On Sunday night Jack Wighton will play at centre for New South Wales in the State of Origin. At the highest level of rugby league Wighton will be lining up in a position he hasn’t played for five years.
For many this is his natural home. Peter Sterling is perhaps the most famous proponent of the ‘Jack is a natural centre’ take. It’s one shared by plenty of Canberra fans, and more rugby league commentators than you would think. Given his performance in 2019, it’s interesting that people continue to believe that Wighton should play outside the halves.
Now before we go on, we’re hardly here to tell you that we were sure he was going to succeed in his offseason move to six. We thought it might work if the Raiders took it slow, didn’t expect too much from him early, and let him stick to the shapes he knew operating as second receiver on the left. We thought it was a risk though, because Wighton had begun to perform like an elite fullback after four years of working it out, and because there wasn’t anyone obvious to backfill his position.
Well it turns out we needn’t have worried.
Wighton has become the arguably most important Raider. He is the fulcrum around which the Raiders left side attack has operated around. In a more conservative and sometimes stodgy attack than previous years, he has been crucial at keeping it functioning. He has shown that he can create for others, that he can make good choices on the edge (still a work in progress – see Origin one) and that he knows when to run the ball. He has also been central to the improved defensive operations of the side, providing vicious and physical defence on the Raiders left edge. Simply, he has been one of the form players of the competition as a five-eighth, and it’s this form that has seen him selected in Origin.
Sidebar: Jack doesn’t have great counting statistics so far in 2019. He only has three try assists on the season. This more a reflection of the flaw in official NRL statistics than anything. For example, against the Sharks, his ball so perfect grown men wept created a two-on-one for Jarrod Croker and Bailey Simonsson. Simonsson scored because of Wighton’s pass, but Croker gets the try-assist. Indeed, one of Jack’s biggest improvements is his willingness to get his centre and backrowers early ball in space to take advantage of mismatches.
It’s pretty common for players to be selected out of position in Origin. Immortal Andrew Johns played more than one game as a hooker. Brett Kenny played at centre to accommodate Cliffy Lyons. The Blues spent years fitting Laurie Daley into sides around Lyons and Brad Fittler. I’m sure 1992’s Peter Sterling (maybe also Peter Sterling?) was also pontificating about whether Lozza should shift back to centre.
Wighton doesn’t even have the pedigree that Lozza had at centre. He’s best football has been at one and six, and the move back to centre would be a profoundly bad idea.
For starters it would remove his most invaluable skill – his ability to execute the right choice on the left edge. This is a skill he developed as a fullback. Choosing whether to hit the centre, wing, or fullback with a pass, or take it himself, is something Wighton does brilliantly. One great example from the game against the Cowboys can be seen here.
Surprisingly, Wighton has shown an impressive kicking game. Close to the line he has been effective earning repeat sets, something that has felt foreign to Raiders fans in recent years. His long kicking has been instrumental in the Raiders defensive improvement, slotting the ball into the corners through high and/or long kicks, and leading the chase down to smash the opposition in their defensive corners. He’s even picked up a couple of 40/20s.
That he’s doing all those things is one thing. That’s he’s doing all these things at a very good if not elite level after just rounds in the role is astounding. The longer he’s in the role the more he’s playing as a lead half instead of a split half or the running five-eighth we speculatively limited him with. He takes the ball at first receiver, he directs the attack. As he develops I suspect he’ll spend more time on the right and effectively operate as the Raiders prime director outside of Hodgson, a five-eighth in name only, much like Terry Campese was, or Laurie Daley in the post-Stuart era.
It would be a waste of Wighton’s potential, and to the detriment of the Raiders if they were to shunt him back out to centre. At a very basic level Jack would touch the ball less. In the recent win over the Sharks he passed the ball 29 times (plus 12 runs). Compare that to Jarrod Croker (8 and 7 runs) or Nic Cotric (2 and 7 runs). The mere maths of Jack having only 10-15 opportunities to create seems madness given how important he’s been to the Raiders scoring in 2019.
Further, moving him to centre and off the ball renders so many of the skills Wighton has displayed in 2019 moot. At centre his only pass choice is to the wing. Otherwise he’s dependent on the five eighth to make decisions for him – decisions he’s already making at an elite level. Instead the raiders would have Aidan Sezer or in 2020 George Williams at that spot. It’s hard to see them performing better than Wighton has done in 2019.
Finally, the amount of money that Wighton is on (reportedly 750k a year) is wasted on a centre. That level of cash needs to go to the people that play a big role in whether you win or lose, to the people that touch the ball 40 plus times a game rather than 15. For years in these pages we’ve pointed out the Green Machine have to be smarter than other teams with how they use their cap. Spending halves money on a centre is not how you do that.
So where does this constant questioning of Jack’s position come from? Much of this question of Wighton’s position comes from the likelihood of the arrival of George Williams in 2020 and their shared preference for operating on the left hand side. There are plenty of options to deal with this. Jack’s game may continue to develop to the point where he becomes the first receiver on both sides of the ruck. Williams or Jack may be forced to play on the right. Williams may not even be able to unseat Aidan Sezer to start. None of these solutions seem perfect now, but they’re more about the fit of Williams than they are of the best position of Wighton.
Some of the questioning comes from a disbelief in what Jack has achieved. To slot into the halves so effortlessly is an achievement, particularly given his time off at the end of 2018.
It also comes from perceptions formed years ago that have yet to catch up with the experience of 2019. Old ideas die hard, and ‘Wighton is a centre’ is just another example. No matter how he goes in State of Origin it’s time for everyone to accept that Jack Wighton is a six, and a proper good one at that.