In continuing the series looking at the various options available to Sharks coach Shane Flanagan in regards to his 2015 team, Sharks.com.au today examines the back row positions.
In the modern game, the backrowers play varying roles, with locks primarily in the middle of the field and the second rowers operating on what is often referred to as ‘on an edge,’ which sees them stationed outside the halves and inside the two centres in both the attacking and defensive lines.
That being the case, Sharks.com.au will break the back row category into ‘middles’ and ‘edge’ players.
In recent years the Sharks have been well equipped in both departments, boasting a talented crop of quality backrowers.
Similar to the battles going on in a number of positions for places in the Sharks team come round one, there is great depth in the back row, with competition for game time sure to be intense.
Here is our take on the Sharks back rowers for the season ahead.
The favourite – Paul Gallen
Whenever he is healthy, the skipper will wear the number 13 for the Sharks in 2015, leading from the front as he always does.
He does find himself on an edge from time to time however the coach will primarily use him in the middle and as his lock. That is of course unless he decides to use Gallen as one of his two props, as is what occurs at Origin level for NSW.
The contenders – Chris Heighington, Luke Lewis, Anthony Tupou, Junior Roqica, Matt Prior
Heighington - An experienced campaigner, when Gallen doesn’t play or is moved into another role, Heighington will come in and play lock and will perform the duties to a high standard.
Very dependable, does all the little things well, which coaches love, and there will be a role for him in the Sharks 17 during 2015.
Lewis - More than likely to be played on the edge, where he uses his size, speed and footwork to advantage, but Lewis relishes the opportunity to get closer to the ball and will get some minutes in the middle of the field.
Has played there successfully for NSW and Australia in the past and while he may not be the first choice as a middle back rower or lock, can certainly get the job done if called upon.
Tupou - Similar to Lewis, Tupou’s speed and footwork makes him best suited on an edge however he too loves to get more ball when playing in the middle of the field.
After some frustrations with various injuries the past few years is looking fit and healthy during pre-season and appears to be in for a big 2015.
Prior – Will likely be in Coach Flanagan’s front row rotation but with the lock and prop positions very similar in the modern game could play either.
To his detriment has been shifted around in the past, even playing in the centres back in the day while a Dragon, but that won’t happen here and Prior will be one of the Sharks ‘middle’ players this season.
Roqica – Junior debuted in the NRL in 2014 and made a good fist of the opportunities presented to him. Probably more suited to an edge, but big and versatile enough to play minutes in the middle if required.
Has trained strongly with the full time NRL group during the summer and will be interesting to gauge his improvement during the upcoming trial matches.
The favourites – Luke Lewis, Wade Graham
Like Gallen at lock, this pair are almost unbackable favourites to assume the two back row edge positions for the Sharks and it wouldn’t surprise if one or both were also wearing the Blue of NSW together in this years’ Origin series.
They complement each other, with Lewis the powerful ball runner and Graham providing a point of difference on the other side of the field with his footwork and the ball skills honed from his rugby league upbringing in the halves.
The biggest wrap however might be they are great defenders and make those players inside and outside of them better for having them close by in both attack and defence.
The rookie – Anthony Moraitis
Still just 19, season 2015 is probably before his time, however the 2014 NYC captain has now enjoyed two pre-seasons with the fulltime NRL squad and has learnt a lot being around some of the best forwards and back rowers in the game.
Skilful with the football in hand and with clever feet, he is not unlike a Wade Graham-type in the way he plays. Can and often has played in the centres but has bulked up over the summer, with his future likely as an edge back rower.
Maybe this year is too soon, but the same might have been said about Holmes, Gagan, Nu Brown and a bunch of other youngsters who debuted so impressively in the top grade last year.
The contenders – Jayson Bukuya, Anthony Tupou, Junior Roqica, Zane Walford
Coach Flanagan speaks with excitement in his voice when the topic turns to Bukuya returning to the Sharks this year.
As good as the projected starters might be, the team loses nothing when Bukuya comes on, with his footwork and line running giving opposition defences nightmares.
And the same goes for Tupou. He will bring an injection of speed and enthusiasm when sent into the game, giving the Sharks opponents no respite.
Like Bukuya, Tupou may come off the bench in most games but the pair will both get considerable game time each week.
Expect both players to be somewhere in the 17 come round one.
In regards to Roqica, while he has some ground to make up on his more experienced teammates, he handled the NRL last year when debuting in difficult circumstances and if his attitude and work ethic are anything to go by, look for the Fijian international to have an impact at some point of the season.
And as for Walford, is still NYC eligible and will start the season in the 20’s in 2015, Walford is tall, rangy and athletic and if he applies himself while watching, listening and learning from the experienced players in the NRL squad, could have a future in the top grade in the years to come.