Maroons To Face Centre Shortage
They were the players Queensland Origin folklore was built upon.
Origin's first man of the match, the rampaging Chris Close; giant Gene Miles who needed four Blues to tie up those long limbs; the colossus that was Mal Meninga, a man who rewrote representative record books through to the silky smooth Steve Renouf, the passion and bravery of Brent Tate, the sly skills of Justin Hodges and the modern marvel that is Greg Inglis.
But as the next wave of Maroons gather in Queensland's south-east over the next week, there is a question that must be asked: where have all the Queensland centres gone?
Only one member of the 20-strong Emerging Origin squad that will assemble on the Gold Coast next Friday – Rooster Dale Copley – is a recognised centre and the three Queensland-based NRL teams are likely to start 2017 with only one Maroons-eligible centre amongst them (North Queensland's Justin O'Neill).
O'Neill and Inglis were the Maroons centre pairing for Game Three last year but a look through NRL.com's predicted line-ups for Round 1 suggests that there will be only five Queenslanders (O'Neill, Dane Gagai, Will Chambers, Hymel Hunt and Ricky Leutele) lining up in the three-quarters for their respective clubs.
And the news is not much better in the junior grades, evidenced by exciting Broncos prospect Gehamat Shibasaki last year representing both the Queensland under-18s and under-20s only weeks apart.
Former Maroons centre Josh Hannay is now charged with ushering through the next generation as coach of the Queensland under-18s team and believes that the way the game is played in the modern era has all but brought an end to the days of 'strike centres'.
On Friday at the Queensland Academy of Sport camp in Brisbane Hannay spoke to his under-18s about facing Renouf and the Broncos at the then ANZ Stadium but says as teams now prefer to go through opposition defences, there is less and less space to go around them.
"The way the game is currently played a winger has more of an influence and impact on a game than a centre. A centre in the game today almost seems like a dying art, a lost art," Hannay told NRL.com.
"The days where you would set up to play to your strike centre are just about gone.
"I was telling the boys about some of my experiences against the great Broncos sides of the late 1990s when they were at QEII and you would turn up in the bus and get chills down your spine.
"Brisbane would play a style of footy where they would play to 'Pearl' (Renouf) and they would have 'Locky' (Darren Lockyer) as the fullback sniffing around him but those days are gone.
"You just don't see teams play to strike centres anymore."
Shibasaki was only midway through his first season in the under-20s and still just 18 years of age when he was selected to play in the Under-20s Origin match three weeks after playing for the under-18s state team.
Although a gifted young talent tipped for a bright future, that in itself was seen as a sign that Queensland's centre stocks were something of a concern in the junior ranks.
"At the [Queensland] camp this time last year I was in the 18s camp and I wasn't expecting anything from the 20s," Shibasaki told NRL.com.
"I knew I was playing in the same competition where they were getting picked at but judging by all the older boys in front of me I thought I wouldn't have made it through.
"But due to some injuries I luckily got a chance to play and I was shocked."
Now an assistant coach with the Cowboys as well as being the Queensland under-18s mentor, Hannay suggests that coaches are now looking for centres who can bust through the line rather than use their speed to go around it.
"Centres and back-rowers from a physical point of view a lot of the time are very similar," Hannay said.
"Possibly good young centres that are coming through with a good build are being moulded into back-rowers or if they don't have the build but have the speed they're being pushed out to a wing.
"I've got no data or analysis to back this up but I think for some time now the game has trended in a way that has basically played the centres out of the game.
"So coaches now are thinking that if they've got a great centre let's put him at fullback or mould him into a back-rower and that centre guy is almost just making up the numbers.
"There doesn't seem to be this need anymore, because of the way the game is being played, to have strike centres."
This article first appeared on NRL.com