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My imaginary XVII: The best league players I've ever seen

Billy Slater of the Storm and Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrate winning the 2017 NRL grand final. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
11th December, 2017
102
3078 Reads

In 2008, the NRL released the top 100 players to have played the game in Australia.

Since this time I have reflected on the players that I have seen in my lifetime. Without giving my age away, my memory stretches back to the very late 80s. As a result, I feel now that I can name my best team.

To do this, I set myself two criteria. They were as follows.

a) I had to have seen the player play live
b) They needed to have at least played fifty matches of elite first grade level in Australia

On this basis, I assembled the following team.

1. Fullback – Billy Slater
I simply have not seen a better fullback. His speed, his athleticism, and skill are unbelievable. He is vocal and instructs his defenders well.

He is always on the move and just seems to be in the right spot each time the football is kicked down-field. His recovery from making a covering tackle to re-join the defence and participate in the next play is second to none.

Honestly, when he retires and in years to come, everyone of this generation will compare each fullback to Billy Slater just as the previous generations did with Clive Churchill.

2. Wing – Greg Inglis
I get it, he plays at fullback for Souths, in the centres for Queensland and Australia and won the Clive Churchill Medal at five-eighth.

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So, why on the wing? To put it simply, I wanted him on my team. Also, I have seen him play on the wing; he destroyed the Kiwi defenders in Melbourne for the tri-nations when he raced down the field to get Australia back in the game.

His size and speed make him perfect to play rugby league. Easily the best New South Welshman to play for Queensland. All jokes aside, an unbelievable talent who I hope can overcome injury and continue at the elite level for many years to come.

Greg Inglis of the Maroons scores a try as Matt Moylan tackles

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

3. Centre – Mal Meninga (Captain)
Unlucky in my book not to be made an immortal ahead of Andrew Johns. He participated in four Kangaroo tours which had never been accomplished before and I doubt will ever happen again.

He destroyed defenders with his power, but more to this he was an inspiration to his teammates. He made other players better, he gave them belief and left them in no doubt what was needed to get the result desired.

A real leader of a great Canberra team, a strong Queensland team and of the Kangaroos. No much more can be said about such a strong player. With his leadership skills, he is easily my choice as captain of this team.

4. Centre – Laurie Daley
In partnering with Mal Meninga – yes, remember when the outside centre went with the inside centre – I do. Laurie Daley would offer the finishing touch. I hear your concerns – he played more five-eighth than at centre. I don’t care.

He had a great footballing mind and could pick apart a defensive line with ease. He was a solid support player who set up more tries for his teammates than going for the glory himself.

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Remember, under his leadership, NSW had many dominant seasons over a great Queensland outfit. As well as this, he was part of the Canberra and Kangaroo outfits that enjoyed so much success. I felt it would be an injustice not to have him on my best team.

5. Wing – Israel Folau
I will admit, this was my hardest selection. I missed some of the great wingers of the 70s and 80s. I don’t feel there has been that many absolute sensations in this position to choose from in my time watching the game.

Although he only played 91 NRL games, I felt that if he had stayed, he would have been a sensation for many years to follow. The AFL targeted not many other athletes, and if it weren’t for an administration bungle, he would be back playing rugby league instead of union.

Even now, he is easily one of the Wallabies’ best. Just a shame he didn’t stay in our great game.

6. Five-eighth – Johnathan Thurston
He plays five-eighth to Cooper Cronk, so despite him being the North Queensland Cowboys halfback, I’m keeping him in the six jersey.

No doubt is going to be an immortal of the sport. He lifts his teammates and can single-handedly win games. Very few players can do that. His record speaks for itself.

He is a machine on the field – directing and instructing his team as he unpicks the defence with ridiculous ease. The superb kicking game only adds to his arsenal. I put him down as the third best player that I have ever seen.

7. Halfback – Andrew Johns
For some, he should not be an immortal. They refer to his off-field antics. I say bugger that.

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His off-field antics would only have impaired his performance on the field. He invented new kicks, which no one had seen before. He could tackle like a solid backrower.

The best defending halfback the game has ever seen. His involvement in matches shaped their outcome.

Alex Ferguson – the former Manchester United Manager – when talking about skill on the soccer pitch said: “[if] you see class, excitement, entertainment, there is an obligation to acknowledge it.”

This quote applies to the rugby league genius that is Andrew Johns. In terms of pure brilliance, he is the best player I have seen.

8. Prop – Shane Webcke
In the front row, you need size, strength, determination and a will to defeat any opponent. This man had it all in bucket loads. I still remember the Test Match in the early 2000s against the Great Britain team that came for a mid-season Test where Webcke annihilated them.

He played against the Roosters in the grand final with a broken arm – madness! He never took a backward step on the field or off it. A pleasure to watch.

9. Hooker/fummy half – Cameron Smith
I get it, a natural choice. I put the role as a dummy half because really since the 80s scrums are no longer contested and with the ten-metre rule, hookers really are now just an extra half on the field.

His statistics say it all. He is just so dominant it is ridiculous. He may set records that will never be broken. He has achieved everything.

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Look at the 2017 calendar year – grand final win, State of Origin series win and the World Cup. He probably is the best overall player the game has ever seen. I only put Johns ahead of him, but not by much. An immortal in waiting.

Cameron Smith NRL Rugby League Melbourne Storm Grand Final 2017

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

10. Prop – Glen Lazarus
The Brick with eyes laid the platform for some of the game’s most successful teams. Firstly, the Green Machine of the late 80s and early 90s enjoyed his service as they went about winning titles.

Then he moves to Brisbane and enjoys success there before helping Melbourne win their inaugural title. All the while he’s helping NSW set a dominance over Queensland and maintaining Australia’s dominance on the international scene.

He wasn’t one of my favourite players, but I could not justify leaving him out of the team. Ultimately, he possessed the gifts that all front rowers dream of and used them to the best of his ability.

11. Second row – Bradley Clyde
I feel that this man does not get the credit he deserves. He was integral to Canberra’s success and NSW for that matter.

Ran hard, tackled hard and played for the full 80 minutes. He was a workhorse of epic proportions. He set the benchmark for all future locks and backrowers. He became the measuring stick of which all future players would strive to equal. Just pure class.

12. Second row – Sam Burgess
Probably a Souths fan? Yes I am! Even if he didn’t play for Souths I would still rate him as an absolute legend.

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He is ferocious on the field, but a good lad off it. He led the way for Souths this year as he has done so for every year he has been at the club.

From his early Test debut when he put the big hit on Fui Fui Moi Moi to when he sidestepped his way to the try line for Great Britain against Australia he has shown his strength and skill.

Further to this, who can forget when he played with a busted cheekbone for South Sydney in their first grand final win in 43 years? He is easily the best British import that I have seen play in the NRL.

13. Lock – Brad Fitler

For the majority of his career, he played five-eighth, so I get the confusion of why I would select him at lock.

Similar to my selection of Laurie Daley, he was simply too good to leave out of my starting thirteen.

He did play some games in the lock position and was still just as effective. It is important to not let his aloofness fool you – he had the talent.

He was a key reason why NSW were so dominant and a key factor in why the Roosters made so many grand finals in the early 2000’s. He had a deadly step, a good pass, could tackle and leadership qualities that elevated him above others. A genuine talent.

My bench
14. Darren Lockyer

No doubt is going to be an immortal. His statistics show it all. However, I felt that Slater as a fullback and that Thurston at five-eighth were better selections.

I know many would drop Johns and put Thurston at halfback and move Lockyer into the six position. However, since this is my list and I think that Johns was the best; Lockyer makes his way onto the bench.

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Though, this does not diminish my thinking of his footballing skills. An absolute champion.

15. Adrian Morley
Who else has been sent off in a Test Match in the first 12 seconds? This event showed his fire-brand style. He could destroy forward packs with his runs and tackles. I know he spent a lot of time on the sideline through suspension, but he had everything you look for in a forward. A pity he had to go back to England so early.

16. Sonny Bill Williams
Yes, I know some of you are shaking your heads and rolling your eyes. Despite this, you cannot deny his skill.

I know in his early years he was injury prone before doing a runner to France, so we didn’t see the best of his capabilities until he returned to the Roosters.

In his two seasons there, he showed his character. I wished he had stayed in the game. In his return to union, it was his offload that finally sunk the Wallabies in the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup final. He could put on a massive hit, had speed and a great offload.

Moreover, he is a positive influence on his teammates. It is simple, if you were wealthy and were wanting to build a team, you would want Sonny Bill on your side.

Roosters' Shaun Kenny-Dowall (right) celebrates with Sonny Bill Williams after scoring. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

17. Ruben Wiki
This last position was equally tough to fill. However, I went with Ruben because of his passion. Over his career, he played in the backs and the forwards but still managed to maintain solid performances.

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A cornerstone of the New Zealand team and although he didn’t get the success with the Warriors he was consistently one of their best players. I just don’t remember seeing him having a bad game.

Notable omissions
Wally Lewis – Yes, he was still playing when I can remember the game, but with my set criteria, I never saw him play live. If I did, I would have him as my six and Thurston would go to the bench.

Steve Renouf – A class centre. If people have him as their main centre, then I really couldn’t disagree with you. Except that I thought Daley was more versatile and so put him ahead of Renouf.

I know when selecting the best team personal choices, preferences and how long you have been watching the game would affect the selections. So imagine this, if you had to build a team with all the best players that you had ever seen play live, who would be on your team?