The Australian Rugby League Commission naming a Kangaroos merit team yesterday seemed to confirm the current trend of the position of centre having become an afterthought.
Selected at three and four were Dane Gagai and Jack Wighton – the latter being a fullback who has switched to five-eighth, while the former may want to be considered an out-and-out centre but his own club coach told him just last year, “I’ve told him I can’t play him in the centres and if he really wants to play in the centres, then he can go at the end of the season.”
This followed on from Origin, where the Blues had Wighton and fulltime fullback Clint Gutherson in the centres – and even Isaah Yeo, although that was an injury-enforced plan on the hop in Game 3 – while Queensland went with Gagai and back-rower Kurt Capewell, with Brenko Lee coming in for Game 3.
— NRL (@NRL) December 14, 2020
Thus we end up with what I’m calling ‘most of one centre’ in the Kangaroos merit team – I’m not saying he’s not a centre, just that Gagai isn’t not a winger either – in what is the only case of players being selected out of position across the entire 17.
Admittedly the team is picked based on merit, not to actually take on the Kiwis or Poms, but it’s still indicative of how the game is treating the position of centre at the moment.
It’s taken over from winger as the position that may be mistaken for being so easy that anyone can do it.
Anyone who’s ever chucked a Steeden around with mates at the park knows that the easiest place to hide is on the wing. But this is no longer the case in the NRL.
Wingers need to be big and robust enough to take the tough carries out of their own end early in the set, yet skilful enough to score the freakiest of tries at the other end. It has become one of the hardest spots on the field to nail down and you can’t just stick anyone there.
But apparently we still need a spot on a team sheet where players who are too good not to be named can be accommodated. It’s just that now we name them at centre.
The really odd part about that line of thinking is that wingers seemingly haven’t twigged to it. Gagai considers himself a centre rather than a winger and was seemingly ready to leave Souths to prove it, while Nick Cotric has made the move from Canberra to Canterbury specifically because the Dogs promised him he could also make the move from wing to centre.
It’s the position wingers want to play. It’s the position my Dad told me I should want to play when I started playing footy as a nine-year-old. It’s the position Reg Gasnier played!
How has it become regarded as a square hole to be filled with round pegs?
Of course, this is a debate in sport the world over – whether the art of selection is about putting players in their specific positions, or whether it’s better to just pick the best players available and make it work.
I can see both sides of the argument, as I suspect most of us can – you need only look at this year’s Origin series.
Capewell was an absolute revelation at centre for Queensland, particularly in Game 1. As a result, in the weeks following the Maroons’ win, Wayne Bennett has once again reclaimed his throne as the greatest coach in rugby league history.
Meanwhile, with Wighton and Gutherson picked out of position at centre for the Blues, people are wondering whether Brad Fittler just got lucky with the two previous series wins he’d managed.
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Where’s the respect for the position of centre, Freddy? Didn’t you make your name as one? Why wouldn’t you go with specialists?
Perhaps the answer to those questions can be found in the make-up for Fittler’s teams in 2019. NSW lost Game 1 with a centre pairing of Latrell Mitchell and Josh Morris – two of the finest specialist centres in the game at the time – so for Game 2, Fittler switched them out for two fullbacks in Wighton and Tom Trbojevic, and took out the series 2-1.
Obviously a lot went into winning – and losing – these series but the issue of who played at centre has been a huge part of the narrative for the last two years.
And with young centres the calibre of Stephen Crichton, Kotoni Staggs, Bradman Best, Moses Suli and Zac Lomax – to say nothing of Joey Manu, who is the best in the world at the position, he just happens to be a Kiwi – all in the early stages of their careers, maybe specialists will be back in vogue for the coming decade.
But at the moment, centres are getting treated like the poor man’s winger. Who’d have thought we’d ever see the day!