The spine is a vital part of the human body. Without it a body can lose function and weakness at any point can have drastic consequences. 1,6,7 and 9 are four of the most important numbers on the footy field. When combined they can make or break a team. Some teams have individual stars at these positions and some teams become great through the combination of these four positions. These players are generally the most memorable, the most crucial, the most enterprising; they are the spine. As the NRL grand final approaches, I want to discuss some of the best spines in the game because the two spines that are in the Grand Final are two of the best.
This year we saw the emergence of some great potential and some great execution in the spines of teams.
-The Raiders have one of the most lethal in Wighton, Austin, Williams and Hodgson which will only get better with the addition of Aidan Sezer.
-The Panthers were struck hard by injury in 2015 but the combination of Moylan, Soward, Wallace and Segeyaro is daunting especially with young star Te Maire Martin joining the squad in 2016.
-The Warriors showed signs of greatness with the interchanging of Lolohea, Tomkins, Townsend, Johnson, Friend and Leuluia but were also hit by injury. The Warriors’ spine is set to be one of the most dangerous in 2016 with the additions of Fullback of the year Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Isaac Luke and Jeff Robson.
-The Dragons have a spine of brilliant individual players and would be a weapon on their best day but lacked cohesion for most of the season.
– The Roosters arguably had the best with RTS, Maloney, Pearce and Friend but will take a big blow in 2016 with the loss of RTS and Maloney with a big question mark hanging over the fullback and five-eighth positions with the likely contenders being Nikorima, Hastings, Mitchell, Ferguson and Slaimankhel.
-Storm’s big three were solid as usual and Munster more than filled the void that Slater left which gives the Storm hope for the future.
Going into next year two teams to watch will be the Knights and Sharks.
– The Knights have cut ties a couple of seasons too late with aging legend Kurt Gidley but the imcubent fullback fight between Mata’utia and Mamo will be impressive and the adition of Hodkinson to foil Mullen should interesting as long as both players can remain healthy. Robbie Farah could also be a late recruit for the squad which would round out the spine into a monster ready to be unleashed.
-The Sharks will move young prodigy Valentine Holmes to fullback, keep hooker of the year Michael Ennis at rake and add Townsend and Maloney to the halves. If Townsend can’t find form then Bird can always migrate back to his rookie position at 6.
The two teams that will play in the grand final on Sunday possibly have the best spines in the NRL which shows the importance of these positions.
The Cowboys engine has been running strongly with JT at the helm since their last grand final appearance in 2005. He has brought them close many times before but they have never executed. A successful foil in the halves has never been established and the holes created by Matt Bowen and Matt Payne have never been properly filled. In 2014 we witnessed the emergence of Michael Morgan to replace the injured Lachlan Coote however the Cowboys still fell short. 2015 started shockingly with the Cowboys quickly going to 0-3 and looking entirely gone for the season but as is the usual case it can take new combinations a while to start gelling. It is no coincidence that the Cowboys first win was in the same game that the current spine was tested for the first time.
While Morgan was competent at fullback Lachlan Coote was too strong a prospect to leave on the bench which created the switch. Coote has brought a different style of play to the fullback position in the North. He is a much smarter player than his predecessors and plays as a second play-maker on the team. As an error machine he could use some more polish but has been great considering he spent an entire year on the sideline. Morgan was an odd choice at five-eighth as he does not have strong playmaking abilities; however, Thurston’s abilities allow him to fully control the field and allow Morgan to be a spark player. His frame and athleticism allow him to do that. At 1.85m in height and with a pair of the quickest legs in the game he is well suited to a supporting running game which has been a huge part in the Cowboys success in 2015. He finished the season with 15 tries, 12 try assists and 21 line breaks from 22 games. Jake Granville has also been a huge part of the Cowboys success. Granville only played a hand full of games before joining the Cowboys but finished the year as a nominee for Dally M hooker of the year. In a different system he may have been a bust but his playing style complements the Cowboys impeccably. His game managing abilities are not as refined as some of the greats and his defensive work load, averaging only 25.9 tackles per game, is much lower than usual for a hooker. What he brings to the table is one of the best dummy-half running games in the league. He has 11 line breaks and 10 tries for the season. The Cowboys biggest issue in the past was that they didn’t have any offensive threats apart from Thurston and teams could just focus on shutting him down but now Thurston can sit back and call the shots while the defence has to worry about shutting down the running games of the other spine members. It’s an unorthodox game plan which is why it works. As an individual Thurston is probably the only one who will ever reach great heights but as a combination they are as good as it gets.
The Broncos suffered a similar issue to the Cowboys in previous years with a spine combination that just wasn’t working for individual playing styles. Ben Barba couldn’t find his form or his position and Josh Hoffman is not capable of taking his game to the next level. Enter Wayne Bennett and his handbag Chihuahua, Darius Boyd. Anthony Milford’s recruitment was also key. The season began similarly to the cowboys with not much success. Milford looked lost at the five-eighth position, Boyd was sidelined and the other two didn’t know what to do about the situation. It only took a couple of games to find their groove but this season has been a big building process. A process which has improved a spine combination exponentially throughout the season to possibly become one of the most exciting, fluid and meticulous combinations in the NRL.
Boyd missed a significant part of the season but slotted in well and adjusted quickly to Bennett’s game plan which you could assume is because Darius sleeps in the little spoon position next to Wayne every night. Milford has matured well at the five-eighth position. He was already an accomplished runner of the ball but now makes less errors and can handle the ball as well as the best players in the game. Hunt has also matured out of sight. He has moved away from being just a running half like he was in 2014. He has developed as a game manager and improved his kicking and passing abilities while maintaining the spark running style. Andrew McCullough has continued to do his thing. He defends like a workhorse, he plays with great vision and precision and gets the ball where the ball needs to be. These players are all stars as individuals but as a combination they are even better. While you could attribute the Broncos success to a number of things this year I would say that the spine is the main factor why Brisbane are in the 2015 grand final.