams will aim a runner toward the posts, allowing them the option to spread left or right, depending on the first-receiver’s preference. The ball will then travel to one side, defenders will make a “read”, before any try is invariably examined for obstruction.
It’s a highly efficient play, and wouldn’t be so popular were it not so, though it feels increasingly stale on the eye.
But things might be changing. The NRL has recognised the value of improvised football, and have tweaked some rules accordingly. Graeme Annesley, Head of Football Operations, has been instrumental. While “the wrestle” is still relevant there appears to be less emphasis on it, and games are flowing that little bit more.
It’s why some conversation this week has turned to celebrating a new generation of creative halves in the game – guys who seem to play with freedom “outside the structure”. Two of them – Cameron Munster and Luke Keary – will do battle tonight in Melbourne. Keary in particular has taken his game to a new level, so much so that many believe he deserves a blue jersey in six weeks time.
There is so much upside to the former Bunny, now Rooster. He is a dual Grand Final winner, is learning from Cooper Cronk, and is forging a frightening club combination with other NSW incumbents, James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell. Moreover, with Annesley’s influence rewarding improvised play just a fraction more, Keary is blossoming. One need only witness his kick to Latrell Mitchell against the Sharks last week as a case in point.
In contrast, the current NSW halves – Nathan Cleary and James Maloney – are restricted within a Panthers structure yielding little success so far. As Matt Johns pointed out on the eponymous Matty Johns Podcast, both players might need to “fire a few shots” soon, for sake of their club and state.
On the same show, the panel made a similar complaint about the block play to Vautin, but went a step further. In the 2019 season, they said, the block play is increasingly easy to read, slows team’ attack down too much, thus hampering teams’ ability to find ‘front foot ball’ out of dummy half.
This is all music to the ears of a 90s rugby league enthusiast, who was lucky enough to grow up watching footballers playing under structured more democratic than authoritarian. Teams were organised, but – as Matt Johns said this week – if they sensed something was “on”, they were free to pursue it. It resulted in some fantastic footy, and success was afforded less on size than skill.
Of course, players today are exceptionally skilful, which is all the more reason we should welcome any shift away from structure. If it results in moments like Keary’s, or even Mikaele’s, the game is going to be a far better spectacle. If we let the wild horses run free, we may even get to see 90s-esque tries this.