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Flick on the television during Friday Night Football and you?ll hear it. Tune into Fox?s weekend coverage of the NRL and unless Laurie Daley further mangles the English language, you?ll probably hear it there too. You can?t escape it.
Athlete. One word, used over and over again to describe our modern-day gladiators. In the days of professional rugby league, you?re either at peak fitness or you don?t make it. It?s all about beep tests, bench presses, making sure that body is honed to near perfection ? to guarantee that next pay packet.
Somewhere in all this rugby league has lost its personality. Gone are the days when the game was played by honest men who worked a trade, trained at night and the cool-down session after the game was a few KB?s. Indeed many of the game?s lingering personalities ??Dallas? Donnelly, Tommy Raudonikis, even the fictitious ?Reg Reagan? come from a bygone era. These days all we have are athletes ? or are they?.
Ricky Stuart stated in a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph that the men who play in the weekly grind of the NRL aren?t athletes ? they are footballers. ?They cannot swim quickly, they are not runners ? they are footballers that require a different set of physical attributes.? This is especially true of the forwards who play in the NRL, as the job description is a tough one ? fit enough to play most of the match, strong enough to make an impact with the ball, tough enough to crunch in defence and fast enough to keep getting back the requisite ten metres. It is a tough ask ? and the very nature of the game?s evolution has forced our players into becoming the robots we see today.
Many factors have influenced the shape of rugby league as it currently stands, in turn shaping the men who play the game. Saturation of the media with all things league, especially through television, requires the game to be a spectacle. Plenty of points need to be on offer and above all the game has to be fast paced to keep our ever-decreasing attention spans fixed on the match. Intimidation and crunching defence is, sadly, an afterthought. Because of this, the days of low scorelines and defence-oriented matches are now things of the past. Similarly the men who made their mark as feared defenders, such as Les Boyd, no longer have a place in the modern game.
Secondly, the introduction of new rules into our game has re-shaped the roles that our players have, especially forwards. Keeping teams apart by introducing the ten-metre offside rule has opened up matches but it requires the big men of our game to be extremely athletic. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the days of man-mountains packing into the front row, complete with requisite beer belly, are long gone. Rather than tipping the scales at 120 kilograms (or more), like some of the big men of rugby union, the ?prototype? prop forward of the modern game has enough bulk about him to make an impact but lean enough to retain high agility ? Mark O?Meley being a prime example.
Finally, our own expectation of what forwards should contribute to the game has changed. With an emphasis on ball movement and second-phase play, ?linear? prop forwards are essentially useless. An ability to off-load is a must; a sidestep before the line is a pretty handy trait too. In my opinion, with the exception of the hooker, a forward pack consists of five players with predominantly the same role. The blurring of the roles of the lock, second-rowers and front-rowers has shifted the nature of the game dramatically.
So is it a good thing to see the homogenisation of our football teams? Is it too much to ask for our forwards to be 100 kilograms plus but with the pace of a back, ability to offload and step, last eighty minutes and not miss a tackle? I?m sure plenty of fans would love a pack of ?robots? with those attributes ? personally I?d be over the moon if a robot replaced Tyran Smith. However part of the beauty of rugby league is the personalities and the diversity of our players who all bring their own uniqueness to the game. Ricky Stuart may be right when he said ?they are not athletes but footballers? ? but we must be careful to protect the true concept of a rugby league footballer and the differing roles in our game.
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