It is no longer a great surprise to glance at a Super League team sheet and see three props named in the starting line-up.
Indeed, the trend of kicking off with a front rower in the loose forward position has been a growing one for a number of years, and this season alone we’ve seen the likes of Chris Hill, Dom Crosby and Brad Singleton selected there.
In days gone by, the loose forward provided a key link between the forwards and backs — a player who could handle the tough stuff in the middle but had a slight of hand that allowed him to figure as an extra halfback as well.
Now, they’re lucky if they even get given the label loose forward — several modern coaches simply lump them in with their front rowers under the heading “middles”, the latest new unofficial position in a sport that also has “edges”.
Sports evolve and change of course, but is there still a place for a traditional number 13 in modern Rugby League?
There are some that remain specialist loose forwards. Wigan and England captain Sean O’Loughlin is the most obvious one; a player who can launch attacks out wide at the same time as mixing the rough stuff with Super League’s biggest up front. Hull FC’s Joe Westerman is another in that mould.
Then there is the great enigma that is Leeds star Adam Cuthbertson. Signed supposedly as a prop, having played some back row in the NRL, Cuthbertson’s emergence as Super League’s offload king has created perhaps an entirely new category of loose forward — one with the size of a front rower but with excellent handling skills, if not those suited to operating as an extra playmaker.
But on the whole, coaches have turned more to either a workaholic forward that can top the tackle and hit-up counts — see Tyrone McCarthy or Mark Flanagan — or those out-and-out front rowers, giving teams more size and presence for the all important battle to seize control of the ruck (another relatively new league term).
When Super League launched in 1996, old fashioned loose forwards were still very much in vogue, and there were few, if any better than Paul Sculthorpe.
Along with his great rival Andy Farrell, the pair set the standards for number 13 play, combining creativity with stirring hit-ups.
For Sculthorpe, the demise of the classical loose forward comes down to a change in emphasis for the sport.
“The way I played, I was lucky that I had both parts of the game — I could play as a running forward or be more creative with the ball,” Sculthorpe told RLW.
“But the way the game has changed, it’s much more about winning the play-the-ball and the ruck. When I look back there isn’t as much flair in the game now — everything is more direct.
“A lot of clubs are using an extra prop rather than having a creative player at loose forward. We did that at times when I was playing, and I’d move to six if Longy (Sean Long) or Tommy (Martyn) were out. But you see coaches putting three props out more often now. There is still the odd one around — Sean O’Loughlin is very much like me and can play both roles — he has a strong running game and a creative side to him as well. But they are few and far between and that’s a shame. I know it’s about winning the speed of the play-the-ball, and that’s when the likes of James Roby and Daryl Clark are so influential — they can cut teams apart. That’s where the focus has gone, it’s very much an arm-wrestle now and a lot less creative.”
Mention of O’Loughlin brings us to the Wigan loose forward. While many of his peers have changed position in recent years — Kevin Sinfield being the most obvious example — O’Loughlin has remained a number 13 in the traditional sense more than most.
“The role has changed, definitely,” he explained.
“Growing up playing loose forward, I was almost a bit half-like — it was a similar role to a six.
“We played with the six and 13 on opposite sides and the seven roamed around. We were locked in on one edge or the other. As I came into the first team there was still a little bit of that and some ball playing. Growing up I was always a loose forward, but I did play a little bit at nine and in the halves.
“Being able to ball play as well as defend in the middle is something I’ve always enjoyed doing.
“The way I like to play is kind of moulded into that position.”
O’Loughlin has seen other sides change their approach more markedly, however.
“A lot of it comes down to personnel and the way different sides play,” he said.
“Loose forwards have been pushed more into the middle unit now, as we call it, than when I first started playing.
“Then more teams tended to go with three big blokes and even three front rowers in that middle unit. It’s become just like having three front rowers on for some teams, but there are still some that I’d class as your old-school 13s that are playing. There’s still a place for them in the modern game. You don’t want to pigeonhole your 13 as a front rower.
“There’s definitely still a role for a ‘middle’ that can play with the ball.
“But nowadays you do have to have a bit of size about you because you’re part of that middle unit.
“When I grew up I was a bit more on an edge, and wasn’t coming up against front rowers week-in, week-out which is tough for young 13s coming through now.
“Naturally as you get older you get physically stronger and bigger, and as a slight, skinny bloke starting out, playing in the middle against some of those front rowers was always a battle.”
Asking O’Loughlin and Sculthorpe about their own loose forward idols growing up provides another interesting glimpse into the past.
O’Loughlin responded: “There was obviously Faz (his brother-in-law Farrell) — he was a traditional loose forward. He played around the middle but he had that halfback skill about him as well. He could see a play and throw the ball about as well. As I was approaching first team he was who I modelled my game on a little bit. Phil Clarke was an old school loose forward and Ellery Hanley — they were the guys I was watching growing up.”
Hanley was also the main man for Sculthorpe.
“My hero as a kid was Ellery, although there was a loose forward that wasn’t really creative or a passer — he was an out-and-out athlete. He wasn’t like today’s loose forwards either; he had more of a free role with what he did. Him being Great Britain captain when I was growing up, he was always somebody that I looked up to.”
Of all the clubs in Super League, Warrington’s use of the loose forward position is arguably the most interesting.
Their first choice player is Ben Harrison, very much in that workaholic forward mould up front.But at different stages this year coach Tony Smith has also used Chris Hill, Stefan Ratchford and even Daryl Clark at the back of the scrum, depending on his gameplan. The Wolves coach has watched the position evolve throughout his career — and not just in terms of time.
“I always found lock, as it was in Australia, was different to what it was in England,” Smith said.
“It was less of a ball player in Australia, and really just another back-rower. Now they’ve turned into another front row quite often, although not in all cases and every team has a slightly different version. In Australia it basically used to be a back rower with maybe a bit more speed and not quite as much size as the second rowers. That’s how I was brought up. When I came to England, the loose forward was more of a ball player and that was a bit different to adjust to.”
Now that position has taken on all manner of different forms.
“It’s a middle man as we call them — they play in the middle unit defensively,” Smith explained.
“A lot of teams play with three props on the park, but not always. We’ve had Stefan Ratchford at loose forward this year and often put Daryl Clark there when [Brad] Dwyer stays on.
“Joe Westerman at Hull is more the traditional English loose forward, where he likes to get the ball in his hands a lot and play what I would have classed a halfback style of play, growing up.
“It has evolved. I don’t think any of them are dead and buried. There’s still a place for them as a specialist player — there will always be a role for someone with those extra skills to fill into other parts. Bigger is usually better, but not always. You have to be exceptional to be smaller nowadays. And it could change again here with the reduction of interchange in Australia. We could get more of a machine-like and robotic size and scale of player in our sport, which would be a shame. One of the beauties of our sport is having differing sizes — from Rob Burrow through to Mose Masoe. I think that’s fantastic, but we may end up with more machine-like people who can stay on the pitch longer but maybe not have a contrast in capabilities as much.”
Similarly, it would be a shame if the O’Loughlins and Westermans become the last of their species.