The flow of Antipodean players into English rugby league has continued unabated this season. There are precious few, though, who have changed the custom and practice in their adopted country the way Adam Cuthbertson has during the past six months.
The Australian prop – who plays for the holders, Leeds Rhinos, in the Challenge Cup final against Hull Kingston Rovers at Wembley on Saturday – has a playing style that is supposed to have all but died out in the modern game.
He plays in a way that is deemed impossible in an era of greater all-round fitness, detailed game plans and a tactical conservatism that is sometimes dignified by the description “having respect for the football”.
You couldn’t really accuse the former Manly and Newcastle front-rower of treating the ball with measured respect. He takes it on a wild ride, gets it drunk, leads it into dangerous places and only returns it to its frantically worried parents as the sun is coming up and the milk floats are setting out.
“The offload is something that’s always been in my game,” he said. “It’s always been there in my back pocket. I just haven’t always had much chance to use it.”
During his childhood in Avalon, close to where Home and Away is filmed on Sydney’s northern beaches, Cuthbertson grew up playing basketball and rugby union as well as league.
“I wasn’t sure which of them it was going to be. I’m certain, though, that basketball gave me that feel for the ball and how to get it to a man who was better placed.”
Cuthbertson played all three sports at junior representative level, before deciding to sign for his local rugby league club, Manly Sea Eagles. His career became rather becalmed there, but it was after a transfer to Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks that it really went off the rails.
His weight, always a concern, ballooned above 115kg (18st) as he lived the easy life on the beaches and played only 12 first-grade games in two seasons. At one stage, he couldn’t get a game at any level for the Sharks and went back to playing pub football with his mates.
He was ready to give up on his a professional career, but salvation came from a surprising source. Australia’s master coach, Wayne Bennett, took him to St George Illawarra Dragons and Cuthbertson found his compass again.
“I owe him a lot. He taught me so much about the game and how to prepare for it,” the player said.
Cuthbertson was also a success at the Newcastle Knights, adding ballast to the popular theory that props – especially ball-handling props – do not reach their peak until they are within sight of their thirties. And all the time, from the other side of the world, Leeds were watching.
“We’ve wanted to sign him for five years,’ says the Rhinos’ chief executive, Gary Hetherington. “We had a shrewd idea how well he might go in the British game, so we aren’t surprised at all.”
That is recognition that Super League, as opposed to Australia’s NRL, is that bit more tolerant of the maverick, the chancer who is always ready to wrong-foot a defence with a late ball squeezed out of an apparently all-enveloping tackle. Leeds take that a step further than most teams. They are regularly near the top of the statistics for the most errors made with the ball, but they don’t much care; they know that, the next time they try something ambitious and even slightly fanciful, it is liable to come off.
It has not been unusual this season for Cuthbertson not only to produce more offloads than anyone else, but also more than the entire opposition side. We are into the territory of a statistical freak.
To Cuthbertson, the logic is plain enough: “If you’ve got a back line like ours, you want to keep the ball alive and get it to them. You’d be crazy not to.”
Others have followed his example, but there is no doubt that Cuthbertson is leading a subtle revolution in the way the game is played.
Naturally, this has not passed unnoticed, especially as he qualifies to play for England, by virtue of his dad’s birthplace of Warrington.
It is a matter that has been discussed in depth in the Cuthbertson household and the whole family support his decision to make himself available for the Test series against New Zealand this autumn.
“I’ve had a chat with [England coach] Steve McNamara about it, but that’s as far as it’s gone,” he added. “But I’d love to give it a go.”
Hetherington is one who believes he should be given his chance. “He would certainly add something different,” he said. “Under the international rules, he isn’t even close to not qualifying for England.”
Wembley tomorrow is the opportunity for the self-confessed one-time beach bum to show he can not only wear the shirt, but can also bring what used to be regarded as “English-style”forward play back to its roots.Reuse content