Specialist centres being driven to extinction at representative level as Kangaroos continue trend

THE specialist rugby league centre in Australia is dead — no more, extinct, eradicated, obliterated — gone the way of the dodo.

It seems that in the current form of the modern game there’s no place for what was once the position of choice for legends like Dave Brown, Reg Gasnier, Steve Rogers and Mal Meninga.

NRL coaches in 2017 are more than happy to squeeze as many into their backline as possible — the rest they can work out later.

Australian mentor Mal Meninga has selected regular Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic and Melbourne Storm utility Cameron Munster in the centres for this weekend’s World Cup clash against Lebanon.

Just last weekend against France, Trbojevic played wing and Munster slotted into the halves after the late withdrawal of James Maloney.

Four years ago NRL fullbacks Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne were the centre pairing for the Kangaroos in the 2013 World Cup Final.

That’s in comparison with the 1994 Kangaroos on their tour of Great Britain and France where selectors picked specialists Paul McGregor, Andrew Ettingshausen, Terry Hill, Steve Renouf and Meninga. Only once on that tour did someone apart from those five players actually get a run in the centres and that was North Sydney five-eigth Greg Florimo.

In this year’s State of Origin series, only one specialist centre played all three matches for either state.

Josh Dugan and Hayne were picked in all three games for New South Wales while Justin O’Neill, Darius Boyd (fullback) and Cameron Munster (utility) partnered Chambers for Queensland.

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Will Chambers is the only specialist centre in the Kangaroos’ squad.
Will Chambers is the only specialist centre in the Kangaroos’ squad.Source: Getty Images

The specialist NRL centre has been usurped by the sheer weight of gun fullbacks the game is producing. In fact, five regular NRL fullbacks (six if Boyd was fit) were selected in Meninga’s World Cup squad.

“I’m one of the true blue centres but it is a shame to be honest,” Renouf recently told NRL.com.

“I got offered the chance to play fullback back in my day but I bluntly said no to Wayne [Bennett] that I didn’t want to be fullback so I hung in there.

“It is a very specific position and teams find other teams out.

“If you’re not a true centre and you haven’t played most of your time there, defensively you can get caught out very easily.

“You don’t have the beauty of having that tight pack a bit closer in. You’re out there and you’re calling the shots with just you and your winger.”

The reason for the continued rise of the fullback is because it has become the new five-eigth and the fullback plays a far more important role in the offensive tactics of a team. The more fullbacks evolve and the more we produce, the quicker specialised centres die out at representative level.

Gone are the days of a deep shift and seeing Mark McGaw and Ettingshausen flying onto the ball — combining on the same side of the field. The same too for tearaway Queenslanders Chris Close and Gene Miles, who could run over the top of you just as easily as hitting a crisp line back against the grain.

Once upon a time, centres were the centrepiece of a side’s attack. The bullet in the chamber. The flash in the pan.

Today a centre is merely another pawn chained to his “corridor” while fullbacks, hookers and halfbacks roam the field.

Canberra skipper Jarrod Croker is already a Raiders legend and on his way to the all-time points scoring record yet he will probably never win a Blues or Australian jersey.

James Roberts crossed for 18 tries for Brisbane this year but was an afterthought to Blues selectors.

Fullback Josh Dugan has found a home in the Kangaroos’ centres.
Fullback Josh Dugan has found a home in the Kangaroos’ centres.Source: AAP

The centre in representative rugby league has become an afterthought.

Those that play there now are merely doing so because they’re naturally good enough to be in the team but not good enough to dethrone the incumbent number one.

Little wonder Dugan tossed his toys out of the cot when the Dragons tried to pay him as a centre.

We should also thank our lucky stars someone like Matthew Gidley didn’t play today.

We never would have seen those silky hands setting up tries for Timana Tahu, Wendell Sailor and company. He simply never would have got a look-in. All the good ball would be flooding through the middle of the ruck.

The Australians can get away with it.

They have so much talent across the park that it doesn’t really matter who they play in the centres.

But it also opens up opportunities for other nations — particularly at this World Cup.

Michael Jennings is getting early ball at Tonga while the Samoans are smart enough to let Joey Leilua run his own race.

Centres are the new personality players of the international game — even if the Kangaroos refuse to partake.

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