The GF Head to Head – the Hookers
The Hookers – These guys unsung? Not by those who matter!
Jake Friend and Matt Ballin have so much in common starting with the rock that these teams are built on.
Matt Ballin left lower grades at Broncos to join the Eagles. Another great get by Manly. Ballin has developed his strong human qualities into his footy to become understudy to Cameron Smith for Origin selection, having won in the only opportunity he has had to wear the maroon jersey. He has won on a very regular basis in the Manly maroon colours.
Maintaining his strong work ethic in defence and at dummy half, the improvements he has made as confidence and experience have allowed him result in his value to his team. This is the Eagles third GF in five seasons and more recognition of Ballin’s contribution is surely due. It’s his understated personality that see’s him left out of the headlines.
But that won’t interfere with his performance come Sunday and another GF. His fundamental tackling role will see him make plenty of effective contacts even if often requires bigger teammates to control it at the top as he almost always goes low. That will be followed by his ritual kick pressures at the end of most sets. This is game changing stuff based on footy intelligence and huge physical effort.
However his continuing improvement in attack at dummy half has been vital to the Manly’s improvement as a team. This season he has kicked more often but also more effectively. These variations have led to kick pressure defenders needing to rate him, giving Cherry-Evans in particular more space and time.
His awareness at dummy half has improved showing itself in some valuable yardage gains and better passing to those demanding teammates to nail quality opportunities for breaks and tries.
His other great asset is his ability to play 80 minutes of quality footy. With 2 extra interchanges to play with coach Toovey can get more value from players like Lawrence and Rose who do their best stuff in short bursts. This provides a huge advantage to his team!
Jake Friend was a rookie recruit for Arthur Beetson from the Sunshine Coast; nothing blue chip prior to his arrival. Just like Ballin that pretty quickly changed.
His off-field problems of a young kid in a big city and who to hang out with took some beating. all credit to him for facing up to it and making the change to professional footy player – full time!
Unlike Manly’s use of the interchange Friend does not play that 80 minute role but he is still of enormous value to his team. It appears that there is not the same need for preservation of interchanges as so many Roosters can play high minutes; certainly no-one in the Big George category.
Even so, it is Friend’s physical capacity that impressed even as a rookie to NRL together with a fierce competitiveness.
His time will be broken up, usually across half time for an extended freshen up by the inclusion of Daniel Mortimer at dummy half. This is a luxury for the Roosters and one that has worked pretty well for them on two fronts.
Mortimer at his best can capitalise on any breaks made as his support play is phenomenal. The freshen up for Friend means the Roosters have a key player likely way more energised than his direct opponent and his own teammates to spark them up too.
The down side is if the opposition get enough possession they can really make hay picking on the courageous but under-powered little fella in the land of the giants near the ruck in D
This season Friend has made adjustments and further developed his tackle technique. His teammates’ defensive awareness has played a role in him not being isolated as often. This has led to “a no weak link” situation so he has rarely been spotted up by powerful big ball carriers for big yardage gains, offloads against or tries against as has been the case in the past.
The trade-off for this work load reduction has seen more efficiency, better decision making and less possession errors as well. The best example was Friend showing everyone just how fast he is with that tremendous break away try over 50 plus metres versus Newcastle.
Both of these players are “honorary associate members of the middle fraternity” – they work in the dark areas with those big boys but have to think like halves.
What a battle they will be having throughout this GF. Neither is thought of at this point in the same category as Cameron Smith for Queensland or Australia.
A performance displaying that level of courage and toughness as well control and execution under this type of pressure might see one progress more quickly than the other into the #9 representative waiting room.