Walsh v the NRL: How far can the fullback go now that every team has seen the Broncos’ best move?
It would be unfair to Reece Walsh to call 2023 his breakout season.
That was in 2021, when he burst onto the scene with the Warriors and was named Rookie of the Year by his fellow players in the RLPA Awards as an 18-year-old.
Coming onto the scene as he did, expectations were sky high – and 2023 was the year in which they were met. Everyone who said he could be one of the best players in the world was proven right.
The NRL, however, is filled with great seasons that stood as outliers from a wider career and the trouble with being exceptional is that you have to be exceptional all the time.
This coming season, it’s up to Walsh to back it up.
He was probably the best player in the NRL last year on a week to week basis – Nathan Cleary missed too many games, Kalyn Ponga barely did anything until midyear – and though excluded from the Dally M on account of a suspension, but it wasn’t, obviously, all his own work.
Last year’s edition of the Broncos was a side almost perfectly geared up to suit what Walsh was best at.
They played wide, got men in motion, used Adam Reynolds as their pivot and designed almost every pattern with the specific intent of getting the fullback into situations where his pace, decision making and fearlessness with the ball could shine.
It was no fluke, either, because as much as Kevin Walters calls the shots at Red Hill, he had plenty of useful helpers.
Lee Briers, the attack coach, spoke extensively to The Roar about the way that the team wanted to play to Walsh’s strengths, but also how those patterns came into existence to support an entirely different player, Jai Field, at an entirely different team, Wigan, the year before.
For those that had seen the 2022 Wigan side, who topped the scoring charts in the Super League with over 100 points more than the next best side, the Broncos looked very familiar indeed.
It’s an interesting thought to carry into 2024 for the Broncos and Walsh.
It wasn’t as if Walsh suddenly being good at footy took anyone by surprise, but few would have expected him to hit the ground running at quite the speed that he did – no pun intended – or for the Broncos to essentially remodel their attack around him.
Now, every team has as much tape as they could ever need on how to deal with the Broncos’ patterns and will have plans upon plans to counteract Walsh.
Then again, the fullback has one of the toughest attributes to plan for: pace.
It’s easy to watch a lot of footage, show it to the players and tell them what to do, but when it goes into motion and you’re left clutching at thin air, all plans go out of the window.
The Broncos used a combination of timing from Adam Reynolds, genuinely threatening decoys from forwards, usually Payne Haas and Pat Carrigan, to get Walsh in a position where he could isolate one of the three and four man – either an edge backrower or a half – and either burn them for pace or force someone inside to bite, opening up the tunnel ball to Selwyn Cobbo or a crash to Kotoni Staggs.
Time and again, this worked. Part of that was Walsh’s pace, his greatest asset, but the other part was his willingness to flush mistakes, because they knew he would throw the ball straight into touch on some occasions and still attempt it without a second thought the next time around.
Thus Walsh ended up in the top for line break assists among spine players, ahead of Ponga, top two for line breaks behind Ponga and overall top in Creativity Value, again ahead of the man who actually won the Dally M.
It wasn’t that the Broncos had just one way scoring, quite the opposite, but that move was their most sustainable ways of getting over the stripe.
Watch all of his try assists from last year, and instead of following Walsh, instead follow what Carrigan does.
Often, he’s the man who takes the ball to the line to get Reynolds into the game slightly further out and one some occasions, he puts double efforts in to run push supports that pin tacklers in place and prevent them from sliding over to assist with Walsh.
The defence knows it’s coming, but the collective effort of other players means that they can’t do anything about it by the time the ball gets to Walsh.
This time around, however, there’ll be one less weapon in the pack with Tom Flegler gone to the Dolphins, and a whole heap of plans to stop Walsh operating.
We have seen this a little with the last great attacking pattern in the NRL, Souths’ left shift.
From late 2021 to mid-2023, there was no move that so effectively produced points across the whole league.
It’s so well-known that you can probably see it in your mind’s eye: Cam Murray takes the ball so close to the line that the defenders can’t shift on, before shovelling along to Cody Walker, who can either smash a pass onto the chest of Alex Johnston, play short to Latrell Mitchell or go through himself.
If you’re a sadist, or a Souths fan, here’s roughly 20 minutes of exactly the same try being scored to prove the point.
In 2023 it still worked, but far less effectively. Brisbane were one of the most effective in stopping it, by actively conceding ground in a way that saw Souths go through their move but not breach the line.
In the meeting on the Sunshine Coast in Round 21, Johnston had three line breaks in the first half, but only scored once and, if you watch the tape back, you’d struggle to call them line breaks at all.
In fact, the one that he did get over from was the defensive plan working well, only for Staggs to miss his tackle.
Ignore the miss and instead watch the defence moves. Kurt Capewell and Reynolds both shoot the line to engage the ball-carrier, but others don’t, instead holding their ground and moving across.
Though the Bunnies get three on two briefly, they do so running towards the sideline and eventually run out of space, forcing Johnston to come back in.
The quantitative advantage that Souths are going for in creating numbers because a qualitative disadvantage as Johnston, who has speed rather than physicality as his best weapon, meets Staggs, one of the best one-on-one tacklers in the game.
Staggs should execute the tackle – best laid plans, right? – and doesn’t, but later in the game on multiple occasions, he would.
Other teams learned from this and, as the year went on, we saw it more and more.
It’s worth considering in the context of Walsh’s attacking role. For a guy like him who depends on pace, conceding space between the playmaker and the advancing line in order to cramp space elsewhere.
If, for example, a defence called the Broncos’ bluff and treated the decoy runners as actual decoys, they could simply shift along and box Walsh in.
Similarly, if the inside pressure continued with real enthusiasm, it could turn Walsh’s hips towards the sideline and force him either to take the contact or force a pass that would leave the winger with nowhere to go.
These are just two of several ideas that defences can work on, and doubtless plenty more will be seen as the year goes on.
Walters, Briers and the Broncos brains trust will have new ideas of their own up their sleeve, too, and new shapes to throw at defences. They won’t rest on their laurels.
What might be most interesting is how they find a new winger if Cobbo moves inside, as he was perfect for the tunnel pass that Walsh loved to throw, and if they can replicate the level of agility and activity in the middle, the key to drawing the defence in and creating space for the fullback, without Flegler.
If they can, then Walsh can thrive again. If not, we will see how much of the attacking brilliant was the player and how much was a system perfectly designed around his strengths.