December 2020

The NRL’s greatest utilities

Utilities are back on the bench menu, but who have been the best in the last 20 years?

If there’s one thing that 2020 has shown the rugby league world through the six-again rule, it’s the need of teams to field a utility.

In the past decade, the utility began to die out. With eight interchanges and the game getting ever faster, coaches became more concerned with having enough forwards on the bench than having a utility who may or may not get on the field.

But the utility could be set for a comeback. 

Generally, when you look for a new trend in the NRL, you look to the Melbourne Storm. Somehow they will make a change that will take other sides some time to catch up.

Brandon Smith isn’t exactly your perfect utility. He’s a reserve hooker who is big enough and tough enough to play at lock. Then again, the Storm have also utilised the likes of Ryan Papenhuyzen and Nicho Hynes off the bench to inject pace into games)

However, there was a period in the late 90s and early 2000s when utilities ran rampant through sides. They were often super subs, thrown into the action late on to provide a spark. No one really knew where they were playing and their job was to cause havoc.

Either that, or they were the player coaches looked to whenever an injury hit on the field.

So, who were some of the greatest utilities the NRL era has seen?

To qualify, a player has to have played more than two positions, and played those positions at least 10 times each. This does rule out most players who shift from the centres or wing and into the forwards. No current players will be included.

Kurt Gidley

Games: 252

Positions: Fullback (103), Centre (6), Five-Eighth (65), Halfback (48), Hooker (19), Bench (10)

He’s perhaps the perfect example of a utility player. The solution to every problem. Few players have covered as many positions as Kurt Gidley did across his career. While most would have called him a fullback, especially given he cracked a century of games there, he featured more than 100 times in the halves and popped up at dummy-half. He also remains the only player to captain his State from the bench.

Jarryd Hayne

Games: 214

Positions: Fullback (132), Wing (37), Centre (27), Five-Eighth (16), Bench (2)

Hayne may have made his name as an electrifying fullback, but he kickstarted his career as a fresh-faced teenager on the wing. He gradually moved in-field early in 2007 before an injury to regular Eels fullback Luke Burt saw Hayne thrust into the position. In 2009 he made the position his own before multiple coaches tried moving him around the backline searching for a spark at not just club level but also Origin level. It would be no coincidence that NSW broke QLD’s stranglehold on Origin the same year Hayne finally played fullback for the Blues.

Preston Campbell

Games: 267

Positions: Fullback (78), Wing (20), Five-Eighth (105), Halfback (40), Hooker (5), Bench (19)

Campbell was perhaps the pinnacle of backline utility. He won the Dally M award from halfback in 2001, before settling into the fullback and five-eighth roles later in his career. His electrifying pace, super running game and creativity would be well-suited to today’s six again dynamic. He’d probably terrify defences coming off the bench late in the half and being given a licence to roam. Brad Fittler probably wouldn’t mind him being available for Origin either.

Luke Lewis

Games: 324

Positions: Wing (51), Centre (63), Five-Eighth (21), Halfback (14), Second-Row (109), Lock (52), Bench (14)

Lewis is literally your everyman, managing to pip Kurt Gidley for most positions played. He was named in every position except fullback, hooker and prop. He started his career as a speedy, slightly built winger and earnt his Origin debut in the position. Later in his career he shifted in-field and became one of the most consistent and reliable back-rowers, becoming an almost automatic pick for the Blues in the position. Even at the backend of his career, he’d be shifted into the backline should injuries hit the Sharks.

Mitchell Aubusson

Games: 306

Positions: Centre (100), Five-Eighth (2), Hooker (2), Second row (129), Lock (6), Bench (67)

Brian Smith once said he watched tape of Nathan Hindmarsh if he was worried about an upcoming match. Well the tape is probably replaced by a hard drive or cloud system, but Trent Robinson probably watched Aubusson highlights whenever he was nervous. Aubo was Mr Fix-It for the Roosters. A centre coming through the grades, he shifted to the backrower as he matured. While he split the majority of his time between those two positions, whenever an injury hit mid-match, you can be sure Robinson turned to Aubo to fill the role. And while it may not be on his official list of positions, he did wear the number seven jersey in the 2018 grand final after being named there due to an injury cloud over Cooper Cronk.

Craig Wing

Games: 256

Positions: Fullback (13), Wing (3), Centre (4), Five-Eighth (43), Halfback (48), Hooker (78), Lock (7), Bench (60)

Craig Wing is who most people think of when they think about a bench utility. An exciting player at club level, he always seemed to go up a notch when he entered the Origin arena. His speed around dummy-half opened up the middle of the field while his ball-playing meant he could slot into the halves or be used as a middle ball player. Such was his impact on representative matches, starting hooker Danny Buderus usually left the field when Wing came on.

Shaun Berrigan

Games: 241

Positions: Centre (81), Five-Eighth (23), Halfback (46), Hooker (40), Bench (51)

Beginning his career in the centres, Berrigan then made the move into the halves to partner Allan Langer. With the arrival of Darren Lockyer in the number six, Berrigan moved back to the centres before Wayne Bennett shifted him into the forwards where he made the number nine his own in 2006. In 2006 he collected the Clive Churchill medal after the Broncos won the grand final, made all the more impressive by the fact he’d only moved to hooker that year.

Chris Flannery

Games: 126

Positions: Fullback (9), Wing (9), Centre (13), Five-Eighth (10), Halfback (3), Second-row (24), Lock (17), Bench (41)

What is it with the Roosters and utilities? Flannery came into grade as a fullback but was shifted all over the field. He was regularly shifted from the starting side to the bench due to his versatility, but was most at home in the back-row. He even filled in for Darren Lockyer in the middle of an Origin clash. And while he only played 126 NRL games for the Roosters, he continued his career in the English Super League, playing a similar role for St Helens across his six seasons with the club.

Lance Hohaia

Games: 185

Positions: Fullback (48), Centre (15), Five-Eighth (44), Halfback (10), Hooker (14), Bench (54)

The only Kiwi to appear on the list, Hohaia’s natural position is also pretty hard to pin down. Unlike many of the others on this list, he didn’t start out in one position before becoming a jack-of-all-trades. He came to the Warriors as a halfback, but flitted around between five-eighth and fullback where his pace and footwork could best be utilised. The Warriors also often used him at dummy-half and brought him off the bench to add energy and pace to the middle of the field. Similar to Flannery, he headed to St Helens and played out his career in England across four final seasons.

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