By Ron Knox
February 20 2006
Thank you for all the postings in response to the first article on prop forwards. Shared knowledge is very rewarding and will be important in making the link up successful. I’d like to concentrate today on perhaps the one position that has changed in rugby league more than any other – the hooker.
What has proven to be instrumental in changing the role was both a rule change and a strict rule enforcement that took place about 5 years ago. The rule enforcement came about from the determination of the game’s ruling body, the Rugby Football League, to clamp down on interference at the play-the-ball to keep the game fast and flowing. In rugby league, as soon as a player’s momentum is stopped, the referee will call “held” or the number of tackles completed. At that point the tacklers must roll away immediately and allow the ball carrier to his feet. Any attempt to lie on the tackled player too long or interfere in any way results in an instant penalty. Persistent infringement or if done in stopping a certain try results in a yellow card and ten minutes in the sin bin. It is interesting that rugby union referees are penalising interference at the ruck in exactly the same way – severely. It’s important though to remember the play-the-ball is a non-competitive area. Teams in possession must be allowed to keep the ball. Are rucks becoming non-competitive too, teams preferring to keep more players in the defensive line? It’s an interesting tactical debate.
So why do rugby league players interfere at the PTB? You are allowed 2 markers there who must be standing square, i.e. behind each other. When teams are under pressure and getting tired, interference allows vital seconds to get markers in place. So up steps the one man in the attacking team whose principal responsibility it is to take advantage of this – the hooker. When the tackled player plays the ball by rolling it under his foot, the hooker’s job is to pick it up and then has an important decision about the next play. Usually this means passing off the floor to the first receiver. But smart hookers will sometimes pick the ball up and go themselves if they spot the markers aren’t set. They can make breaks or set up play for supporting players. So the markers have to be ready at all times, and this puts a huge burden on fitness.
The other aspect of this is the rule change I referred to earlier which puts an even greater burden on fitness. To me this has brought about what I believe is one of the important differences between the two codes – the defensive line must stand back at least 10 metres at every PTB. This rule was brought about to give the attacking side more room to play, get tremendous momentum going forward and be very difficult to stop. It would not surprise me to see this rule being adopted in rugby union. It would stop endless phases of play that go nowhere. 5 metres is nothing (particularly in professional sport) to get into your opponent.
In rugby league this rule allows hookers at the PTB much more room to make the play. Perhaps the best exponent of this art in this country is Kieron Cunningham of St Helens – a brilliant passer, playmaker and very strong going forward. Others of note are Terry Newton (now of Bradford) a fierce, aggressive player, and Micky Higham (now of Wigan) who is lightning fast from the PTB.
You may have noticed I have not yet mentioned the scrum. But as the hooker never touches the ball in the scrum, it is hardly relevant.
The playmaking duties of the hooker has encouraged some clubs to play a half back in the role. Indeed London played the mercurial Mark McLinden there for a time last season. The problem with this is that the hooker stands in the middle of the field with the forwards and has some tough defensive duties to perform. This can leave converted half backs very tired.
Quins RL have just signed an outstanding hooker from Australia – Chad Randall from Manly. Chad has yet to perform in our colours but is by all accounts an outstanding play maker. Our other hooker is one of our outstanding emerging talents, Neil Budworth who was signed from Wigan as a youngster and has developed in to one of the game’s best hookers. Neil has a very rugged industrious defensive game and gives a very snappy service to the first receiver.
Hooker is such a pivotal position in rugby league and is one of the positions very different to the equivalent in ruby union. The others are probably second row and loose forward which we’ll look at next time.