The result of Wednesday night’s match should settle one question that’s been confusing me for a while: Who wins rugby league matches?
When I was a kid, it was obvious. Bozo won matches. Or Artie Beetson. Or later, Brett Kenny. It didn’t matter what position they played, but it was the player of genius who was the match-winner. You could understand that. Footy cards helped.
In the 1980s and 1990s, after Warren Ryan reinvented the game, it seemed we’d been wrong and it was coaches who won matches. Tim Sheens at Canberra, Phil Gould at Canterbury and Penrith, Wayne Bennett at Brisbane; who cared who was on the field? It was the All-Seeing Eye in the coaching box who engineered outcomes.
As the game grew more sophisticated, what you heard most were two basic notions, over and over again. One was Forwards Win Matches. Every coach said it. Forwards Win Matches. It’s all decided in the engine room. When the freakish fullbacks accepted their man-of-the-match awards, they told us that the Forwards Won The Match or We Won It Up Front. Even if they didn’t believe it, they had to say it.
It’s hard not to accept that Forwards Win Matches. Forwards are very persuasive animals. But then there arose a competing idea: The Spine Wins Matches. The spine – 9, 7, 6 and 1 – or, as we traditionalists like it, hooker, halfback, five-eighth and fullback, make the play. They kick the ball into the corners or grubber it into the in-goal area. They orchestrate. They ignite counter-attacks on kick returns. Fullbacks, who used to play fullback, now lurk like funnel-web spiders in second-man plays or behind the ruck.
Evidence for the Spine Theory came forward during the Super League battle, when salaries became public knowledge and everybody discovered what they had long suspected, which was that the Spine was living on Bondi Beach and drinking fancy Champagne before (in the Super League years) the other players got to join them there. Ever since, the numbers 1, 6, 7 and 9 have been worth an extra zero on contracts.
The origin of the Spine Theory of success was, of course, Origin. Queensland’s success didn’t come from having great packs of forwards who Won It Up Front. Queensland forwards were the faceless men, anonymous tackling machines – Gary Larson, Trevor Gillmeister, Andrew Gee, Billy Moore, Dallas Johnson – whose sole commission was to make sure nothing happened. It didn’t matter who Queensland picked in the forwards, as long as they tackled themselves to a standstill and let the Spine – Wally Lewis, Allan Langer, Gary Belcher, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater – do its work.
Likewise, when NSW have succeeded in Origin, it has been through replicating the Queensland method (which, to be thorough, was also the method of the great Parramatta and Canberra teams of the 1980s). Whack a bunch of journeymen tacklers up front, neutralise the opposition there, and win series through the spark and genius of a Sterling, a Mortimer, a Daley, a Stuart, a Fittler or a Johns. There have been some handy 9s and 1s in there too, from Ben Elias and Danny Buderus to Garry Jack and Anthony Minichiello.
What makes this year’s Origin different, and gripping, is that we have two competing versions of the truth. The Queenslanders believe in their Spine. Smith and Cooper Cronk are the best tactical kickers in the game: their Melbourne club team is all spine. Thurston is the best creator in the league. And while they’ve lost Slater, they’ve moved Greg Inglis into the Spine, which is like replacing bone with titanium.
If the Spine Wins Games, Queensland are home. They are only level in the series because Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Slater are the best at manufacturing points even when their pack is being beaten. Up Front, the running of James Tamou, Paul Gallen, Greg Bird, Anthony Watmough and company has bent Queensland so far back their defensive line is carrying stress fractures. The dummy-half-running three-quarters have collectively outplayed their opposites. In all the tough stuff, NSW have been clearly superior. If you were picking an Australian team now, you’d give 1, 6, 7 and 9 to Queensland but the rest to NSW.
It shouldn’t have come to this. If Forwards Win Matches, NSW would have sealed the series. If the Spine Wins Matches, the Maroons would have. But we’re 1-1, with a game to play. So confusing, we don’t know which of the Commandments to believe.
Who’s the pressure on? The weaker parts, of course. My tip is that Smith, Cronk and Thurston will continue to control the game. And Gallen and his brawn squad will keep winning the wrestle and barge. Those are givens. The mysteries will decide it. The time has come for prodigal son Mitchell Pearce to deliver after three years of investment in him by the selectors. If he has a good game, if we’re saying at 10pm on Wednesday that Todd Carney, Robbie Farah and Brett Stewart have played like they do for their clubs, then the Blues will win. No question.
If we’re marvelling at Petero Civoniceva’s last stand and the resilience of the Queensland tackling machines, then it’s all Maroon.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.