For better or worse, for rugby league 2009 was the year of the fullback. The season was nearly killed and then brought back from the brink by a quartet of them. Together they illustrate the game’s greatest weaknesses and its highest aspirations; its most profound existential threats, and the reasons it refuses to die.
Fullbacks wear the No.1 jersey in our sport, which is fitting given their duties. In attack, they must create something from nothing. They can come into the attacking line to create overlaps and options that the other side can’t cover. But they create more excitement for the spectator, perhaps, in what they achieve at the back. They do that in counterattack, by catching the ball off an opposition kick, evading the wall of chasers, and then running the right line through a momentarily wrong-footed opposition. And they do it also in defence: they are the last line — a big job for men who are generally small. They need not only to be dependable under those high kicks, menaced all the while by the fastest, strongest defenders, but week-in, week-out, they must disprove the oldest coaching maxims: that a good little bloke will always be beaten by a good big bloke, and that one man can’t tackle two.
Altogether, the best rugby league fullbacks must embody both reassurance and inspiration. Those who do become talismans for their teams. Either way, the virtues and weaknesses of a fullback often come to mark the side. This year, Newcastle and Kurt Gidley have been equally possessed of a deathless, haunted persistence, and have showed that limitless heart and effort can still fall short. Matt Bowen and the Cowboys were electrifying in their improvisations when they turned up, but he and they only did so in a fitful fashion.
The sword of the fullback’s influence has two edges. Before the season had even started, one fullback — Manly’s Brett Stewart — showed that despite his manifest talents on the field, his was a very unsafe pair of hands off it. Though he had played such a significant role in Manly’s 2008 premiership, and even though he was being promoted as the face of the game, at Manly’s season launch Stewart made choices that resulted in his becoming a byword for, at best, hubris, arrogance and irresponsibility.
It’s difficult here to canvas issues that are still before the courts, but at the very least, Stewart allowed himself to become drunk on the job, and further, to interact with the public in that state. In one fell swoop, Stewart erased any goodwill that he, his team and the game had earned in the previous season. The Manly fans who rushed to defend him, and especially those who chose to try to defame the alleged victim of Stewart’s big night only served to make things worse. Manly and its fullback had been backed over an out-of-town team in the 2008 grand final by reluctant Sydneysiders, but at that point many regretted their decision.
Rugby league sagged for a time under the weight of Stewart’s actions, and revelations of other, earlier incidents that showed some players had an appalling, and allegedly criminal approach to women and sex. Non-fans were outraged; alongside that emotion, fans contended with heartbreak. That feeling will have returned for some at the news that another fullback, the Broncos’ Karmichael Hunt, himself the subject of accusations of sexual assault in 2008, was defecting to, of all codes, AFL. While many were accustomed or resigned to the procession of NRL players to the greener, more lucrative fields of European or Japanese rugby union, to many this defection to rugby league’s most intimate enemy seemed the final insult — a special kind of betrayal. Unworthy fullbacks seemed to be dragging the game towards oblivion.
Then, the season was redeemed by a couple who seemed to embody, in different ways, a far more worthy set of aspirations. By the time Jarryd Hayne of Parramatta and Billy Slater of the Melbourne Storm met as opposite numbers in last Sunday’s grand final, rugby league had, incredibly, attracted its biggest crowds since the mid-1990s Super League split, renewed itself completely in its heartlands in Sydney’s West and South, and revealed itself — through the tightness of the contest it offered — as the toughest, most competitive professional sporting competition in the world.
NRL is almost unique among top level sports anywhere for the fact that up until the last weeks of the season most teams’ fans had reason to nurse their hopes of winning the competition, and almost all teams had at some point been in the top eight. But in one of the most remarkable runs of form seen in the game, Hayne led the Eels’ come-from-behind charge into the grand final. The Eels were third last as late as round 18 at the end of July, but they only lost one round game after that, and won every do-or-die finals match to enter the grand final from eighth. Through it all, Hayne dazzled with footwork, fortitude, a gambler’s spirit, and a breathtaking turn of speed. He displayed the rarest and most remarkable of abilities: the capacity to individually determine a game’s outcome.
Despite the contributions from an outstanding bunch of teammates — in particular forwards like Fuifui Moimoi, Nathan Cayless and Nathan Hindmarsh — Parramatta’s late momentum could largely be put down to Hayne. As the wins kept coming, the nation learned that Hayne — who had been shot at in Kings’ Cross after a big night in the 2008 pre-season, who was a Minto boy — had recently found God, and was attending the Hillsong Church. If nothing else this offered proof, if it were needed, that NRL players don’t come from a single mould. The preliminary final against the Bulldogs, which marked the retirement of the game’s great gentleman Hazem El Masri (himself an occasional fullback, and the hero of a new legion of fans), was surely the most extraordinary match in a season that could offer two or three entries to the 10 best ever played.
The fullback for the team who stopped the "Hayne Train" last Sunday is a different proposition. Queenslander Billy Slater is no less exciting than Hayne, but that’s less because he gambles than because he plays the modern fullback’s game better than anybody else, better even than the textbook prescribes. Every time he runs a kick return, Slater presents a challenge to the best defences with his capacity to read them, his sheer pace, and his elusiveness, but unlike Hayne he doesn’t rely on a preternatural stepping game. Like his team’s, Slater’s play is exciting in the precision of its execution. Slater’s self-possession in interviews matches his style as well as Hayne’s insouciance matches his.
This year, in the Storm’s preliminary final, Slater brought up his 100th try in the NRL since debuting in 2003. He’s still only 26, with a long way to go in a 5’10" body that, unlike fellow Queenslander Matt Bowen’s, seems impervious to injury. He’s nothing if not modest: his performance on Sunday earned him the Clive Churchill Medal for the man of the match in the grand final (named after South Sydney’s greatest fullback), but he insisted in his speech that his teammate Cooper Cronk deserved it more. There’s every reason to think he and his team will have more of these to share around.
By the end of Sunday’s game, thanks to players like Hayne and Slater, the NRL’s darkest hour seemed to have given way to the beginnings of a golden age. With the old Sydney teams back in contention, with the sight of Parramatta — now at Sydney’s geographical heart — filling the stadium with all its diversity, with a State of Origin series completed that displayed the greatest Queensland backline at least since the days of Langer, Lewis, Miles and Meninga, and perhaps ever, rugby league seemed in rude health. (The icing on the cake was that the league grand final out-rated the AFL’s by some margin.)
News this morning that the NRL is openly considering resolving its complicated governance with an independent commission should be welcome (even if one blanches at the Daily Telegraph‘s revelation that John Howard is being considered as its chair). It offers a chance of useful steps to solve the problem of player behaviour by taking the responsibility for player discipline away from the clubs they play for. Some may be a little nostalgic for the reign of the old governing bodies, which grew out of community-based efforts, but the quid pro quo appears to be the exit of News Limited from the game’s governance. In any case, these are more positive signs of change.
Meanwhile on the field, with the fullbacks in charge, the qualities the game has always been noted for — strength, power, speed and athleticism — are united again in their beauty. And with Sydney’s heart beating in time with that of the one-team towns, the future looks bright.
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