A utility coming off the bench and diving into the action was once a mainstay of NRL line-ups.
Coaches would look to these players to help break a game open, or maybe turn the tide of the match if they were behind.
Most of the time, the likes of PJ Marsh and Craig Wing were asked to replace the starting hooker, before hanging around and drifting across the pitch.
Their backgrounds in the halves meant they could act as effective ball-players both in the middle or on the edge.
Covering multiple positions has always been an important consideration for coaches selecting their top 17, and these days their concussion substitute.
Newcastle Knights legend Kurt Gidley made a career on his versatility, despite coming through the grades as a fullback and half.
“As a youngster I pretty much played five-eighth most of my junior days, but then as I got to the Knights in under 17s, I kind of broke into my first ever Knights team as a utility off the bench, but then pretty quickly made my way to fullback there,” he remembers.
Gidley, whose career spanned the 2000s and 2010s, including 306 first grade games in the NRL and English Super League, believes a player with an ability to cover multiple positions is always of value in a side.
His Knights career spanned 103 games at fullback, six at centre, 65 at five-eighth, 48 at halfback, 19 at hooker and 10 games from the bench.
“I think it’s always been an important part of the makeup of all teams. Even if they didn’t have a utility on the bench, someone who can play backrower but also play in the centres.”
That’s perhaps one of the more challenging changes a coach has to make mid-game.
Prior to the rule changes instituted by the current NRL administration, coaches often simply piled four forwards onto the bench, which most hookers expected to play 80 minutes.
Others opted to use three forwards and a backup hooker. Injuries sustained outside of those positions during games were often patched by utilising a backrower to move to centre with the backline then shifted around.
The new six again rules has seen more teams look to carry a utility who can cover both hooker and other positions due to the extra work number nines are asked to get through.
It still means injuries in the backline are hard to cover without having back-rowers capable of playing out wide, although the utility can ensure the team’s make up becomes more flexible.
Parramatta’s Marata Niukore ably filled in for five weeks during the 2021 season at centre before shifting back into the forwards.
While a player such as Mitch Aubusson was similar to Gidley in his ability to play anywhere from the forwards to centre.
Gidley rates one of his contemporaries and former representative teammates as the best example of versatility.
“A great example is a player that I used to love watching, Luke Lewis. Lewy started on the wing but with his size and his strength and his speed he moved to back-row, but he could fill in probably every position on the field really.
“He’s probably not a half, but he could play back-row, wing, centre, throw him at fullback because he’s so reliable.”
Lewis ended up playing 324 NRL matches for Penrith and Cronulla, covering wing, centre, five-eighth, halfback, second row, lock and bench.
The former Knights captain is also of the mind that today’s game has seen a greater focus from teams on players who can cover more than just hooker or back-row.
One need only look at sides like Melbourne, Parramatta, Penrith, Manly, Newcastle and South Sydney.
Melbourne rolled through a combination of Nicho Hynes, Harry Grant and Brandon Smith coming off the bench. Nicho Hynes could play through the middle, in the halves or play expertly at fullback.
For the Eels, they often deployed Will Smith from the bench who, while coming through as a back, has played hooker, five-eighth, in the centres, at fullback and as a running middle forward.
Penrith utilised Tyrone May in multiple positions across the season, while Dylan Walker would come on to lift the tempo for Manly.
The Rabbitohs meanwhile used Benji Marshall to simply have an extra ball player on the ground and occasionally to fill in at hooker or the centres, while acting as injury cover for the halves.
Connor Watson commonly filled in at lock for the Knights despite originally being a five-eighth. He’s become so valuable off the bench that the Roosters re-signed him after originally releasing him in 2017.
“A genuine utility on the bench, which has probably become more important in today’s game with some of the rule changes but I think, as a coach, you’ve always had to have a person in your team who can cover numerous positions,” says Gidley.
As demonstrated above, there’s no one way a player ends up as a utility.
Hynes has said he prefers to play in the halves, which is where he will be for Cronulla. Smith was originally a fullback, Tyrone May a five-eighth, Dylan Walker a centre. Benji was a world class half who shifted to the bench late in his career, while Watson reinvented himself as a utility.
Gidley himself says he wanted to be a fullback, but playing first grade was his priority so, as the cliche goes, he played wherever the coach asked him to.
“At times would I have preferred to stay at fullback? Yes, because it was more enjoyable. But also, you know, if that was the best position that I could fill in and play, I was happy to do that, I just wanted to do the best thing for the team,” he says.
One arena the utility has never really dropped off from since the interchange was permitted is State of Origin.
The critical nature of matches mean coaches almost always plan to ensure every position is covered across the 17.
Sometimes they deploy a back on the bench, usually a rookie to give them a taste of Origin, other times a seasoned veteran who is mostly meant to play hooker but can play across the side.
In 2021 Brad Fittler opted for a combination of Liam Martin and Jack Wighton. The Penrith forward could deputise both in the middle and at hooker alongside his regular back-row position, while Wighton could play across fullback, centre and in the halves.
Queensland decided to utilise AJ Brimson off the bench who covered hooker, halves and fullback. Injury forced the Maroons to select Ben Hunt on the bench who covered both hooker and halfback in game two, while Brimson returned to the bench in game three.
Origin has seen some fairly famous utilities take to the field, perhaps none more so than Craig Wing.
The Rooster and Rabbit was one of the most dangerous utilities in the Origin arena during the 2000s, often coming on to spell hooker Danny Buderus, but equally at home in the halves and back-row.
In many ways he was the precursor to Kurt Gidley’s own Origin career. Gidley played seven of his 12 Origin matches for New South Wales from the bench.
At international level he was on the bench in 11 of his 12 matches for the Kangaroos.
The former NSW captain says his versatility was the reason he managed to be a consistent representative selection, even if it likely harmed his development as a fullback.
“Looking back, it definitely helped me. My first ever rep team playing in was City-Country. I got into the Country team as a utility. My first ever State of Origin game was a utility. And played for Australia as a utility. So if I didn’t have that flexibility there’s a fair chance I wouldn’t have played as many rep games as I did.
“Was it detrimental to my long term development as a fullback? Then yeh, it probably was, but still I was lucky to have that flexibility because it created so many more new opportunities for me in future teams.”
As the famous Mike Tyson quote goes, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
While the days of all-in brawls and punching are long gone from the NRL there is the occasional metaphorical punch to the mouth that rugby league delivers.
Whether it’s a concussion early in the game, an unfortunate injury or simply the way a match develops, a coach’s plans can quickly disappear into thin air. Sometimes this is when a utility can come into their own.
“There’s always a plan from the coach, but like you see most weeks, it’s hard to stick to the plan when there’s injuries, concussions,” Gidley says.
“I think there’s always a plan for the utility on the bench to maybe get on before half time or toward the back end of the game but it’s pretty rare that everything goes to plan and someone doesn’t go down.”
Reflecting on his own experiences coming off the bench, Gidley says he was often in the action earlier than initially planned.
“If I think back to most of my rep games, I was on in a lot of first halves because I remember Brent Tate did his knee in one game in the first half, in Brisbane. I remember Mark Gasnier got knocked out in my first ever Test in Wellington, so I was on playing centre early.”
It’s one thing preparing to play in any position, and it’s another actually doing it.
In today’s game, players generally keep to the same edge. A left centre rarely turns up on the right edge.
For a utility, they often don’t have that luxury. Despite the challenge it can be to come on at any time and fill a range of positions, Gidley says there are some basic things he would always do to ensure he could slot into an unfamiliar spot on the park.
“Number one, you’ve just got to compete in every position that you’re going to play in. Number two, communicate. You just need to over-communicate defensively, in attack and those two things, compete and communicate.
“I can put my hand up in any position, almost in any job description in life really. If you’ve got those two things, and you’re willing to work hard and compete and communicate, well, you can have a crack at most things in life.”
He was also put into the tough position during his Origin career of captaining NSW from the bench.
For Gidley and the Blues, the decision wasn’t a big deal despite the media furore that occurred when coach Craig Bellamy named him in the number 14 jumper.
“It was kind of blown out of proportion, captaining from the bench. Craig Bellamy spoke to me during the week and we were moving Jarryd Hayne from wing to fullback to get him more involved and that was sacrificing my position which was fair enough. Haynesy was on fire at that stage.
“I was always playing about 60 minutes, but I was starting from the bench and going on after about 20 I think it was and Trent Barrett was going to actually lead the team out.
“I still played 60-odd minutes in that game and I didn’t see my role changing during the week as far as my leadership and team meetings and the communication and influence I could have on the team on the field at that stage,” he remembers.
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