The NRL has changed, and nobody is changing faster than James Tedesco

The NRL has changed, and nobody is changing faster than James Tedesco
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“The game’s evolved from when I’ve started, and the fullback role’s evolved a lot more.”

These are the thoughts of James Tedesco, the NRL player who knows better than anyone what it takes to be a great fullback.

A Kangaroos representative. A Dally M Medal winner, with two premierships. An Origin-winning captain. 

And now the man tasked with taking a busted up Roosters side as far as it can go into September.

Having snuck past the Titans on the weekend, his team now takes on the Sea Eagles, powered by their own super-charged number one Tom Trbojevic.

And if Tedesco can help the Roosters pull off a victory, it might be his transformation’s biggest triumph yet.

So what’s changed?

The infamous rule changes brought in by NRL powerbrokers over the past two years have made rugby league more open and scorelines more lopsided. The Storm is set to smash the record for most points in a season, and blowouts have been common.


But while that was playing out, and for some time before, coaches and cutting-edge players had already been tossing away outdated assumptions.

Traditionally, the halves, hooker and fullback were the most important positions in rugby league. But these days recruiters and paymasters love nothing more than a good number one, and for good reason. The sides that finished in the top eight have perhaps the best eight fullbacks in the NRL.

And the changes have come about quickly, according to Tedesco.

, The NRL has changed, and nobody is changing faster than James Tedesco,
James Tedesco when he was at the Tigers.(

AAP: Dave Hunt


“When I first started my career, it was a lot of supports, trying to finish off tries,” he told ABC Sport this week.

Tedesco made his name as a scintillating, powerful runner at the Tigers, who could spot a gap in and around the ruck better than anybody.

But he’s now one of a brigade of fullbacks who are most damaging when inside the 20 and attacking the line as a floating wildcard out wide.

In 2019, Clint Gutherson and Tedesco were the only fullbacks among the competition’s top 20 for line break assists. This season fullbacks make up six of the top nine, including backline facilitators Latrell Mitchell, Nicho Hynes and Trbojevic.

In that time, the Roosters number one has doubled his output to more than one per game, the majority as part of backline moves inside the attacking 20.


The main explanation for Tedesco’s rise is volume. The Roosters fullback is being given more opportunity to be involved in backline moves attacking the line. He has touched the ball inside the attacking 20 in 2021 more times than in any other season.

But his involvements are up right across the field.

Roosters overhaul

At the same time as fullbacks have become important facilitators, Tedesco’s side has been met with a raft of injuries and suspensions to key ball players.

Link-playing lock Victor Radley has missed much of the past two seasons, and conducting half Luke Keary is out this year with a knee injury.

At the start of this season, Tedesco told Michael Carayannis from ABC Sport and the Daily Telegraph how he was forced to adapt in 2020.

“Last year it evolved where we missed Radley and I was trying to play a lot of first receiver to link up with my forwards and halves.”

His passing locations (in blue below, with line break assists in red) show far more involvements in midfield inside his own half starting in 2020, a pattern that has intensified this season.

, The NRL has changed, and nobody is changing faster than James Tedesco,

Tedesco said this week the loss of Keary has had an impact, not helped by the fact neither Sam Walker or Lachlan Lam has been settled in the line-up.

“Just trying to work on those combinations, sometimes I get my hands on the ball, sometimes I can use these guys to create that space for me as well, and to create space for themselves,” he said.

“It’s still working every week trying to get better, and build those connections with those players even better.”

Lam, for one, loves the new Teddy.

“I’m a little bit biased with Teddy, he’s one of the best players in the game” he said.

The best Tedesco

The question remains though whether Tedesco would be operating as much as a ball player if the Roosters still had Radley, Keary, another established half and a proven hooker on the field.

Despite his growing influence on the Roosters’ play, Tedesco’s tallies of tries and linebreaks are down on recent years and he’s dropped under 10 metres per kick return for the first time in five seasons.

Tedesco himself would like his team-mates like Lam, Walker and 22-year-old hooker Sam Verrills (if he avoids suspension for this weekend’s match) to take more control, an indication he’s taking on more responsibility than he would like.

“I want them to dominate, not listen for me or wait for me to do or call something.

Like driving a Porsche to deliver pizza, the game’s best player is expending energy with the link work in the middle, a role that would usually go to a lower-paid, more easily replaceable lock or backrower. He’s great at it, but he’s great at just about everything.


At the recent peak of the Roosters’ powers in 2018 and 2019, Tedesco was offering more than twice the number of “supports” each match than he is now. This statistic tracks whether a player backs up a ball carrier but does not receive the ball.

They are often the moments opposition fans get worried, as Tedesco positions himself off the shoulder of a forward around the ruck. Indeed, he scored his try against the Gold Coast from Radley in exactly this kind of play.


But his effectiveness there relies on others.

Ultimately, the game may be changing quickly, but in an unstable line-up, midway through an injury crisis and one week into finals, the time for experimentation has passed.

Come Friday night, James Tedesco is not going to shy away.

“I feel like probably early in my career I used to sit back and wait for others to do it, whereas now I want to take control, especially now with young halves and a young team.

“It’s a big role for me just to lead as much as possible.”

The Roosters take on Manly at 7.50pm AEST on Friday night in Mackay in an elimination final.

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