Understanding rugby league lingo is best achieved when a ball is launched skyward, leading to breathless players swiftly chasing it down. This is a common occurrence and is a scenario that Brad Fittler, along with his staff, had the New South Wales team repetitively practicing prior to this year’s inaugural State of Origin match. In such drills, teams usually yell the names of players they’ll be up against in the impending contest, serving as an initial whetstone for the looming battle.
Nathan Cleary set a high ball hurtling towards the tranquillity of the blue veldt above, prompting a chant to thunder across the training ground from the NSW side, demanding the team “get Walshy, the little -—!”. This call isn’t unfamiliar to Reece Walsh; this young titan of rugby league has spent the year eluding the grasps of many a defence.
Andrew Johns, a veritable god of the sport, ruminated, “we talk about a once-in-a-generation player, we might be looking at a once-in-a-lifetime player. He’s got it all. Teams have tried to get at him, and he takes it – and with swagger too.”
Following a mortifying surrender in the closing month of the previous season that failed to qualify the Broncos for the finals, the combined injection of Walsh’s talent and a humble surge of experience from their existing squad has remodelled the team into a true premiership contender this year. Inevitably, Walsh has been declared the uncontested best buy of the year.
This significant transformation of Brisbane’s performance has been attributed to the sheer velocity at which Walsh commands the field. Now 21, Walsh’s gameplay primarily exploits defenders who lack the speed to challenge him directly, by rushing to their outside, thereby creating an advantageous window of opportunity for his teammates.
Expanding on this, Johns explains that the “Double D” defence tactic has become a favourite among many NRL teams. This strategy entails a defender engaging both the lead runner as well as an intended receiver behind them. However, should the ball bypass the lead runner, the defender has to scramble astutely to block the receiver. But Walsh’s speed remains an insurmountable factor.
“We saw in Origin III [when Walsh was suspended], AJ Brimson is a great young player, but he doesn’t have the acceleration coming around on those block plays,” says Johns. “The acceleration opens up the three-on-two overlap while also exerting pressure on the back-rower and half, or the four-man and three-man [in from the sideline]. The only way to neutralise him is to execute an aggressive jam with the centre and winger each time.”
Walsh debuted in the Broncos‘ colours during a round-two clash against the Cowboys, swiftly showcasing his worth. Not only did he set up two tries, but he also demonstrated an uncanny ability to engage multiple defenders thereby creating openings for his teammates.
Roger Fabri, a revered sprint coach who regularly trains NRL players, noted “his quickness is something I haven’t seen since James Roberts. He’s unbeatable. If there was a race over 20 meters, he would be untouchable.”
During the series, fellow player Walsh gave an appreciative nod to Billy Slater, their Queensland trainer. After a candid one-on-one with Slater at the season’s outset, Walsh felt equipped to face the toughest challenges the league presented him with.
Speaking after the series, Walsh said, “He challenged me at the start of the year. Honest conversation. The want and care for me to be better…one of the best fullbacks to play this game. Taking his time to try to make you better as a person or player, I would do anything for Bill. I would run through a brick wall for him.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that momentum in game two turned on a dime due to Walsh’s breathtaking speed. In that match, he left Tom Trbojevic scrambling near his own line, leading to a desperate tackle that resulted in a season-ending injury for Trbojevic.
After Walsh’s performance in his comeback game last month, Broncos trainer Kevin Walters was left in awe. “He’s lightning quick,” he said. “I don’t feel he’s played his best footy for us yet. He fits into any side with his speed and skill level. He’s a great young fella to coach.”
However, to coach against him is a nightmare, as many teams have yet to figure out the secret to stopping him.