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.