Hazem El Masri might have felt a tad hard done by news reports this week. In the hours after El Masri announced his retirement on Tuesday, most media described the setting of the sun on the career NRL’s most respected role model.
They emphasised, quite rightly, El Masri’s clean record and his proud standing as a devout Muslim.
The Herald captured the tone neatly: “But it isn’t the many records El Masri holds that endear him to so many people. A devout Muslim born in war-torn Lebanon, El Masri has transcended race and religion to become the game’s ultimate role model.”
But largely overshadowed in the tributes, perhaps, was El Masri’s immense record as one of the game’s finest wingers.
What follows is the most comprehensive account of the Bulldogs’ star’s on-field accomplishments.
El Masri amassed an impressive 305 first grade games, in which he notched up 154 tries, 851 goals and a premiership record 2318 points.
El Masri feats are all the more staggering considering he took up rugby league in his late teens and didn’t commence goal kicking on a regular basis until 2001.
He landed just nine goals in 95 first grade games, six goals in 48 lower grade games and no goals in six WCC matches. Daryl Halligan, at the time regarded as the best goalkicker, was in the first grade side in the early part of El Masri’s first grade career. Even more remarkable was that in 1998, when El Masri played 18 games in reserve grade mostly at fullback, Brent Sherwin – then a winger – was the goalkicker. How things changed.
El Masri moved to Australia in early 1988, settled into the Canterbury-Bankstown area and followed his mates in supporting the Bulldogs. He recalls going to Belmore to support Bulldogs champions like Steve Mortimer (in his final season in 1988) and Terry Lamb (who would played on until El Masri’s debut in the top grade).
Having originally played soccer in Lebanon, in the early 1990s El Masri tried his hand at rugby league. He went straight from soccer to the Bulldogs after only two seasons in the junior league ranks. He made an immediate impression with Bulldogs talent scouts in school and club matches.
After played 18 matches in Stan Cutler’s U/21s side and four matches in reserve grade, in 1996 El Masri got his chance in the opening match of the Bulldogs first grade season. His opening came with the departures of outside backs Brett Dallas, Jason Williams, Jarrod McCracken, Kris Tassell and Scott Davey, and an injury to Matthew Ryan.
El Masri played encouragingly in his 15 first grade matches in 1996 and the following year formed a great combination with Matthew Ryan, the pair scoring 33 tries between them in 17 matches each. El Masri was dropped early in the 1998 season by new coach Steve Folkes and went back to reserve grade where he scored 15 tries in 18 matches.
El Masri missed out on the Bulldogs great charge to the grand final in 1998. But rather than sulk to his manager in the way current players react to adversity, he knuckled down and worked hard at his game. El Masri got his chance in 1999 when Halligan broke his jaw and played well enough to keep his spot in the side from that point.
El Masri would go on to play a remarkable 174 first grade games in succession.
Halligan’s retirement in 2000 was considered a massive blow for the Bulldogs as he had made goal kicking an art form. Folkes appointed El Masri the next kicker ahead of Sherwin due to the responsibility Sherwin would have in the halves, combined with the competition he would face for a top 13 position from Craig Polla-Mounter, Darrell Trindall, Corey Hughes and a young Braith Anasta.
El Masri wasn’t a great goal kicker at first, but he worked and worked relentlessly on his kicking and by 2002 had cemented himself as the best in the game (although earlier that season played in a City Origin side in which Michael De Vere won the kicking honours).
The Bulldogs led the competition in 2002 until they were stripped of their points for salary cap breaches. El Masri was selected in the Australian side for the post-season Test match against New Zealand, which would be his only appearance in Australian colours. Many believe he deserved more caps.
In 2003 and 2004, El Masri set record upon record, including being the first player to pass 300 points in a season, and amassing a record 342 points for the 2004 season. He scored what turned out to be the match winning try in the 2004 grand final, his 100th in the top grade for the Bulldogs.
El Masri’s run of 174 matches ended in 2005 when he was struck by “the fullbacks curse” at the Bulldogs that ended the seasons of Luke Patten, Trent Cutler and El Masri in three successive weeks.
In 2006, El Masri passed Terry Lamb’s record for most tries in first grade for the Bulldogs. But one honour kept eluding one of the game’s most consistent and reliable wingers – State of Origin selection.
This finally came in the third game – a dead rubber – of the 2007 series. El Masri’s coolness under pressure, his ability to come up with the big plays and, of course, his goal kicking helped the Blues avoid a whitewash. Fittingly, El Masri scored the final try and converted from the sideline after full-time to seal an 18-4 victory.
Despite a disappointing season in 2008, at a personal and club level, El Masri stuck around in 2009 to help the Bulldogs through a new era. He is set to leave the game on top, as the champion he deserves to be remembered as. El Masri this year has already amassed 9 tries and 56 goals for 148 points from 14 matches. He broke the point scoring record in the opening match against Manly.
Unfortunately El Masri is likely to be remembered only as a fantastic goal kicker, when his finishing abilities and his football “smarts” stand him above his rival wingers. El Masri might not have the height, speed and weight of other wingers, but he makes up for his with his ability to read the play, in attack and defence, remarkably well. El Masri is without doubt the fastest winger between the ears.
It’s likely some of the tries El Masri has scored could only have been scored by him – whether through evasiveness, great positioning and timing, or great hands. He struck up an amazing partnership with Sherwin for many seasons. Sherwin, through his kicking game, could land the ball anywhere on the field and El Masri would be in the right spot. His ability to follow the ball was a form of support play different to club great Terry Lamb, but just as important.
As his career nears its end, El Masri continues to prove he still has it. He scored a try against Canberra from a Michael Ennis grubber and one against Penrith from a Ben Roberts cross-field kick few other players would have been able position themselves to score.
In a further show of great timing, El Masri has chosen the right moment to retire, walk away on top and on his own terms. He chose Tuesday at Belmore Sports Ground as the right moment. He thanked Cutler, his coach in 1995, his original first grade coach in Anderson and current coach Kevin Moore. Folkes was a notable omission. El Masri thanked current and former team-mates, all the support staff, and fans of the Bulldogs and of rugby league. Most of all he thanked God for allowing him to utilise his gifts and for giving him the strength to make the most out of his abilities.
Off the field, words can’t describe what El Masri has done for the image of the game when it has been battered by drunks, morons, idiots and serial offenders.
He never sought to be a role model for the community, but his strong beliefs – including not drinking or smoking, and family-orientated ways – has made him shining light by default in a game often ruined by arrogant boofheads.
His childhood struggles and early disappointments in the top grade no doubt shaped his character, which was bolstered by his family and religious values.
The NRL has all but assured El Masri a role after-retirement, and the man himself has hopes for the code’s future.
He pointed out that the Bulldogs went from being a mess on and off the field to a powerhouse within 12 months, and that rugby league, which he described as the greatest sport in the world, could do the same.
If El Masri remains involved with the code its future will be in great hands.
Congratulations to Hazem El Masri on an outstanding rugby league career.
In Edition Twelve of Discord this week, Rleague.com weekly feature columnist Steve Mascord urges NSW selectors to explain their philosophy, assesses reactions to the Rugby League Week players’ poll, and takes aim at referees who think it’s all a joke.