They are the men at the back, the last player between the opposition and the try line, standing solid under the high ball as a wall of defenders rushes towards them. Now, more than ever, they are thrust into attacking raids as a key link between the halves and the outside backs. Fullbacks have never been more important to the success of a club than they are today. At State of Origin level they can mean the difference between winning and losing.
There is currently a wealth of top-notch fullback talent in the NRL and in a quirk of coincidence the majority of them are eligible to play for New South Wales. Blues coach Brad Fittler has had to deal with the issue in recent years, squeezing up to four fullbacks into his squads working on the principle of picking the best players first before finding a position for them.
With James Tedesco the game's leading fullback, Fittler moved Latrell Mitchell to the centres where he partnered Tom Trbojevic, arguably the next best two fullbacks in the NRL. In 2020 Fittler tried Clint Gutherson in the centres and has had Ryan Papenhuyzen on the bench and Nicho Hynes in the squad. It is raining fullbacks for the Blues and it looks to continue for some years.
Roosters and Blues captain James Tedesco is 28 and has entrenched himself in the Blues team and continues to lead his battered club side on their quest to finish the season in the crucial Top 4. Tedesco is the quintessential modern fullback, popping up all over the field when the defence is least prepared to handle him. Darting around the ruck, breaking the ankles of back-pedaling forwards, sniffing out half gaps and exploiting every weakness. He is the master of support play, so that when he isn't making breaks, he is there to finish them off. This season he has played 17 games for the Roosters, scoring 8 tries, setting up 15, with 112 tackle breaks and 11 line breaks. He has run 3014 metres at an average of 177 per game.
It seems almost every week we see a stunning performance from Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic, as the 24-year-old leads the Sea Eagles towards the finals. There is little he can't do, with a devastating running game and deft passing ability. So far this season he has crossed for 19 tries, with 25 try assists, 72 tackle breaks and 20 line breaks. He has run for a total of 2760 metres at an average of 212 metres per game, despite missing eight games through injury and representative duties. Trbojevic is widely tipped to pick up the Dally M Medal this year, despite his absences.
Over at the Rabbitohs, Latrell Mitchell, also 24, improves every week as he silences the doubters, who insisted he would struggle with the transition from brilliant centre to fullback. He has formed a lethal partnership with Rabbitohs five-eighth Cody Walker, tearing defences apart with bullocking runs and a sublime ability to throw the perfect pass at the perfect time. In 15 games for Souths this season he has scored 10 tries while setting up 14, with 84 tackle breaks and 15 line breaks. He has run for a total of 2126 metres at an average of 141 metres per game.
Melbourne Storm continue to play a juggling act with Nicho Hynes and Ryan Papenhuyzen, with coach Craig Bellamy searching for the best way to utilize his bounty of fullback talent. Hynes will depart at the end of the season for the Sharks where he will likely play in the halves due to the strength of current fullback Will Kennedy. Papenhuyzen has returned from a worrying head injury to reclaim the Storm fullback spot, with Hynes showing his versatility by moving to halfback as a short term replacement for an injured Jahrome Hughes.
Clinton Gutherson is the heart and soul of the Parramatta Eels, leading by example despite the frustrations of another fading season and his own contract negotiations. After struggling in the centres for the Blues in the 2020 State of Origin decider, Gutherson was left out of the 2021 series, but Fittler has let it be known that he is right up there in consideration for a bench spot. Having played in 21 games for the Eels this season, Gutherson has scored 12 tries and set up 16 while making 76 tackle breaks and 14 line breaks. He has run for a total of 3566 metres at an average of 169 metres per game.
Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards has struggled with injuries the last couple of years, but is a key part of the Panthers success story when he is playing. He has played 15 games this season, scoring 5 tries while setting up another 4. He has made 77 tackle breaks with 5 line breaks on the way to running 2962 metres at an average of 197 metres per game.
It is no coincidence that the best fullbacks in the game are leading their club teams deep into the finals. A look at the current NRL ladder sees these potential Blues fullbacks and the clubs they represent filling the top six positions in the following order: 1st Ryan Papenhuyzen (Storm), 2nd Dylan Edwards (Panthers), 3rd Latrell Mitchell (Rabbitohs), 4th James Tedesco (Roosters), 5th Tom Trbojevic (Sea Eagles), 6th Clint Gutherson (Eels). The first Queensland fullbacks on the ladder are Kalyn Ponga (Knights) at 7th and AJ Brimson (Titans) at 8th.
New South Wales also have William Kennedy of the Sharks, Daine Laurie of the Tigers and Matt Dufty of the Dragons in their very health book of fullback talent.
Determined to fight back following the long-term dominance of Queensland, the Blues look set to enjoy a lengthy period of prosperity, certainly when it comes to the vital man up the back.