When you’re selecting a football side, do you select your 17 best players? Or do you go through each position and pick your best player at each? The New South Wales Blues selection of Tom Trbojevic reveals much about their answer to this question.
Canberra Raiders fans are no doubt miffed Nic Cotric is not going to play in the first State of Origin game next week. A stellar start to the 2018 season was not enough to convince Coach Brad Fittler that the young Raider should feature. The man chosen in his stead, Tom Trbojevic is an incredibly talented footballer who will do his state proud. But the Blues have taken on a degree of risk by picking Trbojevic out of position instead of a specialist winger like Cotric.
It reflects a philopsphy that’s often adopted at representative level. Pick the most talented players and work out the positions later. It’s a completely understandable position and has been successful on many occasions. I’m sure you can remember Andrew Johns playing hooker so he and Brett Kimmorley could fit into the same squad. Brad Fittler and Laurie Daley shared space in origin teams. And it’s hardly like we haven’t seen fullbacks picked on the wing before. Queensland have made a habit of it, forced over the years to put together sides that included Slater, Boyd, Bowen, Wesser and Schifcoske because they lacked talent at other poistions. Just last year Queensland fit Slater, Boyd and Valentine Holmes into the same side.
Trbojevic has been picked because he’s a phenomenal player. You don’t get to play origin if you’re not. He is arguably the most talented player in the Blues’ back five. But Tommy Terrific has been picked because of his work as a fullback. His best mirrors what Tedesco does, perhaps with more finesse. His work is in the middle of the park. He can sniff a slow defender around the ruck, burst on to a ball, and set up play with the best of the modern fullbacks. Nowhere was this better demonstrated that in his side’s victory over Cotric’s Raiders in round four. Manly’s forward pack took a hammer to the middle of the Green Machine, and Trbojevic took every opportunity available. His statline that night is astonishing. 1 try, 4 try-assists, 3 line-breaks, 3 line-break assists and 205 metres that scythed the Raiders apart like a very ugly ninja.
But these skills are not necessarily the skills needed to play winger at the highest level. In the modern game, wingers are a unusual mix of power and pace. They do much of their work as pseudo-forwards, their dummy-half runs coming off their own goal-line critical in getting their side out of their own area and giving the forwards a rest. This yardage work occurs in the face of the biggest men of the competition. Further, finishing on the wing is an under-appreciated art in the modern game. Wingers contort their bodies or brutally assert themselves in the face of oncoming defence in order to score.
There is good reason to suggest that Cotric is superior to Trbojevic in these critical tasks. For starters Cotric leads the competition in line-breaks with 12, and has 75 tackle busts already this season. He has been brilliant for the Raiders in his yardage work coming off his own line, almost always bouncing out of the first tackle attempt made on him. And presented with a pathway to the goal line he will find it regardless of the defence. He has proven as safe as any under the high ball, and is a already a physically dominant defender.
Oh yeah, and he’s only 19. Have you heard?
Perhaps this is what convinced Fitler and the Blues’ selectors to go with Trbojevic. With a rumoured 11 debutants (including Trbojevic, though he has played for Australia) in the squad perhaps a teenager was a step to far. No doubt that the selectors felt that Trbojevic’s talent couldn’t be left out of the squad, and had to find a position to fit. It is likely it will have little to no impact on whether the Blues win, and Nic Cotric will play representative footy at some stage in the future.
But then again it might matter. Maybe Trbojevic will get muscled close to his line and the Blues will get stuck in a corner. Maybe Tommy Terrific will have an open field and get taken over the sideline. And maybe we will learn that maybe a simpler approach to selection is needed. Positions have relevant skills and jobs. Picking people to fit those roles can sometimes be more important that picking then fitting.