A forensic analysis of how ball-carrying tactics have changed in Super League over the past decade

Aaron Bower

In the last 10 years, the way rugby league clubs have approached the workload of forwards and backs has changed in front of our eyes like never before.

Never has that been more evident in the way the ball travels across the field in every minute of every match. Traditionally, we have thought of league as a sport split into two: the forwards provide the ‘grunt’ and do the dirty week, and the backs provide the flair.

But in the last decade, the sport has changed immeasurably in that regard. Partly through necessity, partly through tactical adaptions that leading clubs implemented, and the rest simply followed. From ball carries to metres and everything in between, league is evolving like never before.

The ball carrying trend shift

The two areas where the change is most evident is perhaps obvious: carries and metres by position.

Taking a sample size of the past ten years with three milestones – 2014, 2019 and this year, 2024 – you can clearly see how things have revolutionised.

Take carries as our first example. Ten years ago there were six forwards and four backs – Ryan Hall, Matty Russell, Zak Hardaker and Dan Sarginson – in the top 10 across the season for ball carries.

Three props – Joe Westerman, Chris Hill and Andy Lynch – ranked inside the top five while Liam Farrell, Weller Hauraki, Craig Huby and Adam Sidlow were also in the top 20.

Five years later, that number inside the top 10 had reduced to four forwards, with the other six coming from across the back five: wing, centre and fullback.

This year? There is not a single forward inside the top 20 across the whole of Super League when it comes to ball carries. The top 10, after 11 rounds of the season, comprised three fullbacks, three centres, three wingers and just one half-back. The shift is illustrated below.

Metre-making trends

The theme is inevitably replicated across the leading metre makers over the past decade. In 2014, Chris Hill was the highest-ranking forward in Super League for metres, coming in just behind Matty Russell in second. Zeb Taia, Daryl Clark, James Roby and Andy Lynch were also in the top 10.

Fast forward five years and the evolution was well underway with two forwards, Liam Watts and Josh Jones, inside the top 10 – and the likes of Hill, George Griffin and Trent Merrin just outside that number. Five wingers – Tommy Makinson, Ash Handley, Kieran Dixon, Jermaine McGillvary and Rhys Williams, were in the top 10.

That trend has accelerated rapidly this season. The entirety of the top 15 for metres so far (as of May 23 and 11 rounds) are players who operate in the back five. There is not a single forward to be seen in that list. The highest-ranking forward? Paul Vaughan – more on him later – in 16th. In fact, the only other forward in the top 20 is a player who’s spent a lot of time at centre this year: Leeds’ Rhyse Martin.

Backs shape big games more than ever

Perhaps the perfect illustration of how things have changed so much in recent years when it comes to the trend of ball-carrying came in last weekend’s Challenge Cup semi-finals.

In Saturday’s game between Hull KR and Wigan, four of the five leading metre-makers were backs: with the incredible Luke Thompson an outlier (Mikey Lewis 216, Thompson 196, Niall Evalds 157, Jai Field 154, Joe Burgess 135)

In a world where backs are beginning to have more of a say than ever, it is men like Thompson and Vaughan who stand out as the leading forwards still doing the jobs their predecessors did. In a quicker, faster game, that is to their immense credit.

You only have to look at the difference in total carries from Rovers’ back five compared to their pack to see how game-plans and tactics have shifted:

  • Evalds 17, Burgess 11, Hiku 11, Opacic 12, Hall 11
  • Sue 3, Whitbread 9, Hadley 4, Batchelor 12, Minchella 11

It was much the same in the second semi-final: Matt Dufty, Super League’s top metre-maker and ball-carrier in 2024, led the way with 20 carries, with Tui Lolohea (19), Esan Marsters (19), Leroy Cudjoe (17) and Matty Ashton (15) next along with Vaughan, also on 15.

And if you thought those figures were flukes, the total number of metres made by position for each of the semis according to the data shows how almost all of Super League’s leading sides now entrust their backs to do more of the hard yards and effort.

So why have things changed?

Go back 20 years, and there was one club doing what every team are doing nowadays. For all the talk of the Awesome Foursome and the brilliance of their pack, Bradford Bulls’ game-plan under coaches like Brian Noble revolved around size and power all over the field.

Delve into what little data was available back then, and you would have found names like Tevita Vaikona and Lesley Vainikolo regularly near the top of carrying and metre metres. Their style wouldn’t look out of place in the modern game: in fact, it would fit right in.

But in recent years, the growing focus on backs carrying the ball more is obvious from the stats. But what’s the thinking behind it?

“The majority of teams are looking for wingers who can carry 15 to 20 times a game and run for 150 metres and take pressure off their forward pack,” St Helens coach Paul Wellens told Love Rugby League.

“Tommy Makinson is a prime example: has been doing that and there are other players like Ryan Hall who’ve set a great example – the role of an outside back.. it’s evolved dramatically.”

What is the rationale behind it, though?

“There’s a lot more fatigue into the game, we’ve got a quicker game and that puts pressure on forwards defending through the middle,” Wellens explains.

“Teams are a lot smarter in terms of making middle units work harder and teams are more reliant on outside backs in tackles two, three and four as a result in terms of getting your team on the front foot.”

What happens in the years ahead?

As Wellens pointed out – and as several other recruitment figures have told Love Rugby League in recent weeks – the profile clubs now look for from an outside back is dramatically different.

Pace and athleticism is still important, but more and more clubs are looking to size as a key component in any outside back. That’s not to say smaller backs become a thing of the past: Mikey Lewis and Liam Marshall would be prime examples of that in this season alone.

But one data analyst from a Super League club told Love Rugby League: “Our model across the last three or four seasons has basically dictated the change in mindset when it comes to tactics and the approach on the field.

“With fewer interchanges, it means forwards have to be fitter: but they can only be so fit. It’s now more important than ever that all 13 players on the field are able to carry strong and make metres. The workload has to be shared more than ever before.”

And one key change in the last 12 months will potentially shift things even further.

“Match limits are a major leap for the way the game is being played,” the analyst said. “We’re going to have to be more and more careful with our players, and again, it means more and more players are going to be required to do work.

“The game you watched even as recently as ten years ago doesn’t exist any more on a lot of levels. Watch any Super League game and look at the players carrying the ball in the early tackles of a set.

“Big, grunting middles are a thing of the past. The best forwards are the ones that are lighter and mobile, and the best backs are the ones that are bigger and stronger. We’ve basically flipped the game on its head.”