The 100 best players in NRL history: 45-26

Matt Cleary Columnist

By Matt Cleary, Matt Cleary is a Roar Expert


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    Cooper Cronk isn't about to make the switch to union. (Digital Image Grant Trouville ©

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    “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes,” sang Nelly on the album Nellyville. And who’s to argue? For the heat is also here in the 100 best rugby league players in history (read: since 1980) mega-list with the next 20 – the 45-26 men – proving more contentious again.

    Again – are Jarryd Hayne and Gary Jack above the great Graeme ‘Wombat’ Eadie? Should Glenn Lazarus and Shane Webcke rank higher than Kevin Ward, Steve Roach and Petero Civoniceva? Allan Langer or Ricky Stuart? Brad Clyde or Wayne Pearce?

    The list goes on…

    45 – Andrew Ettingshausen
    Super-quick and evasive centre-three-quarter who formed a fine partnership with a rampaging Mark McGaw. ‘ET’ was equal parts footy player and dreamboat, and thus his high spunk factor meant underrated defence. Meninga, Miles – they respected the spunk Shark.

    44 – Kevin Ward
    Famously flew from freezing Castleford to play for Manly in 37-degree heat in the 1987 grand final against Canberra – the last played at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Cliff Lyons won the Clive Churchill Medal for best afield, and rightly so, he slayed ‘em, Cliffy.

    But K Ward was immense; big, hard charges, staunch, rock-like defence, presence in the middle of the park. There was a look about Ward in his tiny shorts and giant shoulder pads that said, “yeah, I’d stay away from me.” The Raiders had some big humans in Brent Todd, Sam Backo and the great man Mal Meninga. But Ward repelled them all. Top prop.

    43 – Stacey Jones
    Beautifully balanced and nippy halfback who could slay opponents on the balls of his hot little feet. The Kiwis’ best ever No.7.

    42 – Sam Burgess
    One of, if not the best Pom to play in the National Rugby League, Slammin’ Sammy has hyper-athleticism, a fair lick of pace, and an ability to hit and be hit. James Graham launched his great, woolly melon at Burgess’ face in the first play of the 2014 grand final and instantly busted Burgess’ cheekbone. His cheek swelled like an eggplant and his eye shut like Rocky’s.

    Yet the Dewsbury Kid played on, infused with ghost of Johnny Sattler’s jawbone and enervated by the technicolour dreams of 1970 Souths fans. He was adjudged best afield and will always be a scarlet-blooded Rabbitohs man.

    Rabbitohs players Tom and Sam Burgess

    41 – Paul Harragon
    ‘Chief’ Harragon’s crazy-hard and laser-straight charges at those who would dispute his title as the biggest mad dog in the jungle – Martin Bella, Mark ‘Spud’ Carroll, the greater Queensland forward pack – are today the stuff of YouTube snuff movies. Some of the head collisions are sickening. But running about behind a madman like the Chief, teammates took plenty.

    Matt Johns talks in awe of how Chief famously declared “You can’t get sent off in a grand final”, before the 1997 grand final, and set about testing the theory. Almost died on a Vomitron.

    40 – Benny Elias
    ‘Bouncing Backdoor Benny’ had the best giant dummy from dummy-half, the best scoop-and-scoot for dummy-half, and some of the best rake-backs of the ballin’ play-the-ball when contests for possession were allowed. Won scrums, made tackles, kicked long and fruitfully. Could play.

    39 – Petero Civoniceva
    Athletic hard charger who frightened opposition prop forwards because he never spoke. He was like a dead-eyed automaton, just coming, relentlessly, hard, all game, silently. And then he’d go off and sit on the sideline and sweat for a bit in silence. Then he’d return and run hard again. And his work from the first run to the last tackle counted. Nicknamed ‘Petrol Seventy Cents a Litre’, which is funny.

    38 – Kerry Boustead
    In the 1970s, there was a trippy French stop-go animation kid’s show called The Magic Roundabout that featured a character called Zebedee the Spring who would shoot off at all angles. Kerry Boustead played footy like Zebedee the Spring. But ‘Bowie’ did it laughing.

    37 – Steve Roach
    The great ‘Blocker’ was one of the last of the ball-playing bookends, a giant lump of a man who could rip into the tough stuff and dish a ball with soft hands to a speed man off his hip. Once patted referee Eddie Ward on the head. Everyone has one goat.

    36 – Steve Renouf
    There are fast players, there are quick players, there are blinding men who’ll get in bed before they’ve turned out the light. And then there’s ‘The Pearl’ – Steve Renouf, Prince of Centres. His work is best exemplified in the ’92 grand final, tearing away from Ricky Walford going 90 metres. Smoking them all. It could be the title of his biography.

    35 – Ray Price
    Famously would face backwards towards the posts during a kick for penalty goal on the off-chance – some would put it at 1,000,000 to 1 – that the ball would hit the post and bounce into his arms. Never caught one, but got on TV a bit while doing it. Also a superstar lock, dual international and model for Parramatta Jesus.

    34 – Tom Raudonikis
    Reg Reagan before there was one, ‘Tommy Terrific’ was as competitive a halfback that ever drew breath. Perhaps more so. Once said that if he’d seen Steve Mortimer in the car park he would have run him over. Said he hated his opponents like they’d done something to his sister. Played for Australia. Almost won Newtown a famous, last-gasp title.

    33 – Mick Cronin
    When centres played on the same side of the field and had a combination and moves, and knew each other, Cronin was the best inside man in the game. With the soft hands of a surgeon, he could see a hole and put a man through it, or slot though himself. He toe-poked goals with his square-toed steel-caps, notably in the very windy grand final of 1986. Owns a pub in Gerringong. A nice man.

    32 – Cooper Cronk
    If the pantheon of Immortals will one day be joined by Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis, then there should be a sub-pantheon – perhaps an ante-chamber off the pantheon – where one could put Cooper Cronk. Second only to the incomparable Thurston, Cronk is the premier playmaker of today. Fast, fit, tough and the best defending 7 since Andrew Johns. While Cronk has a pulse, the Storm threaten.


    31 – Danny Buderus
    One of the great modern-day hookers. A super ball-distributor who could snipe around the ruck, make 40 tackles, and do effectively anything. You could make a good argument – and I bet people will – that our ‘Bedsy’ might place higher than hereabouts in this man-marking mega-list. But there’s a case for messrs Smith and Walters, too. But Bedsy people, rejoice and unite. For that’s your man’s company; the best there’s ever been.

    30 – Ricky Stuart
    Had the best and longest torpedo punt-kick the game had ever seen. Revolutionised halfback play with passes that went the width of the field and set Laurie Daley free. Could throw a wombat across Queanbeyan and had duels with Allan Langer the stuff of folklore. Also shares the pantheon’s antechamber with Coopy Cronk.

    29 – Wayne Pearce
    Didn’t drink in a time when blokes drank after training. Some blokes smoked at halftime, ‘Junior’ ran laps of Leichhardt. Made perfect cover tackles and ran hard onto short balls, and gave everything every game all game for the twin black Vs of the Balmain Tigers.

    28 – Graham Eadie
    Hard-charging, stellar fullback who steamed onto the ball like a buffalo. In defence was a last line no-one wanted to test the veracity of. Make a break and see old ‘Wombat’ waiting, you knew, whatever happened – kick over his head, pass to someone else, go yourself – Wombat was going to break you.

    27 – Gene Miles
    Crack centre who formed a lethal partnership with Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga and invented a netball-style pass over the heads of shorter opponents. A wing man’s dream date.

    26 – Steve Mortimer
    ‘Turvey’ Mortimer did his best work in the no man’s land behind the first wall of defence. He’d make brilliant cover tackles or chip into space and chase, though, using hot pace to gather the ball, tongue permanently stapled to his top lip. Famous for winning the 1985 State of Origin series and for a series of photos that make him look like Sergeant Elias on the poster for Platoon.

    See the rest of the list (so far)
    » 100-71
    » 70-46

    To celebrate the launch of the limited edition Isuzu D-MAX X-RUNNER, we’re recounting the NRL’s 100 best players in the history of the game.

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    The Crowd Says (27)

    • March 15th 2017 @ 6:38am
      peeeko said | March 15th 2017 @ 6:38am | ! Report

      some great players, hard to argue against any of them. Can not wait until next week

    • March 15th 2017 @ 6:58am
      Silvertail47 said | March 15th 2017 @ 6:58am | ! Report

      And the winner is ,,,,TINA TURNER , simply the best

      • Roar Pro

        March 15th 2017 @ 12:50pm
        Kurt S said | March 15th 2017 @ 12:50pm | ! Report

        You are putting Ben Ikin in number one spot? He was okay, but he wasn’t Treasury.

      • March 15th 2017 @ 6:11pm
        Silvertail47 said | March 15th 2017 @ 6:11pm | ! Report

        No Tina turner ,,, you know ,,, big hair rock

        • Roar Pro

          March 15th 2017 @ 10:07pm
          Kurt S said | March 15th 2017 @ 10:07pm | ! Report

          So not Iken Tina Turner?

          • March 15th 2017 @ 10:39pm
            Dean - Surry Hills said | March 15th 2017 @ 10:39pm | ! Report

            Sounds as though you’ve found SOLID ROCK – SILVER – We need a GOLD record Champion – Something by SUNNY and SHARE will fit the bill perfectly

            • Roar Rookie

              March 16th 2017 @ 8:14am
              SSTID_1970 said | March 16th 2017 @ 8:14am | ! Report

              Dean, you, me and st47 seriously need to meet up and discuss our observations of “life on other planets (i.e. the ROAR) over a beer! It’s good to see soneonr here speaking the same language at last. Cheers ?

          • March 16th 2017 @ 8:56am
            Silvertail47 said | March 16th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

            Kurtz maybe ACADACA ,,, Deano the music like the footy was awesome, unlike today where it’s so plastic fake and more to do with $$$ , blood ,sweat n beers ,,,, bring back Sonny and Co , the big O , CCR ,,, LRB oh where do it stop ,,, oh and the biff ,,, I want to see a forward slap his Half back when ever they step outa line

    • March 15th 2017 @ 8:45am
      concerned supporter said | March 15th 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      I know you start about 1980, but this short clip of Australia v Great Britain 1963 is worth watching.

      It features the greats, Reg Gasnier 7, Ken Irvine 3, Graham Langlands 4, Johnny Raper 15 and others.
      Other things to note are,
      Great Britain was extremely strong in those days.
      The crowd at Swinton spilled to the sidelines and gave generous applause to the Kangaroos brilliant play
      At one stage the Kangaroos wingers were Ken Irvine who equaled the 100 yd professional world record of 9.3 seconds and Michael Cleary, finished 3rd in 100yds at Empire Games.
      Reg Gasnier is the best footballer that I have seen in League or Union.
      Hope that younger people will enjoy this short clip.

    • Roar Rookie

      March 15th 2017 @ 8:55am
      eels47 said | March 15th 2017 @ 8:55am | ! Report

      Wow! When you look at the players on this list it makes you really appreciate those who will be listed higher. Arguments could be made for almost anyone listed today to be top 20.

      Great work Matt, you have taken on a very difficult task here.

    • Roar Guru

      March 15th 2017 @ 9:07am
      Will Sinclair said | March 15th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

      Great to see Benny Elias so high up the list – he revolutionised the hooking position, introducing skills and smarts that the game hadn’t seen before (and leading to a period when teams played halfbacks as good as Joey Johns at hooker!).

      I still think he was the best hooker of his era (although acknowledging that Boxhead Walters’s style of play may have suited Australia better at that stage).

    • March 15th 2017 @ 9:21am
      Swanny said | March 15th 2017 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      Cronin and price Junior Pearce

      An era When rugby league was a great game

      Sterling better be top 5

      • Roar Rookie

        March 18th 2017 @ 10:50am
        SSTID_1970 said | March 18th 2017 @ 10:50am | ! Report

        Agree with all of the above.