Over the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to roll out a couple of posts about some of the key halves combos in the NRL at the moment, starting with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford in my next post and then moving on to Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds, Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary, James Tedesco and Luke Brooks, as well as a few lesser-known pairings. Before that, however, I’d like to spend a couple of moments thinking about the halfback position and why it’s such a compelling part of the game.
Halves are some of the most contested positions on the field, something that’s particularly noticeable when Origin selection comes around, which is perhaps why so many footy players specialise in a constellation of positions that revolve around halfback, positions that often feel like waiting-rooms or holding-pens before they can get their hands on that most coveted of footy positions. Or, more accurately, before they’ve found that most coveted of footy soulmates: their proper halves pairing. Because halves are the bromance par excellence of Rugby League – and that’s saying something – which perhaps explains why halves always seem like the most restless players, both on and off the field. Whether in their mobility with the ball, or their cruising from club to club, there’s a sense that the genuine halfback won’t rest or stop wandering until they’ve found their ideal partner in crime, the one footy player they need to consummate their own footy. No two players need to be in sync and synergise as much as a halves pair, which is one of the reasons why it doesn’t make sense to me to discuss any of the NRL’s current halves stable in isolation.
Because halves have to communicate so seamlessly throughout the match, they also tend to be some of the most charismatic footy players out there, with the strongest halves players often imparting their charisma to the whole team. Where a captain provides direction, halves provide character. Wests Tigers are case in point. You can’t imagine their gameplay without Farah, but you can’t imagine their cheeky resilience without Tedesco and Brooks either. In fact, halves are often the cheekiest players on the field in general, something I plan to discuss in my post on Hodkinson and Reynolds, my favourite halves pair – with Teddy and Brooks a close second – who’ve injected a much-needed comic dynamism back into both the Dogs and the Blues, with impressive results on both counts. Even if they’re not always big talkers, you can say as much in the way you pass a Steeden as the way you discuss it afterwards, and the on-field, body-to-body communion between Hodkinson and Reynolds is as different from that of Tedesco and Brooks as the banter of Matty Johns is different from that of Fatty Vautin. I’ve written elsewhere that banter is the universal language of League, the leveller that collapses pro and utility, retiree and young gun, into the same playing field. If that’s the case, then the halfbacks are the levellers par excellence, the players that gather everyone into the game and make them feel included, due to their unique way of taking equal responsibility for what effectively amounts to physical banter, an endlessly inventive to-and-fro with the ball that makes them a total powerhouse to watch.
All of which brings me to another point: halves are often where League feels most original as a game, something that’s often not apprent to detractors in more “innovative” sports like AFL, Rugby or A-League. The best halves pairings have something improbable about them – odd couples – for the simple fact that you can’t depend upon another player so seamlessly unless you have a few quirks and tics that you can’t take care of by yourself. Halves may be co-dependent, but that’s only because they tend to be fairly eccentric on their own terms, which sometimes makes them unpopular as individuals, even if they become cult figures the moment they step into their halfback boots (I’m looking at you, Josh Reynolds). That’s not to say that halves can’t be top-tier League geniuses on their own either, but they they shine especially bright when they’re paired with their better half. Not surprisingly, halves often have the biggest online following as well, generating more memes, posts and tumblr account than most other players combined. In the world of online film and TV fandom, fanboys and fangirls often refer to their favourite film or TV couple as their OTP, or One True Pairing. I’d like to suggest that the same kind of fandom often attaches to footy halves as well, except that your favourite halves pair tends to morph into your One True Player, rather than your One True Pairing, a four-armed, four-legged footy machine who’s infinitely more than the sum of his halfback parts.
In the wake of last night’s Broncos-Bunnies smashdown, it only seems right to start my tour of current footy halves with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford, and that’s where I’ll kick off next time. In the meantime, I think last night’s match clarified that this year’s Grand Final is going to hinge on the halves, perhaps even more so than Origin. With their fullback down for the count, the Bunnies need to lean on their pairs as never before, while Brisbane seems to have unveiled its newfound conviction on the basis of Hunt and Milford’s incredible tagteam at Allianz last night. Similarly, the departure of Anthony Minichiello and the stunning defeat in Origin III has made a bit of a dent in the Maloney-Pearce machine, while the fact that Manly made its bid for the 2014 finals off a halves pair of Kieran Foran and DCE pretty much summarises everything about the way the club has lost confidence over the course of this year. So, all in all, the halves are going to play a big role. And that’s just another ingredient in what makes finals footy so great.