Looking at the Dally M Award over the course of the NRL since 1998, it’s tempting to think there are only four positions on the field that are considered worthy: Fullback, Five Eighth, Half Back and Hooker. The rest are, well, making up the numbers. Is this fair? I would argue that the preoccupation with these positions detracts from the award itself, and that a better system would recognise contributions from players in other positions.
Of the 15 winners over this 16-year period (2003 was not awarded), Half Back has taken the lion’s share of the spoils with 8 wins (53%), Fullback has taken 3 awards (20%), while Five Eighth and Hooker have 2 victories each (or 13%). All other positions amount to a big, round donut.
These four positions are what the rugby league community now refers to with hushed reverence as the ‘spine’ of the team, a subset of the team that, together, touch the ball disproportionately more often than the rest of the team. The idea is that if you populate these positions, with talented, creative athletes who are tough, yet well poised, you are on the way to success. Implicitly, all you then need is a group of willing workhorses to make up the numbers and follow instructions, but who are really quite replaceable. Really?
Certainly, the Melbourne Storm is famous for their ‘Big 3’ in Slater, Cronk and Smith (closely followed by Gareth Widdup). 2013 Grand Finalists Manly would have been lost without Brett Stewart, Matt Ballin, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. In fact, just about all other teams would be found wanting without their ‘team within a team’.
Interestingly, 2013 Premiers, the Sydney Roosters, boasted the least heralded spine of all the contenders. They had (and still have) an aging, formerly brilliant, yet still uber-reliable Fullback, who did not sweep into the line in attack in the same fashion as his younger, modern contemporaries. They had a capable, but much-maligned Half Back who never seemed to take the game by the scruff of the neck as his potential suggested he might, yet was ferocious in defence. Their Five Eighth was a stand-out thoroughbred footballer and point-scorer who tossed a cut-out pass with the same aplomb as he tossed his, er … BBQ. And the Hooker was the single-most underrated player in the game – by most – until they were whacked in the head by his consistent brilliance.
Clearly, the spine matters – a lot – but it isn’t the be all and end all as the Premiers showed, and teams and fans are quite incorrect to equate their spine ‘one-for-one’ with success. Other positions matter, in other words, and in some teams more than others. The Clive Churchill Medallists almost prove this idea given the variation away from the spine. Since the Award’s inception in 1986, 39% of Medals have been won away from the spine, which I think is a far better reflection of the playing talent, but which still is well at odds with the Dally M, which sports a 12.5% success rate since 1980.
The dominance of the spine was a less (even non-) appreciated concept in the 1980s, which is more than likely an indication of how much the game has changed since the days of broken field and ad lib footy, and the famous ‘roving commission’ given to the smaller men in the game (which used to be wingers!). During the 1980s, the Dally M was won by Locks and Second-Rowers twice apiece, but which was also the last time they were even in contention.
The 1990s were more of a bridging period between the two eras, and heralded the emergence of a growing professionalism and on-field strategic direction, and the elevation of the spine as the more equal amongst equals, to butcher an idea from Animal Farm.
Increasingly less was left to chance, and each position was given a well-defined role, to the point of confining them to a particular side of the field, and even further restrictive enough as running in ‘channels’ within that area. They had become the tools with which the spine worked their magic, rather than the source of the magic. Once again, the Storm comes to mind, where a phalanx of Storm ‘troopers’ emerged from a production line of super-athletes to do their masters’ bidding.
Because spine players are responsible for a team’s direction, for its kicking game and on-field leadership, it’s natural they will be more visible than, say, a Prop or Second-Rower, who are more responsible for the gruntwork of establishing field position, and solidifying the middle of the field with 40 or 50 tackles per match.
Centres and Wingers are not credited as consistently for scoring tries and making line breaks as Half Backs and Five Eighths are for passing the ball to them in the first place, or providing the kick that leads to a try. Optics seem to play a very large role in the voting process for this award.
This highlights a massive problem in the way the Medallist is chosen, and it cannot be a coincidence that the voting panel of former players is made up of former ‘spine’ players. I would prefer a selection of representatives of all positions to be present on the panel so that there is at least some sort of objectivity.
It’s undeniable that the spine is an important part of a team. Putting team mates through gaps and executing pinpoint-accurate kicks are skills to be admired. But there is also a case to be made that this is their job description. Halves and Hookers will touch, hold, kick and pass more than other players, while the modern Full Back is a running machine – not solely as a kick-returner in the way Gary Belcher made famous, but as an integral part of the sweeping set plays so common in the modern game.
Each role within the spine has a specific set of functions, as do the other positions on the field. Merely executing that role, even if (or just because) it is highly visible, should not be the basis for snagging the two or three points from the judging panel each game. This leads to the sort of decisions that don’t even begin to recognise a player of the calibre of Sonny Bill Williams (as a notable example), but who the International Federation finds themselves moved to announce as their Player of the Year.
My proposal is that the points would be more fairly awarded to a player for playing above their station, or job description. A Half Back merely kicking for a leaping winger that results in a try or two, or earning a repeat set or two from grubber kicks, are arguably ‘standard’ (though not to the judging committee as it stands). However, adding a couple of both line breaks and try assists would definitely fall within the realm of excelling over and beyond expectation.
A Lock making 30-odd tackles also seems relatively standard in the modern game, but adding offloads that result in tries plus other notable contributions in their ‘attacking game’ should really see them recognised more regularly.
This might be a little controversial, but I see each position as having a set value even before they run onto the field. What they then do over and above that is the metric by which Dally M points should be awarded, in my opinion. It is simply not right that non-spine players are so serially disregarded.