Thrilling Super League trio shine off the bench
Matt Ogborn @mattogborn
Rugby league is often derided as a simplistic tit for tat carried out by bulked-up gym rats, however that stance does a huge disservice to the sublime skills seen on a weekly basis.
Their slick ball handling, crafty kicking and game-changing vision have wowed crowds at either end of the earth time and again.
What of the bit-part players, though? The replacements that rarely start a game but come off the interchange bench to lift the crowd or provide a welcome spark to salvage one.
Their value to a sport fighting on the fringes of mass attention often gets overlooked, which is a shame as they are often fan favourites who sacrifice playing time for the greater good. When the Super League decided to adopt similar measures to the NRL in Australia and increase the number of interchanges from a pool of four substitutes to 12 from six, including blood bins, it changed the face of the game on these shores.
Along with the timing of the season from February to October, it marks league out from its sister code union and has helped to make heroes of players who would otherwise get sidelined.
For those sports fans who have been sitting on the fence about rugby league, there could have been no better advert for the northern code than the Grand Final last October. A rollercoaster affair staged in difficult playing conditions, the game could not fail to leave you watching from the edge of your seat whether you were lucky enough to be there at Old Trafford or salivating expectantly at home.
Quite rightly considered one of the best impact players of the last few years, the diminutive half back glided through the grasp of the bewildered opposition defence like knife through butter to spark a comeback that saw the Rhinos get their hands on the trophy again.
It was not the first time that the 29-year-old had got the call from coach to strip off his tracksuit when Leeds were on the rack and in need of a slippery saviour. His mesmeric display in the 2007 Grand Final against St Helens, when he won the first of his two Harry Sunderland Trophy awards, was already branded on the minds of league fans up and down the land.
Burrow himself does not court the spotlight, preferring to exist in the celebrity shadows. Asked if his big-stage heroics had ever gone to his head, he replied: “The big hits and power is not something I am blessed with and I have to approach my game differently, work hard to make the size factor a positive, not to the detriment of my game.
“I am trying to stay away from the big guys and make it hard to catch me. There is a role for any size guy out there. I have to keep improving every year. I was a Leeds fan growing up so I loved watching Iestyn Harris, who for me was the best player in the comp at that stage in my teens.
“I watched people like Alfie (Allan) Langer for his size growing up and certainly the latter part of my teens was Iestyn. He was a total role model for any player and his ability on the pitch was enough to put anyone in awe, especially me.
“Players like Billy Slater and Darren Lockyer are one of a kind and if you can be a fraction as good as what those players are, then you are in with a shout. What they do on the pitch speaks for itself, but I think if you look at most of the sensational players like that, it is what they do off the pitch as well.”
You do not need to go far to find another player celebrated by his home fans for his small, yet meaningful, contributions. Warrington Wolves were the form team of the regular season in 2011, their enterprising brand of rugby marking them out before a disappointing semi-final performance against Burrow’s Rhinos ended their hopes of Grand Final glory.
Try gluttons like Joel Monaghan and Ryan Atkins get the lion’s share of the headlines, along with international regulars such as Adrian Morley, Ben Westwood and Garreth Carvell, but there is one man who dominates pub conversations around the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
David Solomona’s legs might not last the full 80 minutes, nevertheless the Kiwi’s cameo influence is crucial to the Wolves’ cause. The years spent with Sydney City Roosters and Parramatta Eels, after learning his trade in the Auckland school system, have given Solomona the tools to bamboozle defences.
He has taken the art of the offload to a new level, his powerful frame and deft hands giving his team-mates a plethora of attacking options in the final third of the field. Just ask Brett Hodgson, Matt King, Chris Bridge, Lee Briers and Richard Myler who have also benefitted from Solomona’s silky skills to cross the line more than 10 times each last season.
Speaking after a nasty training injury broke his leg on the pre-season tour of Australia, the affable 34-year-old revealed: “Everyone remembers who won the comp and we just happened to have been the best team all season then not won. It is a bit disheartening, but we have had a few talks over here and I think that the experience has been great for the team.
“People forget that a few years ago nobody was even talking about Warrington reaching the top eight, let alone being a championship team. The fact of us not being in the Grand Final was a massive let down, but a compliment to the way everything has shaped up the last few years towards us.
“I enjoy the way the boys play here. Tony (Smith) gives us a broad outline, but the boys like to play off the cuff and Tony loves it. At training, Tony says to try things. I loved the fans at Wakey (Wakefield) and Bradford but I am quite shocked how much the fans have taken to me at Warrington. I love the fact that they have a little song for me.
“Any time you get complimented like that is a good thrill. The game is ultimately changing to a more fast-paced game. I am pretty fortunate to be at a team like Warrington at my stage in my career. The fact I get to come off the bench and play with such good players, probably makes it a lot easier.
“Normally by the time I get on the field, we have scored four or five tries so it gives me an opportunity to try more things. I wouldn’t call it showboating. I grew up playing basketball and everyone tries stuff like that in New Zealand. I enjoy doing stuff that other people don’t really try.”
With Rob at one end of the height spectrum and David in the middle, Huddersfield have a Giant of their own in Eorl Crabtree, who towers above opposition teams whether it be off the bench or his more recent starting role.
A one-club man, much like Burrow, Eorl has always put the team first too since he started in 2000 in his late teens and he has no intention of taking his bullish frame anywhere else.
The 29-year-old said: “To be honest, we are a little bit short in the pack at the moment with a few injuries. We have got a couple of young lads coming through, who will have to fill positions left by a couple of other players leaving the club. For me, it is a case of trying to stay fit as long as possible and put in a good stint.
“I will probably have to play a few more minutes and drag a couple of the young lads through. I had an operation at the end of last season and, naturally, lost a bit of weight off the back of that. I think it has done me the world of good, because I have managed to keep the six kilos off and it has made a bit of difference to my game. I am probably not quite as powerful, but I am a heck of a lot fitter which is quite nice.
“I have always been an impact player. The tide has turned now and I am becoming more experienced. We don’t have the luxury of bringing someone on to make an impact and lift the team. We need me on from the beginning and cement us a good position.
“I have always been at Huddersfield, recognise that I am a local lad and I have never really wanted to go anywhere else. It’s probably where I will end my career and I enjoy having that banter with the crowd. As I’ve got older, I’ve started to have more fun, relax into it and take it all on board.
“I think the replacement situation has been really good for the game and changed the complexion of the game, because now people like me with a bigger frame are not being phased out of the game. You can get caught out, because there are so many quick players around you. That’s why, for me, I have had to lose a bit of weight.
“It’s not like I was fat anyway, I’ve just always been big. It was something that I was conscious of and the fact you have 10 subs means there is more time for the props to be rotated. I’ve absolutely loved it and it’s been good to make my name off of that instead of being (the wrestler) Big Daddy’s nephew in a sport that I love.”
The genuine comradeship between different players from different clubs is heartwarming and a far cry from the prima donna behaviour we are forced to witness in sports that are less deserving of the money and time fans put into them.
Burrow said: “Eorl is a big strong unit and its people like him and Dave Solomona that I try to stay away from. If they do get their hands on you, they let you know about it.
“There is no better feeling either than the cheer you get when you come on from the Rhinos fans, who are the best fans in any sport even though I am biased being a Leeds player. They certainly get behind us and the support they gave us in the playoffs away at places like Huddersfield and Warrington and Old Trafford and got behind us in big numbers.”
Solomona echoed Burrow’s sentiments, saying: “You probably couldn’t get two more physically different players in Eorl and Rob. One that is five foot and one that is almost seven foot. What can you say about Eorl? I hate playing him, well both of them as they are both so hard to tackle.
“Eorl is what he is, a flipping big beast and brings a big presence to the game. Heaps of respect too for someone like Rob as I have lots of friends who play with him at Leeds and I have never heard anyone say one bad thing about him. I have a lot of respect for players that are good on and off the pitch and I think Rob is a tremendous player and person and one of the players everyone hates playing against as he always makes a big impact.”
How can rugby league draw fans over from union then, together with disaffected football and cricket lovers?
Crabtree said: “The Grand Final was fantastic. We need more supporters and we are always going to struggle against union, but what we can do is focus on our own strengths especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s good to see other clubs like Widnes getting back in, because that’s another breeding ground for great players and great fans. I was disappointed when it went to Wales before, no disrespect to them, but I would like to see the likes of Halifax and Widnes get back up.
“It is a great sport and we have been unlucky that we don’t get quite as much publicity as other sports, even though it is such a great game. We will always lose players to rugby union, especially for the cash, and you can’t blame them to be honest as it’s a business at the end of the day. They are trying to better their futures for them and their families. We can try and get more involved through businesses and things like that and we will start holding onto players.
“Obviously you have your star players like Sam Tomkins here and Billy Slater down in Australia. You want exciting players and that’s part of what we need to do. We can learn a lot from American football even though it’s a totally different sport, because it is so theatrical and there is so much enjoyment and effort put into making it a big exciting game.
“It is not just the rugby played on the field, but also the characters in the game. It needs looking at, we need more characters and, if we have that, we get more people interested.”
Burrow, Crabtree and Solomona have been thrilling supporters for years and, if the powers that be are looking for characters to elevate the game, they need look no further than these three jewels in the league crown.
The Super League season has just started, so watch Sky Sports to see the Rhinos, Wolves and Giants
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