During a recent discussion around the some of the best players to have graced the ‘Greatest Game of All’, it became clear that there is no one perfect player.
The attacking genius has suspect defence, the tactical mastermind is not fit enough, and so on.
This led me to wonder, if there can never be the perfect player, can we instead celebrate and acknowledge the best practitioners of each important skill that is found within the game of rugby league?
The first step is to work out what those essential skills are. As I went through this process I had the horrible realisation that there are at least 29 different skills that I separately recognised in the game.
And I know I’ve left out others that are too specific or not sexy enough for a discussion, such as Referee Whispering (I’m looking at you Mr Smith), basketball passing (ala Gene Miles) or good decision making in defending an edge.
So, I then set myself the ridiculous task of listing three of the best exponents of each skill that I have seen (which pretty much takes us back to 1979), plus every now and then, giving a nod to an old-timer that reputedly was a standout from earlier years. My top three are listed in no particular order.
I have split the skills into five categories: running, passing, kicking, game management, and defence and general.
Given the enormity of taking this on, I’ve also had to split this into two articles.
The defender thinks they are there and then, just like Keyser Soze, they’re gone.
The Step, like many of the great attacking attributes is designed to inspire awe in the audience and make fools of defenders.
And there are different versions of The Step, as shown by our Top 3:
Brad Fittler (the big left foot), Benji Marshall (the mid-air step), Michael Hancock (change direction infull flight and seemingly gain speed). Old timer: Graeme Langlands.
The mysterious Swerve. This is where players just glide past their opponent without seeming to really do anything at all. Defies the laws of physics.
Darren Lockyer, Billy Slater, Brett Mullins. Old timer: Reg Gasnier.
They step, they swerve, they dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.
Opposing forwards are left grasping at thin air, feeling as though they been trying to catch a cape made of fairy floss.
Chicka Ferguson, Alfie Langer, Matt Bowen. Old Timer: Bob Fulton.
A tough one to call and so subjective. Is it over 100 metres or 30 metres?
Brett Mullins (never saw him run down), Steve Renouf, Greg Inglis (in his early days before 20kg and wrecked knees). Old timer: Ken Irvine (100 yards in 9.3 seconds).
The precious ability to go from zero to full speed and squeeze through gaps that were never really there.
Steve Mortimer (super scrum base try scorer), James ‘Jimmy the Jet’ Roberts, ‘Slippery’ Steve Morris. Old Timer: Dally Messenger.
The big arm snaps out and the defender is suddenly cartwheeling backwards like he’s been hit by a cannon ball. Timing is everything.
Greg Inglis, Gene Miles, Gordon Tallis. Old Timer: Cecil Blinkhorn
Crazy eyes damaging runner
You know the ones. Where you can see the defenders tremble. They are not always the biggest guys, but they hit the line like a rhino.
Gordon Tallis, Chris Close, Karmichael Hunt (I know Hunt was a skinny fullback, but those kamikaze kick returns were insane). Old Timer: Geoff Robinson, Bulldogs wild colonial boy.
Dummy half running
The second marker is sneaking a look at the replay screen, congratulating himself on a particularly fine third man flop and… whoosh!
Steve Walters, Craig Wing, Justin Hodges (they knew every time but he still made 15 metres).
After all, this is what it’s all about. Those guys that just find the line.
Billy Slater, Steve Renouf, Steve Menzies. Old timer: Frank Burge (8 in one game from the Glebe champion).
It’s the 75th minute, everyone is out on their feet. To their own surprise, some lucky sod has split the line and has no idea what to do next. And who comes up on their shoulder…
Terry Lamb, Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer.
The player is wrapped up, the defence relaxes and somehow the ball is slipped through a minefield of sweaty defenders into the arms of another player running untouched through the middle.
Corey Parker, Feleti Mateo, Bryce Cartwright. Old Timer: Artie Beetson (the King of offloads).
From the early 1980s a new skill emerged in the game, the long spiral pass, making half the defensive line redundant.
Wally Lewis, Ricky Stuart, Andrew Johns.
The sprint at the line, the defence in two minds, the shimmy, the jink, then hold it up, double pump and bang. Onto the chest of an undeserving second rower and untouched under the posts.
Alfie Langer, Benji Marshall (did anyone see the short pass to Alex Glenn against Canberra? Wow!), Benny Elias.
The Flick Pass
A modern innovation, requiring eyes in the back of the head to spot a support player, as well as a double-jointed elbow.
Benji Marshall (2005 need we say more), Matt Gidley, Michael Morgan (2015 and 2017, need we say more).
The Dummy (or ‘Show and Go’)
Aptly named, it makes defenders look silly. A true magician’s art, ‘no don’t look that way, look this way’.
Johnathan Thurston, Ricky Stuart (that great break against England), Brett Kenny (1981 grand final).
So, go to work people, I’m sure you all have your favourites.
Next time I will move on from the pretty boys and cover kicking, game management, defence and miscellaneous.