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To my mind, the best two hookers in the competition are Cameron Smith and Jake Granville. You know, they both play for the two teams that made the grand final.
It continues to astound me how how under-rated attacking hookers are in Rugby League. Year after year, we see hookers making clear and obvious differences to their teams, particularly when it gets down to the business end of the season.
For me, that comes down to how well-drilled defensive teams are these days, particularly when they are set. So much so that all teams are generally willing to give away penalties, even in their own 20, because they believe that with a set defensive line they can hold out the opposition. Unless you can first effect a break-down in that defensive set-up, it’s very, very difficult - even with the best halves in the world, or the most effective structures - to broach NRL defences.
There are basically two ways to crack open a defence, so that your rivals don’t quite manage to number up properly. The first is to have a big bopper who can skittle defenders, and cause too many defenders to get involved with the ruck, while effecting a quick play the ball. However, the second is the hooker. The hooker can provide that level of unpredictability in a team’s attack that causes defensive structures to break down. A great hooker is constantly counting the numbers, and poking for holes or vulnerability. A good hooker can suddenly decide to kick when nobody is expecting it. A great hooker turns a quick play-the-ball into a momentum changing charge of dummy half.
At the same time, your hooker is normally your biggest defensive vulnerability in the middle of the park. He can be giving away 30kg and represents an easy target for big forwards to aim at, as first contact.
Yet the hooker is treated as almost a peripheral figure in many teams. Much of the criticism directed as Des Hasler centred around his unwillingness to let his number nine do much more than shuffle the ball from dummy half. Jason Taylor, when ejecting Robbie Farah, stated publicly that he wanted his halves to run the team, not the dummy half. And how many hookers in the competition are on elite money? It would not surprise me if Cameron Smith and perhaps Isaac Luke are the only hookers in the competition on more than $500k per year.
There also seems to be a general unwillingness to “manufacture” a hooker. Most of today’s hookers, grew up playing the role. That despite the fact, that there have been plenty of examples of players shifting into the role with success. Peter Wallace, most recently at Penrith went from has-been to possible Origin contender, and Ben Hunt’s best footy of the year came when he was thrust into the role at Brisbane.
For me, your hooker needs to just be a great all-round footy player. A lot of other positions require very specific traits - you really need a bunch of speed to be successful as a fullback, you need playmaking abilities to be a half, or size to play in the forwards. Your perfect hooker is fast, has playmaking skills and is a strong defender. It means that a hooker with the right skillset could really come from any position. A fullback who doesn’t quite have the necessary speed, a lock who isn’t quite big-enough to play in the forwards, a half who doesn’t quite have the necessary playmaking abilities.
And these experiments don’t have to work straight away. Hookers get better with age. Cameron Smith is obviously playing terrific football deep into his 30s, Jake Granville only made his debut at 24, Michael Ennis probably had his best year both in terms of success and individual performances in his final year.
So hooker is the one role where I think you really need to look outside of the box - and not just pick from the pool of number nines - but to judge players on their all-round playing abilities, and to take the time to manufacture a number nine. Because certainly recent history has shown that when its gets down to September, it’s been the teams that have the elite hookers who are the ones that are going all the way.
Good points Phil; i also think the success of teams such as Melbourne and even Cronulla has been their ability to smother the ruck area, which bluntly means spread markers early which eliminates some play from the dummy half; which in turn allows the defence to get numbers into the tackle and hence slow the play down which can ultimately strangle the attacking team. I watched the GF v closely (no sound) and we were amazed, or not surprised about this tactic.
Hookers who tackle well, get off the line quick to ensure line speed, pass well and even kick are going to tick a few boxes. For me Cameron King did a v good job in the time he had with us, and while he may have not been used to 80 mins of NRL he did a superb job and only hope he stamps his name on the hooker role again.
Having said that, how do you rate Parra's Hookers? If you could combine the best attributes of Kaysa, King and Smith you would probably have a pretty decent attacking weapon. Based on your theory, Parra would do well to work on Will Smith, as he most would have the best attacking skill set. Is this also a role that could be shared somehow on the field?
I don't think any of our hooking options are elite class, and aside from a big body I think its probably the biggest issue in our roster, in terms of going all the way to a premiership. I reckon Will Smith could transition to hooker, but he'd need to develop his body to cope with the defensive rigours.
Interesting point about Union scrum halves - never looked at it that way!
Well, that's what I'd be doing, all based on the above theory, but I didn't want to make this blog about Gutherson. But he's exactly the type of players I think represents the future of the hooking role.
Another similar player I reckon would transition to a great hooker is Tyrone Peachey. I think he's similar in that he's such a great, all-round natural footballer, but he keeps getting floated around the various positions because of his versatility but its that all-round game that I think would make him an absolute gun number nine.
What is the point of a #9 who rarely passes the ball Phil?
Peachey is immature and thinks he is another Hayne imo, and dies with the ball when he has players in open space outside him.
To take your point to another ex player Phil.....you may remember that Kurt Gidley was a pretty handy fellow when in the hooking role.
At the risk of us both being rubbished, if Gutho doesn't regain his speed then you could do worse than him there as well.
You would no doubt remember Kevin Stevens the Easts 5/8 from the great sides of the mid seventies coming to Parra and playing in our 81 grand final team as a prop forward.
If you suggested that in the parlance of what you said last year....they would have laughed you out of town.
People seem to forget that hookers don't go into scrums these days....the name is a misnomer....a better description is to call them a dummy half defender.
I think someone suggested that Mitchel Pearce would make a good hooker, I called him as an origin hooker as soon as it was apparent Farah had finished.....no different to Hunt and a very good defender.
Someone suggested he could be a good lock, I would suggest the modern lock is a prop these days.....so why don't we call the front row 2 props and a middle forward (or 3 props) and the old hooker a lock?
Yeh I think it was me actually that said that about Pearce, particularly in relation to Origin :-)
Andrew Johns played a number of games at Origin level as a hooker too of course, including that memorable series decider.
Agree King is first choice Chief!