Roosters half Sam Walker is a phenomenal attacking talent.
Since bursting into first grade in round four, he’s got more try assists than proven NRL creators Jarome Luai, Mitchell Moses and Jahrome Hughes.
But for the Roosters coaches, there’s just one problem.
Walker’s defensive game is … how to put this delicately … improving.
Ultimately, his struggles are no surprise. Walker is listed at 78 kilograms. And he’s nursing a shoulder injury that required a painkilling injection in order for him to make his debut.
To Walker’s credit, his missed tackles have only led to a handful of tries.
And he doesn’t lack confidence in his ability in the line.
“I think you see the skinny little white boy out on the field, I think you know where to run!” he joked to NRL.com last month.
“To have someone like Brett Morris and Joey Manu outside me and obviously Sitili [Tupouniua] on the inside, he gives me great confidence to be able to stand in front of them and know they’ll have my back.”
Sending Walker wide
Walker typically lines up inside his centre in defence, usually Joseph Manu. But from time to time he has lined up further out.
He’s not playing as a winger, but he is making more tackles in wide areas of the field than the man he replaced, the injured Luke Keary.
Shifting halves wider in the defensive line has long been a tactic employed by coaches to hide weaker or undersized defenders.
Jamie Soward played outside centre Mark Gasnier in the 2010 grand final victory over the Roosters.
And Benji Marshall played even further wide, beyond powerful winger Pat Richards on the left in the Tigers’ premiership win in 2005.
Doing the best they can
In 2021, there isn’t a half in the competition that is hidden the way Marshall was.
Instead, halves with defensive frailties pursue the tradition of relying on the players around them.
Tonie Carroll famously acted as enforcer for Darren Lockyer for the Broncos and in Origin.
Jamie Soward says Beau Scott, his teammate in the 2010 Dragons’ triumph, gave up a lot for him.
“Beau Scott sacrificed part of his career to look after me as much as he could,” he said.
That approach — halves doing what they can defensively in front of a safety net of teammates — remains in vogue.
Marshall has been thrust into Souths’ starting side after injuries this season.
Knowing his limitations, he typically rushes out of the line and tries to limit the ball going wide and redirect ball-runners back onto the inside.
Against Cronulla last weekend, Keaon Koloamatangi and Tevita Tatola provided support for Marshall on the inside, much like the help Walker gets from Tupouniua.
But there are some halves that don’t need the help.
Parramatta’s Dylan Brown is the standout defensive half in the competition.
His teammate Mitch Moses rarely does more than he needs to defensively, but the Eels’ number 6 doesn’t shy away from the dirty work and rarely misses a tackle.
Brown is, of course, currently suspended for using his knees in a tackle against Drew Hutchison, another defensive stalwart.
Last week, Brad Arthur slotted his son, Jakob, into Brown’s vacant position.
That’s asking a lot from the 18-year-old … a player the same age as Sam Walker and with more range but only a little more brawn.
He performed well against the Warriors on the weekend, scoring a try on debut. But he clearly tired late in the match.
On Sunday he’ll meet a Manly side featuring barnstorming fullback Tom Trbojevic behind a pack ready to uphold one of rugby league’s great traditions: running at the little man.
Five-eighth Jakob Arthur will play his second NRL match for Parramatta on Sunday afternoon against Manly.