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Rugby league all-time great alphabet teams: ‘The Alphabet Cup’

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Roar Guru
22nd February, 2019
89

As most of you who have spent any time on the internet know, we all love a good list. And as the precious few of you who have read any of my articles know, I love delving into a bit of rugby league History.

Rugby league as a code has tended to neglect its rich history, an example being how the Hall of Fame was set up and then neglected for a decade until 2018.

It also lags behind other sports such as cricket in the richness of the mythology and legend surrounding the game.

Cricket’s great moments tend to be immortalised in print and there are plenty of great cricket books as well as numerous places to go to delve into the statistical analysis that has always accompanied that game.

Maybe the gentle pace and lengthy tours that are cricket’s hallmark make that sports fans more likely to indulge in leisurely exploration of the game’s history.

Rugby league tends to move fast and be more about the rough and tumble of 80 minutes, with narratives rarely stretching past the last refereeing controversy or marquee clash.

With some notable exceptions it’s rare to see quality writing about the great narratives of the past in the mainstream and it’s even more rare to hear a young halfback touted as the next Duncan Thompson, rather than the next Johnathan Thurston.

Johnathan Thurston

JT is one recent retiree. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

So inspired by a set of cricket articles a few years back by another Roarer (thanks JGK) I have set myself the task of selecting and describing an all-time great rugby league team for each letter of the alphabet to play in the mythical Alphabet Cup.

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Why on earth would someone want to do this? I have a few reasons:

1. As the season hots up and tempers flare it might give us a moment to step back in time and reflect on the greats who have come before us and that the game itself is more important than the last forward pass,

2. Maybe some forgotten gem will be unearthed and receive his moment in the sun, and

3. I am a tragic and it gives me an excuse to indulge myself. Let’s face it, these will not be articles designed to start a raging fire of outraged comments – “Duncan Thompson over Viv Thicknesse? You’re kidding me!”.

So, starting with the As (thanks Captain Obvious) I will provide a top 17 for each letter, plus two ‘Best of the Rest’ teams.

I will provide some basic stats for each player, being their club, era, number of games and any honours they have received (e.g. member of the Hall of Fame, selected in the ARL Team of the Century). I will also provide a brief background on each player.

Wherever possible players will be picked in position (although the very first player in the ‘A’ Team makes this more of a guideline than a rule!) and I am proud to say that there is only one instance where I have had to combine letters to form a team (U/X/Z).

That has left me with only 442 players to discover.

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In general, I have stuck to some fairly basic selection criteria. Players have been selected as follows:

1. Immortals / Hall of Fame
2. Teams of the Century (ARL, NSWRL, QRL)
3. 2018 Hall of Fame Nominees that didn’t quite make it (a new category for 2018, thanks to the NRL belatedly reviving the Hall of Fame concept)
4. Australian Representatives
5. QLD/NSW representatives
6. England/NZ reps who played some part of their career in the NRL
7. Club players, either NRL, NSWRL or BRL – There are less than 50 players selected who fall into this category
8. For the interchange players, I will lean towards a balanced bench, but not at the expense of including a great player. One team has three Golden Boot winners on the bench, all backs.

And now to the teams themselves. While the quality varies, the hypothetical league between these teams will be hard fought.

16 of the 26 teams consist entirely of national team representatives, three teams have at least ten Hall of Fame members in their 17 and three teams include more than one immortal.

And finally, here are a couple of random oddities that came out during the process to whet your appetite:

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– W, S and E are great letters for hookers while there were other letters, even in strong teams, where I struggled to fill the role (the Ms for example).
– The Os appear to favour brutal forwards with a bit of crazy about them.
– The Bs have some serious depth in the front row and at fullback.
– Despite a fairly significant lock forward with an R surname, in my opinion the Cs have the best back row in history, but the Ps have a strong case with ridiculous back row depth.
– The Ls have some pretty handy halves to choose from and the depth in the Ms, Ss and Ts is high as well. But arguably none of them compare to the Js halfback riches.

Andrew Johns NSW Blues coach

Andrew Johns might feature somewhere in the Js. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

Rugby league sure was different in the early days. Most people get that there was no professionalism and limited training compared to what we have now, but the points that got me included the following.

Every time the Australia side toured England, they had to go by boat and the tours would be six months long. So the club competition would be without its best players for the second half of the competition, including finals.

This skews the records for clubs (some strong clubs did not win deserved titles) but also for players. The best players of the era sometimes have modest club records because they simply didn’t play!

Great players lost much of their careers due to war, but some teams at club level did very well compared to others during this time (e.g Balmain during the first World War).

The rules about finals changed all the time. We did not always have a finals series or a grand final.

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Minor premiers sometimes had the right to a final challenge even after they lost the final.

In some seasons finals were played for points, so if after the regular season you were four points clear you could lose the final and still win the premiership. And on a few occasions seasons were actually called off early when a team was a long way in front.

At the end of it all I will try to rank the teams, so let me know which letter you think will come out on top.

I will be doing a team every week, so look out for the As coming soon.