Remember the saying that “wingers are just blokes that hang around footballers”?
Well, those days are long gone. Your tiny whippets who would stand on the wing and slice their way over for a try have been replaced by metre eating machines whose second and third tackle hitups are as important as their try finishing ability.
Teams now build their entire strategy around their wingers and centres starting their sets well. Penrith famously look to chew up four tackles using just their backs to allow their forwards to rest before they chase the last tackle kick and pin the opposition on their own try line.
This transition of course happened gradually. RLM has previously covered the increase in size across the NRL with wingers growing six kilograms since the start of the competition.
If you were to look at the 2022 top 10 average run metres (all stats from NRL.com), there are two forwards that sit in the list – Payne Haas and Ryan Matterson.
The rest are backs, and to be more specific, seven of those remaining eight players are fullbacks or wingers. Only Siosifa Talakai plays in the centres.
Contrast that with 2013. Where the top 10 average run metres list featured five forwards. 2014 and 2015 featured three forwards each, 2016 saw six forwards, 2017 dropped back to three, 2018 and 2019 saw two, 2020 had one, as did 2021.
In fact, in 2021, no doubt thanks to the V’landysball rules, there were only three forwards inside the top 20 for metres per game.
This season the Panthers have really been hammering home just how good they are at returning the ball with their backs.
Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o and Taylan May are all in the top seven for average run metres, while Izack Tago and Stephen Crichton are back in 29th and 34th place respectively.
Combined, Penrith’s back five average 849 running metres per match.
That’s roughly half of their side’s average running metres per game which sits at 1,739.6 metres.
The Panthers though are outliers. Second in team running metres are the Parramatta Eels and they don’t possess a single back inside the top 10, relying instead on their powerful forward pack.
That being said, Clint Gutherson sits at 151.3 running metres per game while Maika Sivo is at 134 metres and that will only increase as he continues to play more games. Interestingly Waqa Blake averages 132.6 metres per game when playing on the wing earlier this year and he’s averaging 124 metres across this season which almost matches his career best of 127 in 2019 when he switched to the blue and gold.
If you broke Parramatta’s starting top five contribution down as a percentage of their team’s metres it would read 634.3 metres out of 1,647.7 metres per match or 38 per cent. Not quite Penrith’s 48.8 percent, but still respectable.
In third are the impressive Cowboys who have Jason Taumalolo in at 12th place as their best metre eater in the competition with 156.3 metres per game.
In terms of backs though, Peta Hiku is the best at 141.2 metres, followed by Valentine Holmes on 139.2 metres, Murray Taulagi at 138.2 metres, and Scott Drinkwater and Kyle Feldt on 136 metres.
That’s a grand total of 690 metres out of 1,626.5 per game or 42 per cent. The Cowboys’ back five are certainly shouldering a big chunk of the load.
Looking at the bottom of the metreage ladder and the Warriors grind out 1,356.9 metres per game. So are the backs digging in, or are the forwards not generating the ground needed?
Unsurprisingly Reece Walsh is their best back with 141 metres per game, Marcelo Montoya is then at 138.6 metres, Adam Pompey on 105 metres, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on 93 metres and Jesse Arthars on 71 metres.
Their back five are averaging 548.6 metres out of the Warriors’ 1,356.9 metres per game or 40 percent. Which is actually two percent better than Parramatta but 85 metres fewer in total, 141 fewer than the Cowboys and a whopping 300 fewer metres than the Panthers’ back five.
Looking at the Gold Coast Titans who have a rather imposing forward pack on paper, but sit 10th on the average run metres list with 1,488.4 metres per game.
It’s a little tough to get a read on their preferred back five as injuries have played a part in who they select.
That said, you could say Jayden Campbell, Phillip Sami, Corey Thompson, Patrick Herbert and Greg Marzhew would be their preference. Jojo Fifita has been explosive since his debut but only has a handful of games to his name.
Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is the Titans’ best runner of the ball, sitting in 19th spot overall averaging 148.9 metres per game.
In 23rd is Jayden Campbell averaging 146.1 metres and Greg Marzhew in 24th managing 145 metres, Phillip Sami is in 43rd with 136.9 metres while Patrick Herbert is managing 97 metres and Corey Thompson is on 112.
That sees the Titans’ back five average 637 metres per game or 42.7 per cent of their side’s total.
However, to show perhaps the best example of backs having an impact on performance, you need to look at Parramatta’s performances from 2017-2022.
In 2017 the side averaged 1,457.9 metres per game, ranking them ninth and finishing in the top four.
That was a side featuring Semi Radradra as one of the kick returners.
In 2018 the side actually averaged more metres per match with 1,479.3 metres but dropped to 11th. This was the year the side won the wooden spoon and the now infamous NRL crackdown season. More metres were on offer to every side across the board.
That was an Eels side without a particularly big backline. In one particular game Bevan French made fewer than 10 metres, in another just 20 metres.
In 2019 they went and recruited Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo and have finished in the top three for average metres every year since.
Sivo and Ferguson weren’t the only contributors to that with Clint Gutherson becoming a regular metre-eater and the side investing heavily in their forward pack.
But without good, strong starts to their sets, their fairly large forward pack wouldn’t have the energy to make the metres that they do.
Of course the biggest impact on running metres and by extension the ability of backs to run the ball has been the set restart rule introduced in 2020, Frankenstein’s monstered in 2021 and then made more convoluted in 2022.
From 2013-2019 only the Cowboys and Roosters of 2015 averaged more than 1,700 metres per game. And a large part of that for the Cowboys was God-tier Jason Taumalolo.
Every other season, the most metres a side averaged sat between 1,699 and 1,494.
In 2020, the Panthers averaged a whopping 1,865.1 metres. In 2021 they averaged 1805.5 metres.
With the return to something resembling normal, the Panthers are now averaging 1741.2 metres.
As previously covered, the set restart rules handed an advantage to the good sides, and exacerbated the gap back to the poorer sides. And nowhere was this clearer than in metres gained.
Good sides would happily infringe to allow their line to set, and then pressure their opponents into a mistake or simply corral them into the middle of the field where it’s easier to tackle in numbers and slow the ruck.
The good sides were then able to use their big outside backs to get their sets rolling.
In 2020 the Panthers ran for 1865.1 metres per game and in 2021 1805.5 metres per game.
Dylan Edwards averaged the fourth most metres per game with 194.5 and Josh Mansour ranked ninth with 182.
In 2021 Brian To’o sat atop the rankings with a mammoth 245.9 metres per game and the consistent Dylan Edwards was in fourth with 193.3 metres.
Big backs have always been an eventuality ever since Eric Grothe Senior rampaged his way up and down the wing for the Eels in the 1980s.
Speed and size are a winning combination in the NRL and backs are the biggest they have ever been.
But where they once scooted down the wing, or sliced through an edge, they must also serve as their side’s battering ram when required and the best teams in the NRL combine effective battering rams with gamebreakers in their backline.
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