In a recent analysis of the State of Origin series, it has become apparent that smaller, more mobile players are having a greater impact on the game. This shift in the dynamics of rugby league has been noted by Mal Meninga, a three-time premiership winner, Immortal, and the most successful coach in Origin history.
During game two of the series, Meninga observed that the traditional rule of the “good big man” beating the “good little man” no longer holds true. Despite NSW having more opportunities to score, Queensland held a 10-0 lead at half-time. The mobility and speed of the Maroons‘ pack proved to be a significant advantage.
Meninga points out that Origin games are played at a much faster pace than regular league matches. He sat with the Catapult (GPS analysts and sports scientists) during game two and was amazed by the average running distance of players like Reuben Cotter, who was averaging over 120 metres per minute.
The introduction of the six-again rules has played into the hands of a mobile forward pack like Queensland’s. With the likelihood of sin bins and Head Injury Assessments (HIA) affecting a team’s plans, having agile and quick forwards has become crucial.
However, Meninga also acknowledges the value of bigger players like Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, and Payne Haas, as their size and strength can still provide benefits. But players like Cotter and Cameron Murray, who can cover the field efficiently, are becoming increasingly important in the modern game.
The New South Wales team has recognised this shift in the game and has adjusted their forward pack accordingly. They have shed 25 kilograms from their pack and bench composition between game one and three of the series. The inclusion of players like Jake Trbojevic, Keaon Koloamatangi, and Murray has given them a more mobile and agile pack, similar to Queensland’s.
Greg Alexander, a Blues advisor, agrees that having a balance between big and small players is essential. While mobility is crucial, there will always be a need for big men in the game, depending on the desired style of play and the team’s capacity to carry them.
This trend of smaller, faster forwards prevailing can also be seen in the NRL. The grand finalists from last year, Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels, showcase two different styles of play. Penrith’s pack has slimmed down even further since their victory over Parramatta in the 2020 finals, while the Eels rely on their power game and offload-centric play.
The Panthers‘ light and agile forwards, led by players like James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota, have proven to be formidable opponents despite being smaller in size. Their ability to match and even exceed the physicality of larger props has been a contributing factor to their success.
This has been evident in matches against teams like the Sydney Roosters, who have struggled with their larger forwards’ lateral movement in defense. Penrith’s precision in attack, coupled with the speed and skill of players like Mitch Kenny and Fisher-Harris, has allowed them to exploit defensive weaknesses and create scoring opportunities.
For the past four seasons, Penrith’s smaller, faster, and more skilled forwards have consistently outperformed their opponents. When the stakes are high, in games like State of Origin or sudden-death finals, it is increasingly the smaller players who are emerging as the victors.
As rugby league continues to evolve, it is clear that mobility, speed, and skill are becoming vital attributes for success in the sport. While there will always be a place for larger forwards, teams with a balance between big and small players are finding the most success on the biggest stages.