The little man is one of the most beloved and thoroughly talked about aspects of rugby league. There is a fascination with seeing a fleet footed, sleight of hand player, weighing 30kg less than his opponent and weaving him in knots to see him flat on his face.
I grew up towards the end of the true little man era. I watched the likes of Allan Langer, Preston Campbell, Luke Burt, Anthony Mundine, Matt Bowen and Stacey Jones. They were exciting to watch and opened up games through cunning and good footwork.
I remember watching Burt in 2007 take over from Wade McKinnon as Parramatta’s preferred fullback. What he lacked in size he made up for in speed, quick thinking and experience. Up until his knee injury against the Newcastle Knights in round 16, he was averaging close to 10 points per game and was well on his way to a 200 points season.
My enduring memory of him at fullback are his kick returns which almost always resulted in the first kick chaser being left in no-man’s land by Burt’s pace and late footwork. Despite giving away a fair amount of weight to his opponents by this time of his career, he almost always made ground.
But the times, as Bob Dylan once sang, they are a changin’.
The little man through the years
Rugby league has long prided itself on being a game for all sizes. There is a position on the field for everyone as long as you’re talented and work hard.
Throughout the majority of league’s life as a professional sport, most players have been on an even playing field when it comes to size. The clubs didn’t really adopt widespread gym programs until the 1990s. As such, it was virtually up to a player’s natural size as to where he played.
Little men like Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer, Graeme Langlands and Arthur Summons made the big guys look stupid. They opened games up, provided opportunities for their teammates and ingrained this favouritism of “the little man” into rugby league’s collective psyche.
These men survived due to their toughness, but also because of league’s semi-professionalism during their careers. Without full time weight training while players worked manual labour, most players lacked the ability to put on significant amounts of muscle mass. Parramatta fullback Paul Taylor had famously never lifted a weight when Jack Gibson introduced weight training to the Eels in 1981.
Gyms and weightlifting are now the very basic standard of a professional rugby league club. The past 20 years has seen a greater investment in strength and conditioning programs that have allowed players to gain size while still remaining fit and lean.
During the heyday of the little man, gym workouts were few and far between. It wasn’t until Jack Gibson introduced the Nautilus machine to his clubs that weights had been used in rugby league.
Gyms themselves were practically avoided by the general public throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They were seen as the domain of the body builders and no one else. In fact it was the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the body building scene in America in the 1970s through the documentary Pumping Iron that saw a form of acceptance of gym work and more of the general public began using the facilities.
But in Australia and the world of rugby league, you’d might as well have been singing voodoo nonsense. Gym work wasn’t a prescribed regimen with coaches preferring body weight, ball work and plenty of running. This provided an advantage to the little man.
Firstly, it was rare to see a forward tip the scales at more than 105kg. Secondly, the focus on fitness meant little men could use their lack of size to their advantage as it takes less energy to move less weight.
Without gym work, players were essentially restricted to their natural size and they were unable to really increase their strength or power outputs like the athletes of today.
The interchange era
In many ways the substitution and unlimited interchange eras helped to keep the little man in the game. Big men would tire, there would be more gaps in defensive lines and the small, speedy players could take advantage.
Substitutions meant forwards would be out there for 80 minutes for no rest. Past minute 60 many would be out on their feet.
Unlimited interchanges didn’t really assist in helping the big players as the moment they got tired they could come off. But while that sounds great, constant changes to the defensive line presents issues with communication and organisation, while a forward looking for a rest can easily be found out.
The introduction of 12 interchanges went some way to equalising this balance, however 12 interchanges meant players could effectively play in three blocks, limiting their fatigue. So while the focus would still be on having big men fit, coaches knew they could take off a tiring forward early if they needed to.
When the interchange dropped to eight, that’s when the fitness of forwards became of utmost importance. Previously, teams would usually interchange the starting props, hooker and lock throughout a game with one or both of the backrowers. 12 interchanges permitted coaches to do that.
But with only eight interchanges, coaches can’t afford to burn them on an unfit hooker or lock. Nowadays we see the majority of interchanges used to rotate the starting props after 20-25 minutes, the lock around half time and the back rowers generally play 80 minutes. Many locks too, will be out there the entire game.
While the game touted the reduction in interchange as “bringing back the little man” it actually did the opposite.
The adoption of eight interchanges came after clubs had established strict and well organised defensive lines as well as a greater adoption of strength and conditioning programs. Coaches had adapted to the lowering of the interchange by having fit forwards who were markedly bigger than their counterparts of yesteryear.
The focus turned to having players in the backline capable of running the ball back at these larger forwards to start their sets well.
The fit forwards
For the majority of rugby league history, forwards had to be fit. They had to be able to play close to 80 minutes every week. Then unlimited interchange was brought in. If a forward tired, they could come off for a rest then go back on.
Eventually the interchange dropped to 12, then 10 and now it’s at eight.
But while the focus was on the interchange, few were paying attention to what was happening off the field. Those big props? Well they started getting fitter while also getting bigger.
A lock in 2004 weighed 97kg on average. In 2019 that same lock averages 102kg and plays 80 minutes.
Jason Taumalolo for example weighs 117kg and plays 80 minutes.
Front rowers averaged 105kg in 2004, in 2019 they stand at 110kg. For reference, Artie Beetson played at 105kg, Parramatta’s Nathan Brown weighs 104kg.
So while the game was supposed to be favouring the little men, coaches were a step ahead and adapting their players to ensure they were both big enough and fit enough to nullify the threat.
This was coupled with a greater concentration on defensive patterns. If you were to watch a game from 2004 it’d be almost unrecognisable to a game seen today.
Kick chasers today are set in a line roughly five players across depending on where the ball is kicked. Chasers are actively encouraged not to shoot down solo to avoid being beaten by the kick returner and the kick chase is heavily coached.
In previous eras, the kick return was the little man’s game. One on one you’d back him most times to beat the chaser. Nowadays they’re presented a structured line full of size and well drilled to not over commit.
Even during normal play, defensive lines move up in unison, they hold their ground when they need to, slide when they have to. Few gaps are readily presented like they used to be.
Teams employ defensive coaches, drill defensive patterns and train to defend with fewer numbers.
The gaps the little man once exploited are not as readily available as they once were.
The first big, little men
Traditionally the smallest players have been the backs, specifically the wingers, fullback and halves. The turn of the millennium though began to see a rise in larger players filling these positions.
Players like Lote Tuqiri, Wendell Sailor and Eric Grothe Junior played on the wing but tipped the scales at over 100kg. They were the new wave of backs. With size, pace and skill they were a new weapon for their sides to unleash.
The little man still existed in this period. Brett Hodgson, Preston Campbell, Hazem El Masri, Matt Bowen, Luke Burt all had long and distinguished careers. But the age of players like them was coming to an end.
As the 2000s rolled on, more and more of these big backs began to hit the scene.
Manu Vatuvei was introduced to the rugby league world in 2004 and established himself as one of the most dominant wingers in the game’s history over a 13 year career for the Warriors, hitting a weight of 112kg.
Greg Inglis made his debut in 2005 and quickly established himself as one of the most damaging ball runners in the game. Topping out at 115kg, he carried the size of a forward with the pace and footwork of a winger.
Tigers cult hero Taniela Tuiaki arrived in 2006 at 105kg and displayed a devastating power running game.
Former Eels player Jarryd Hayne was also unleashed in 2006 and topped 102kg at his heaviest.
While little men still plied their trade and did it well with players like Ben Barba nabbing the 2012 Dally M, teams were becoming more reliant on their big backs.
As the 2010s rolled around we saw the small wingers begin to die out.
We saw the rise of bigger wingers like Daniel Vidot and Blake Ferguson become regular features in their side.
In 2012 Daniel Tupou debuted for the Roosters and remains one of the best wingers in the game.
In 2013 the NRL got its first glimpse of Semi Radradra and in 2014 we all saw the impact he had on the game. Semi’s arrival forced other teams to go looking for their own backline weapons capable of out-muscling forwards and averaging 10 metres per carry.
Corey Oates debuted the same season as Semi, Tom Trbojevic ran out in 2015.
Maika Sivo then announced himself in 2019 with one of the most dominant seasons by a rookie winger in NRL history.
All of those players are in the backline. All of them are in excess of 100kg. Practically every side in the NRL has at least two backs over 100kg in their side to be used to start their sets well.
In 2004 the average fullback weighed 85kg. Now they weigh 91kg. The average winger weighed 91kg, now they’re 97kg.
The reason for this is to combat the size of NRL forward packs. It makes a lot more sense for your winger taking the second hitup off your own line to weigh 105kg than to weigh 90kg.
Winger size is almost as important as prop size these days. The wingers and outside backs are relied upon to take the first three hitups in a set. Coaches don’t want these burned with poor carries and players dominated in the tackle.
They want dominant ball runners who get over the advantage line.
The modern little man
The little man still exists in our game. He just happens to be bigger than those of yesteryear.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In order for the little players of today to compete and deal with the monsters in the middle and on the wings, they need that extra size.
Anthony Milford weighs 92kg, Mitchell Moses weighs 85kg.
They’re seen as small players in today’s game. Brett Kenny, when he played lock at the end of his career, weighed 84kg.
So this fascination with changing rules to “bring back the little man” is, in many ways, fruitless. Those 75kg players aren’t going to come back. The game has moved so far past that these days.
Case in point is the career of Bevan French. Lightning fast with good ball skills, he never really settled into the NRL, especially at fullback, where teams targeted his small frame on kick chases and easily dominated him.
It’s no surprise he went to the English Super League and has dominated with the more staggered defensive patterns.
But the little man is still there. He’s still exploiting tired edge defenders and he’s still taking advantage of that lazy middle forward.
It’s just that the days of your Preston Campbells and Matty Bowens are gone. Players that size are quickly found out despite their speed and agility. Defences are better organised, players are bigger, fitter and more mobile than they ever have been. Backrowers can outsprint backs on occasion.
The commentators yearning for the little man are looking at their era through rose coloured glasses. They’ll probably also tell you they wish scrums were contested and players should still be treated with a magic sponge.
The next time someone tells you they need to bring back the little man, ask them if they’d like Taumalolo to shrink to a manageable size.
The little man is dead. Long live the little man.
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This article has been updated. It incorrectly stated Ben Barba as winning the Dally M in 2010. He won it in 2012.