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The unapologetically long-winded case for why Matt Burton isn’t a centre

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Matt Burton, centre

He’s won a Premiership there. He’s won a World Cup there. He’s been named in the Dally M team of the year there. Don’t be fooled though, Matt Burton definitely isn’t a centre. 

Between October and February, something strange happens within the rugby league media.

With no games and hardly any on-field outrage to discuss, fans and media outlets alike crave content like a mouse does cheese. 

This space-like vortex of deafening silence is a breeding ground for questionable rugby league filler content; articles and opinions of minimal substance targeting clicks and clicks alone.

This is not that.

Every year, without fail, this content dead zone will produce at least one outlandish rugby league story. And in the 2023 off-season, the noise is hyper-fixated on whether Matt Burton is a centre or five-eighth.

Which means it’s time to unpack this very topic.

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The case for why Matt Burton isn’t a centre

Burton was one of those prodigious talents we sometimes get in modern sport. Someone whose name is whispered in stadiums, pubs, and lounge rooms from Melbourne to Maroochydore before they consolidate their professional sporting stature.

Coming through the grades at Penrith, he was considered the game’s next big thing. A powerful, skilful five-eighth who, at 190cm tall, possessed a frightening, backrower-esque running game, mixed with the necessary kicking and ball-playing required to thrive in the NRL halves.

In round 21 of the 2019 season, with the number 21 on his back despite playing five-eighth, the NRL got its first taste of Matt Burton.

In that victory over Cronulla, Penrith were far from the indomitable beast they are now. But you can see the foundations of their current success sprouting.

Nathan Cleary, Moses Loeta, Dylan Edwards, and Isaah Yeo were there. Also there was a young Matt Burton. At 19, it should be one boy against many men. But, it isn’t.

Inside 14 minutes, the now-Bulldogs five-eighth toes a perfectly weighted grubber onto the chest of an onrushing Brent Naden to set up Penrith’s first try of the evening. 

Over the ensuing 66 minutes, we get glimpses of Burton’s brilliance.

Already he possessed an incredibly controlled kicking game, each one precisely launched downfield as if shot from a machine, a toughness and blatant refusal to shirk from contact, and a deftness of touch. 

Already you understand what a fine player, what a fine five-eighth, he will become one day. 

However, we’re also shown first glimpses of Matt Burton’s defensive downside; rushing out of the line when sticking with his teammates would be a better option, or slipping off tackles and allowing cheap second phase play.

Yet the green shoots are there. 

It’s why there was immense clamour for his signature when it became clear Penrith couldn’t store their prodigy behind Jarome Luai any longer. 

It’s why the Bulldogs threw the kitchen sink at him at the end of 2020, with just six NRL games under Burton’s belt, pressed hard for an eventually refused early release in 2021, and threw the kitchen sink at him again in January 2023 to tie him down until 2027. 

And it’s why after two seasons and 47 games, Burton has never featured for the Bulldogs outside of the halves. In 2022, at five-eighth, he was voted the club’s Members Player of the Season in his first NRL season donning the six jersey.

But here we are, in the dead zone between the 2023 and 2024 NRL seasons, when there’s lots of nothing to talk about. And that’s when the ‘where should Matt Burton play next year’ conversation rears its ugly head.

Sure, he won a competition at centre. And sure, he won a World Cup at centre. But, as far as five-eighths go, Matt Burton is truly one of the finest operating, if admittedly a little inconsistent.

No, he isn’t perfect. But is any footballer? 

Matt Burton, centre, 5/8
Bulldogs playmaker Matt Burton’s best position is the hottest off-season topic

According to the Fox Sports Lab, only three five eighths created more tries for their teammates than Burton’s 19 in 2023. Not bad for a centre shoehorned into the halves, hey?

He kicked the ball more often, and for more metres, than any other NRL number six, even if his speciality Burton bomb was kept in his duffle bag more often than not last season. And while his imperfect short kicking game needs fine tuning, he still forced 14 line drop outs.

With the highs come the lows. The 23-year-old was also in the top five for errors, penalties, and missed tackles amongst five-eighths in 2023. Like it’s been said, he’s not perfect. But neither was the team around him. 

In 2023, the Dogs ran for less metres than any other side, while only Brisbane were tackled less per game in their attacking 20. How can creative outlets thrive when the side around them makes playmaking as easy as running in knee-deep snow?

Despite such conditions, Burton either scored or created 31% of the Bulldogs tries last season. Still thinking of shifting him to centre? Ludicrous.

This is without even acknowledging his halves partners for half the season; an incompetent Kyle Flanagan, an inexperienced Karl Oloapu, and Josh Reynolds, who was great for vibes but played like a 15-year-old labrador chasing a tennis ball.

Young halfback Toby Sexton’s Round 19 arrival at Belmore offered Bulldogs fans hope. A promising playmaker coming through the grades, he was made the scapegoat for some generally terrible Titans performances while still a teenager, but began to show signs of being a proper halfback at Belmore.

Burton, benefiting from the decreased burden of having to direct his side around the park and be the Bulldog’s chief playmaker, allowed his running game to be more than an afterthought. 

In Sexton’s eight games in blue and white, Burton registered four assists, exceeded his season average run metres five times, as well as set his season high in running metres (161) during the Round 19 victory over the Rabbitohs. 

Finally, Burton found a halfback reared as a halfback, who plays deep into the line, reduces the kicking burden, and shoulders a majority of the organisational load.

In short, Toby Sexton released Matt Burton to be Matt Burton. To rob the pair of further partnership development by deploying Burton in the centres would be unjust.

“My preference is certainly to play no.6, get my hands on the ball, and direct the team around, that’s the player I want to be,” Burton has said. 

“I’m working my backside off to play five-eighth and I have spoken to [Cameron Ciraldo] about little effort areas I need to improve in.”

At 23, he’s far from a finished product and Burton admits there are facets of his game that need polishing. 

“There were stages in games last year where I needed to step up and I really didn’t provide that,” he noted. 

Bulldogs head coach Cameron Ciraldo confirmed ‘it is up to Matt where he wants to play.’ 

“He can do anything he sets his mind to and he is a genuine team guy. He will make the best decision for the team.”

No, he isn’t perfect.

That’s as much down to the chaotic side around him than Burton himself. No side conceded more points or missed more tackles last season, while only the Dolphins conceded more line breaks.

Ultimately, Burton’s improvement falls on his shoulders, but the side around him needs to be functioning at an NRL level to extract the best from him. If the Bulldog’s have any hope of being anything in 2024 and beyond, they need Burton fit, firing, and at five-eighth. 

Canterbury’s forwards need to make more metres, everyone needs to make less errors and execute more tackles, Viliame Kikau needs to stay fit and outside Burton, and Toby Sexton needs to get the team into good attacking spots. 

Phil Gould, general manager of football at Belmore, has said as much.

“If we can get a fullback, and that’s what Crichton has been bought to do, and if we can get a little bit more forward power in front of him, and a halfback that can direct them around the field, they’ll still give Burton the opportunity to nail down that position.”

Should all this kick into gear, the onus will be on Burton to prove beyond reasonable doubt he’s an NRL five-eighth.

If all goes to plan, he will have Kikau running off him, Stephen Crichton sweeping behind him, Josh Addo-Carr outside him, and a host of other attacking weapons at his disposal.

Most importantly, he will have the six on his back and the ball in his hands more than if he was at centre. That alone is a frightening prospect for opposing defenders. 

As the saying goes: ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’

With Canterbury’s off-season recruitment flooding the club with an influx of true five-eighths and half five-eighths; Drew Hutchinson, Kurt Mann, Jaeman Salmon, and Blake Taaffe, there is no shortage of options to replace Burton should performances warrant it. 

Let’s hope that’s not the case because there is no doubt Matt Burton isn’t a centre, as well as every reason to believe he can become the player anyone that’s ever watched him knows he can be.

It’s all on his shoulders to permanently silence the doubters.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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