By STEVE MASCORD
IMAGINE playing 139 minutes of NRL and not throwing a single pass.
We still like to think of passing the football as the key skill in our game. That’s what we do. We run up and down the field and we pass the football in such a way as to evade the numerically equal opposition, placing it on the ground as to accrue points.
But is that really, in 2015, what our game is?
American football derived, very slowly, from rugby union. In rugby union, the same 15 players run, pass, ruck and tackle. Once upon a time, they probably all kicked as well.
Yet in American football, only a small number of players pass the ball. Only a small number of them catch. Some never even see a football from a closer vantage point than the sideline or a huddle.
As rugby league becomes more professional and coaches search for an edge, we have seen the roles of players in different positions change. Interestingly, while American Football evolved towards greater specialisation, it could be argued that our game has actually gone in the opposite direction.
A poster on the League Unlimited site in 2011 made the point: “…in the eighties …
props were big and slow, second rowers might’ve been leaner and a little bit quicker, but both were generally used as battering rams up the middle.
“The halfback almost always (was) the first receiver … the five-eighth would generally be the second receiver in a backline play and would be similar to a third centre. The centres themselves were classified as inside and outside.”
These days props, second rowers and centres look the same and play similar roles, while the halves can also be interchangeable. Players are more easily defined by the side of the field on which they play than by the old nomenclature.
So if everyone is now big and fast, should everyone not also have ball skills and use them? If you can’t imagine playing 139 minutes of NRL without passing the ball, let’s get you some help.
That is, help from someone who has.
“Not really, but I can’t change it,” says Canberra forward Mark Nicholls when I ask him if he is proud to have topped a poll we commissioned from NRL stats – of the most minutes played without throwing a pass.
“When I did throw one, I put Toots (captain Jarrod Croker) over for a try. So let’s just say I’ve got a good strike rate.”
The only other player with more than 100 minutes of game time without a pass was North Queensland’s Kalepi Tanginoa. But what does it mean? Is it a poor reflection on the modern game and an indictment against current-era coaching?
Nicholls, a utility forward from Leeton who comes across as a rather thoughtful chap, agues not. Coach Ricky Stuart at no point instructed him to conceal the Steeden upon his person.
“I hadn’t played first grade in two and a half years,” he explains. “When I got my chance again, I didn’t want to blow it.
“Any young fella would take a while to get the confidence to throw a few passes. For me, when you finally get another crack, you don’t want to give the coach a reason to drop you. You just want to run hard and keep the ball safe.
“It’s funny, because in NSW Cup I consider myself as someone with some ball skills. Not just a battering ram. But it took me a few games to feel like that in first grade.
“For a few weeks there, I felt like I was playing up a grade, if you know what I mean. It’s a shame I got injured because after the Souths and Titans games, I was starting to feel comfortable at that level.”
Just as players get more confident in using the ball, according to 25-year-old Nicholls, so do teams. It’s not your imagination – NRL sides are more adventurous now than they were in the opening rounds.
“At the start of the year, the coaches have their structures and things are kind of driven by statistics and by completions,” he says.
“Then, as the year goes on, teams look at each other on video and they see things that they might be able to exploit. That’s when team start trying things.
“At Canberra we actually use the ball a fair bit in the forwards. That’s why we’re one of the better attacking teams to watch.”
As well as asking NRL Stats who had played longest without throwing a pass, RLW also asked them to list those who had thrown the fewest passes per minute played.
Now, bear in mind that NRL Stats consider a “pass” and an “offload” to be two different things.
Basically, a pass is before the attacker has made contact with the defensive line and an offload is afterwards, creating second phase play. So, full disclosure there – some of the results may be skewed by that distinction.
Tiger Brendan Santi has thrown the fewest passes per minute played, at a rate if 0.0038 passes per minute. By comparison, Sydney Roosters’ Jake Friend throws 1.55 per minute.
At South Sydney, George Burgess has thrown only four passes in 870 minutes of football.
“I don’t want us getting to the situation we have in the NFL, where some players don’t touch the ball for their entire career,” said Sterling.
“Sure, the position you play on the football field is going to a certain degree of specialisation. We know you are responsible for different things on different parts of the field.
“But just because you have a role to play shouldn’t nullify the continuing development of your skills.”
Now, if only Pete had got into coaching….
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK