It certainly seems in the modern era of the NRL, the traditional or specialist five-eighth is being swapped for a part-time, or ‘stop-gap’ player in that role.
A position requiring a high work-rate, by playing centre field most of the time a pivot will be forced into plenty of defensive work and be expected to create attacking raids in most cases when their team has the ball.
Cast your mind back to yesteryear, to the likes of Wally Lewis, Brett Kenny and Laurie Daley. Men that were of a broad build, laying the foundations for their team to play around them. They handled the ball often, did plenty of work during the full 80 minutes and were always punishing in defence.
If you think about today’s pivots, you have a mixture of half-backs or ‘defacto’ pivots that are being moulded into the role as there are fewer genuine specialists it seems.
At the Roosters, Braith Anasta who comes close to the traditional five-eighth figure is being moved to the back-row as the younger forward Setaimata Sa is trialled at no. 6.
It’s been a similar situation at the Parramatta Eels, a team that has struggled for a genuine pivot in recent times. The Eels have used smaller men in the role recently, Finch pairing Tim Smith and more recently they moved backrower Feleti Mateo into pivot when Smith left the club. This move has been superseeded by former outside back Jarryd Hayne being coached into the role of five-eighth as the club tries to find the best option.
Over in Tiger town, they too are trying to work out just who will play at no. 6. Former pivot Benji Marshall is being moulded into a halfback and coach Tim Sheens is unsure whether outside centre Chris Lawrence will be taught how to play pivot or if another option will be used.
The Cronulla Sharks were also confused as to what a genuine five-eighth role meant. Sure, they used Greg Bird there for the majority of 2008 – but ultimately, Bird is a backrower that was pushed into the pivot role as there were few other alternatives. Heck, even the NSW State of Origin side had to use a make-shift pivot when they selected Bird in the role during last years series.
The Storm have been another side looking a little lost at five-eighth. Greg Inglis was their defacto no. 6 last year, but it seems this move has been scrapped and quite possibly the countries best hooker in Cameron Smith might be thrown the jersey – if this move plays out, it ultimately shows how scary the situation is when the leading hooker in the game is suddenly asked to fill another position with a view to a permanent role.
Penrith too, is another trying desperately to sort out the role of pivot. Jarrod Sammut? Wade Graham? Weeks away from the NRL 2009 season, not even the coach knows what to do.
What about Manly? The eventual premiers have been without a classic pivot for years. They won the NRL with centre Jamie Lyon being thrown into the no. 6 position to fill the gap. Travis Burns was tried in the role and in 2009 it’s highly likely they will use Chris Bailey the former Knights forward who also eventually found his way to five-eighth.
Even the great Wayne Bennett had to ‘mould’ Darren Lockyer into a five-eighth at the Broncos, with Locky initially representing his club and country for many years at fullback.
Where have all the genuine junior five-eighths gone?
It might have something to do with the speed of the game, it seems that more and more these days that smaller players are getting the nod at no.6 – making it a very similar role to the halfback. The traditional five-eighths weren’t always super speed men, they were guys that always had plenty of time with the ball in their hands. Think along the lines of Jason Smith who could play in slow-motion, but this seems to have changed considerably.
Today, pivots need to make lightning fast decisions. Pass, run, chip, kick long or take the tackle – all this needs to happen almost instantly as rampaging defence lines increase their line speed and fitness every year.
It might also have something to do with the amount of ‘safety’ first football being played in in the NRL these days. Most coaches will instruct their sides to play ‘high-percentage’ or risk free play where possible in the hope they can grind the other team into defeat through keeping possession high and forcing errors upon the other team. This means one-out runs from dummy halfs and plenty of hit-ups, the emphasis being put on play the ball speed. In this situation, the pivot could virtually take a picnic break while his team has the ball, only being needed on occasion for a kick or final tackle play.
If Manly can win the NRL Premiership with a defacto pivot, as the Storm did in 2007 – then maybe the specialist skills of this role aren’t as critical as they once were.
They used to say to win a Premiership you need superstars in the positions of 1, 6, 7 and 9 – with the rest being just athletes.
Maybe it’s time that 6 was dropped from that list.