With the recent resumption of the NRL season, let’s take a look at the best players in the competition. Over recent years the role of a full-back has changed drastically. They’ve gone from a static presence at the back, to an advanced playmaker further up the field, especially in attack.
This data analysis will look at the stats from the 2019 NRL season, and compile an analysis on who the best full-backs are, narrowing the selections down to one. We have only considered players who have played a minimum of 10 games in the 2019 season at full-back. This means that some players have played different positions – meaning their data could be misleading. However, we will point this out when it is the case.
In the modern game, the full-back is seen as the third playmaker, after the five-eighth and half-back of course. This means that their positioning and intelligence in attack is paramount to the team.
The first graph below shows each player’s tries per game and line breaks per game. These are the best stats to measure a player’s attacking inputs. A line break is defined as a player breaking through the main defensive line.
There is one clear standout in the first graph; Sydney Roosters’ James Tedesco. The Australian international has been one of the best players in the world over recent years, let alone in the full-back position. Though he possesses great skills, his pace and power are what make him so effective in attack. He averages 0.95 line breaks per game and 0.75 tries per game.
After Tedesco, the player with the most tries per game is Kalyn Ponga. The 22-year-old has taken the NRL by storm since his debut for the North Queensland Cowboys in 2016. Now at the Newcastle Knights, Ponga’s attacking capabilities are some of the best in the world. Known for his explosive pace and deadly footwork, it is clear to see why his attacking input is so good. The youngster averages 0.75 line breaks per game and 0.55 tries per game.
The player with the second-most line breaks is Manly Warringah Sea Eagles’ Tom Trbojevic. Although his season was plagued with injuries, only managing 12 games, he was still effective when he played, averaging 0.91 line breaks and 0.41 tries per game.
A player outside of these three, but still competing well in both areas, is Ryan Papenhuyzen of Melbourne Storm. In his rookie season, he has certainly impressed. He has 0.77 line breaks per game and 0.4 tries per game.
Some full-backs possess many playmaking qualities, which means they are better suited to the third-playmaker role. Many of the modern-day full-backs are comfortable playing in the halves. We have measured their playmaking ability by try assists per game and line break assists per game.
No surprise that Matt Moylan, a player who has experience in the halves, comes out on top here. The Cronulla Sharks player only managed 11 games this season due to injury. However, he certainly showed his creativity with his limited chances. He averages 1.54 line break assists per game, and 0.72 try assists per game. Although some of his games came in the halves, he still plays a big creative role whilst in the full-back position.
Trbojevic is the most impactful when it comes to attack and creativity. As well as his incredible attacking stats in the previous section, he has had one line break assist and 0.66 try assists per game.
Clint Gutherson shows up well here too. The Parramatta Eels player has had a great season. He is a versatile player, who has played at full-back, wing, centre, and five-eighth. He was named captain of the Eels at the start of the 2020 season, showing his importance to them. He had 0.88 linebreak assists and 0.5 try assists per game.
Ponga and Tedesco also stand out on this graph.
Over recent seasons, we have seen the size of backs gradually increase. For example, a player who has actually switched codes in the last three years, Fiji winger Semi Radradra, who has just joined Bristol Bears in the Premiership, is built like a forward, and was one of the best backs in the NRL. Power can be a great asset for a full-back to have when returning a kick; it gives them a better ability to gain metres.
We will measure power with two separate graphs. First, tackle busts and offloads, then metres run and kick return metres.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the standout player here. The New Zealand Warriors player is by far the most powerful when looking at these stats. The NZ international makes 1.6 offloads and 4.6 tackle busts per game. Although he had a disappointing season, he was still one of the strongest backs in the NRL. His explosive pace and strength mean that he is very difficult to tackle.
Tedesco has the most tackle busts per game with 5.66. We have already established the strength that he has, but with his limited offloads (1.04 per game) it suggests that he relies more on this than his skill.
Manly’s Trbojevic is also fairly even regarding both measures. He gets 1.33 offloads and 4.58 tackle busts per game. This again outlines his importance to the Manly team when he plays.
Another way we can measure a player’s power is through their metres run. Here, the metres they have gained from hit-ups and kick returns will be considered.
This graph shows the majority of players with similar stats, but we will outline the best and worst players.
Newcastle’s Kurt Mann is the least powerful full-back, given his build; this is expected. He has 4.21 kick return metres and 53.9 run metres per game. He played a few games in the halves last season, which could have contributed to his low stats.
Once again, Tedesco impresses. Although he doesn’t top either stat, he is the most rounded. He has 65.46 kick return metres and 205 run metres per game, freakishly good stats. He also averages 12.28 metres per run.
Two players who we haven’t discussed show up well on this graph. Canberra Raiders’ Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Penrith Panthers’ Dylan Edwards. Both players run hard whenever they get a chance.
Nicoll-Klokstad has 68.65 kick return metres per game – the highest of all the sample. He also has 175.1 run metres per game, and averages 10.12 metres per run.
Edwards has been patient, coming through the Panthers’ setup and waiting for his chance. His stats here show that he has taken his chances. He has 58.10 kick return metres and 163.4 run metres per game, with an average of 9.13 metres per run.
Below we have included the best players that have appeared at the top in at least one category. Let’s decide which one is the best out of them all.
Tedesco comes out on top in terms of attacking by some distance. With Trbojevic and Ponga behind him. Trbojevic is the best in terms of creativity, with Tedesco just behind. Then, finally, Tedesco has the best power ranking, taking into consideration all the categories we discussed above. Nicoll-Klokstad and Tuivasa-Sheck are just behind the Roosters full-back.
This data analysis has proven that James Tedesco of the Sydney Roosters was by far the best full-back in the 2019 NRL season. Since joining the Roosters from the Wests Tigers in a big-money move, he has been one of the most exciting players to watch. His power and pace make him extremely powerful in attack, whilst his skill helps him to provide for his teammates.