Greats of the modern game like Peter Sterling, Allan Langer and Andrew Johns taught multiple generations how to be a brilliant rugby league halfback.
Handed the keys to their teams at first receiver, these players were the entertainers of the game in the 1980s, ’90s and early noughties.
Their dummies, grubbers, and feints were mimicked by young men and women on fields from Albury to Aurukun.
But today, wearing number 7 in rugby league means something different.
Choosing a side
In Canberra, diminutive English halfback George Williams and hard-running, 189-centimetre five-eighth Jack Wighton appear about as traditional as a halves pairing can be.
But today the Raiders — like most rugby league teams — operate with their halfback and five-eighth occupying either side of the field in attack.
Look where they touch the ball, and you can see each one operates almost exclusively on either flank.
Although Wighton more closely resembles iconic Raiders five-eighth Laurie Daley than champion halfback Ricky Stuart (who is now his coach), this approach means he is actually more often than not first receiver — traditionally the job of a number seven.
In fact, when you look at all his touches, Wighton is more likely to play the role of a hooker and pick the ball up from dummy half, usually early in the tackle count, than he is to receive it as second receiver — the traditional role of a five-eighth.
Across the NRL, whether a player formally plays halfback or five-eighth, this pattern is more or less the norm.
Source: NRL.com Stats & ABC analysis, includes players classified by NRL.com as halfback or five-eighth with at least 300 touches in 2020
Although halfbacks and five-eighths may now operate mostly as interchangeable first-receivers, each player has their own strengths and tendencies.
Some are better with the boot than others, and may therefore shoulder more of the burden of their team’s kicking.
Mitchell Moses, Adam Reynolds and Blake Green have all kicked the ball more often than they’ve run it this season.
But the traditional running five-eighth has not been abandoned entirely and Scott Drinkwater, Cody Walker and Cameron Munster are today’s archetypes.
Beyond the stats
Penrith and TikTok star Nathan Cleary has driven his side to the top of the table and earned plaudits along the way.
But a glance at major statistical tallies suggests Cronulla’s Shaun Johnson may be the most devastating half to date in this interrupted NRL season.
He has 16 try assists and 10 line break assists (though as has been shown there is considerable overlap between the two), far more than Cleary’s tallies of six and five respectively.
But video of Cleary’s red zone involvements shows that he has been instrumental in at least nine more Panthers’ four-pointers.
Quick, flat distribution to beat a closing umbrella defence or putting a teammate into a hole with a sage read have proven potent.
Where it matters
Earlier this season during a discussion about Cleary, Peter Sterling told TripleM radio: “I want the number 7 to touch the ball three or four times in an attacking set of six.”
Indeed, Cleary has become the driving force of his side’s attacking structure, as the above video indicates.
On 75 occasions, he has touched the ball three or more times in an attacking set, almost 20 more than the next highest tally — that of Newcastle’s Mitchell Pearce.
Cleary, Pearce and Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans dominate the ball inside the opponent’s 20 within central areas more than any other halves.
By planting themselves in the middle of the field, they involve themselves on average once in every seven attacking touches.
Although halves like Johnson occupy wider areas, and may tally more tries and try assists, these three playmaking generals are perhaps more influential overall.
And of the three, only Cleary’s club boasts an elite attack, having scored more than 25 points per game on average.
Nathan Cleary’s Panthers play Jack Wighton, George Williams and their Raiders teammates at 7:30pm on Saturday evening.