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Rugby league history: The all-time great alphabet teams – Letter M

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Roar Guru
23rd May, 2019
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And now, after all the fanfare over Team L, we move onto the Team M.

This was a surprisingly tough team to pick. Some selections are obvious, but there’s an awful lot that could have gone in a different direction. There are some discussion points here for sure.

1. Frank McMillan

Honours: ARL hall of fame, Wests Magpies team of the century.
Years active: 1921–35.
Clubs: Western Suburbs, Balmain.
All games: 268 (11 tries, 321 points).
Representative career: Tests: 9; NSW: 22.
Nickname: ‘Skinny’.

This could so easily have gone to Anthony Minichiello, one of my personal favourites, but I have to give it to the Western Suburbs hall of famer Frank McMillan.

McMillan was a stalwart for Wests for more than 150 games over 15 years, including their 1930 and 1934 premierships, the second as captain-coach. That 1934 premiership was unique as Wests became the only team to go from the wooden spoon to the premiership in consecutive years – though, to be fair, in 1933 their best players, McMillan and Vic Hey, were away for many months on the 1933 Kangaroo tour.

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McMillan advanced fullback play, injecting himself more into attack than any before him as the first custodian to join the front line in attack. According to the great centre Tom Goodman: “McMillan began the era of the ‘running’ fullback. If not the pioneer of attacking play, then certainly the most exciting crowds had seen.”

On the representative scene, McMillan established himself as the premier fullback in the country on the 1929 Kangaroo tour, matching British great Jim Sullivan. He retained his position for the 1932 home Ashes series and then was appointed captain-coach of the Kangaroos for their 1933 tour.

2. Ian Moir

Honours: Nominated for ARL hall of fame 2018, South Sydney dream team.
Years active: 1952–60.
Clubs: South Sydney, Western Suburbs.
Club games: 138 (119 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 12; NSW: 10.

Ian Moir was arguably the fastest man in rugby league in the 1950s, beating Ken Irvine and others in a match race in 1958, running the 110 yards in 11.1 seconds in full football gear. But Moir was more than just a speedster; he was selected in representative teams from his debut year in 1952 and would have had more Tests to his name had he not missed the 1952 Kangaroo tour through injury.

In 1953 Moir scored 20 tries to top the competition try-scoring list and he added a hat-trick in the Rabbitohs’ thumping 31-12 grand final victory over St George. Souths went on to win the next two premierships with Moir scoring prolifically through both seasons.

Moir was part of the Australia squad for the 1954 and 1957 World Cups and went on the 1956 Kangaroo tour, where he topped the tour try-scoring list. Over his career, Moir scored over 140 tries for club, state and country.

Moir won the Canberra Gift as a professional sprinter. Later in life, he showed that he had lost none of his old magic when he won the NSW veterans (50 to 54 years) 100 metres championship, running 12.7 seconds in 1988 at 56 years old.

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3. Herbert ‘Dally’ Messenger (goalkicker)

Honours: Rugby league Immortal, ARL hall of fame, ARL team of the century, NSWRL team of the century, Australian Sports hall of fame, NSW Sports hall of fame.
Years active: 1907–13.
Clubs: Eastern Suburbs.
All games: 163 (73 tries, 1238 points).
Representative career: Tests: 9 (plus 2 for New Zealand); NSW: 6 (plus 20 tour matches plus one for Queensland).
Nickname: ‘The Master’.

At centre is Immortal Dally Messenger. While playing for only six years, Messenger is credited with giving the new game in Australia credibility and star power. He provided that same credibility as the star of the first-ever tours of Great Britain by both the New Zealand All Golds and the Australian Kangaroos.

Messenger generated such excitement on the tour that hosts put up placards proclaiming that Messenger would be playing to boost crowds. Across those two tours, Messenger scored 386 points from 70 games, topping the points tally both times. Such was his athleticism, he was offered contracts by leading soccer clubs, including Glasgow Celtic, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, but refused them.

Messenger was already a rugby union star when he became the main signing for the new rugby league competition and proved his worth in spades as crowds flocked to see his magic. Messenger’s popularity helped the new code draw 20,000 spectators to their very first game, a Test between the New Zealand All Golds and Australia.

Messenger did not turn out for his club much in his first three seasons due to constant representative commitments designed to capitalise on his popularity. In 1908, for example, besides playing for his club, Messenger made representative appearances for Metropolis (Sydney), NSW, Australia, Australasia, New Zealand and, in one case, Queensland.

But from 1911, with Messenger as captain-coach, Easts produced the first dynasty in rugby league, winning three titles in a row. His record of 270 points for the 2011 season stood for a quarter of a century. It was one of three seasons in which Messenger topped the point-scoring table. He also starred that year for NSW, where he still holds the record for most points in a game, at 32, and scored 72 points for the series. In 1910 Queensland actually suggested to New South Wales that to make the series competitive Messenger should be confined to his own side of halfway.

Messenger was the finest goalkicker of his day – for example, kicking a 60-yard penalty in the 1911 final – and was also renowned for his unorthodox and instinctive play. He developed a trick of passing the ball forwards over the heads of the opposition defence and regathering, which was so successful that the league changed the rules to ban the practice. On two occasions in England, he was reputed to have kicked a goal from his own quarter line.

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Other moves attributed to him was kicking over the defensive line then running off the field around the defence to regather and score, running over the top of a collapsed scrum to score, diving over the New Zealand fullback to score and deliberately missing a penalty goal, instead kicking to regather and score.

But it was the intangibles for which Messenger was famous. Like his cricketing counterpart, Victor Trumper, statistics do not do justice to the awe in which Messenger was held. The best I can do to describe his influence is a selection of quotes from better rugby league pundits than me.

In 1906 representative footballer Paddy Moran wrote that Messenger’s play in rugby union “was full of surprises, unorthodox, flash” and “directed largely by the unconscious mind”.

Les Cubitt, Kangaroo captain in 1921–22, said he was “the equal of any two backs who ever played rugby league”.

In 1926 Tom McMahon, the game’s first great referee in Sydney, said: “There was nothing in the game that he could not do well. Catch, field, side-step, swerve, tackle and kick goals from beyond the halfway mark”.

Harry Sunderland wrote: “Without Messenger’s magical appeal … there would be no league”>

4. Mal Meninga (co-captain)

Honours: Rugby league Immortal, ARL hall of fame, ARL team of the century, QRL team of the century, Australian Sports hall of fame, Golden Boot 1989, QLD Sports hall of fame legend, Dally M centre of the year 1990 and 1991.
Years active: 1978–94.
Clubs: Souths Brisbane (QLD), St Helens (UK), Canberra.
All games: 517 (291 tries, 3255 points).
Representative career: Tests: 46; QLD: 38.
Nickname: ‘Big Mal’ and ‘George’; Roy and HG nickname: ‘Chicken George’.

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Big Mal had a big career in every sense. The Immortal centre rampaged through rugby league for 16 years, winning six premierships across Brisbane, Sydney and the UK (three as captain), seven State of Origin series and four Kangaroo tours (two as captain, a unique feat). At the time of his retirement, Meninga held the record for most games and most points scored for Australia. It doesn’t get any bigger. Even his armguard was bigger than that of some halfbacks.

Mal Meninga poses after being inducted as the 13th immortal

Mal Meninga. (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)

Meninga burst onto the scene at just the right time to become a superstar. Mentored at Souths in Brisbane by Wayne Bennett, Meninga was in the QLD Residents team in his second year and was a star from his first State of Origin appearance, kicking seven goals from as many attempts with his toe-poke style of kicking as Queensland ran out winners. He went on to star for Queensland for 13 years and was an integral part of the state’s dominant eras in the early and late 1980s.

Meninga, along with a group of Queensland players, moved to Canberra in 1986 and were the catalyst for a golden era at the club, winning three premierships between 1989 and 1994, including possibly the great grand final win of all time against Balmain in 1989. This was after Meninga broke his arm four times between 1987 and 1988.

Meninga ended his career on the highest possible note, in 1994 captaining Canberra to a grand final win and then leading the Kangaroos on another successful Kangaroo tour.

Referee Bill Harrigan said in his book Harrigan: The Referee in a League of his Own, “I’d watch in awe as Mal pulverised the opposing defensive line with his bone-crunching runs. From the safety of my spot six or seven metres away from the action, I felt grateful that I didn’t have to tackle him because his giant thighs were lethal weapons.”

5. Brett Morris

Years active: 2006 – present.
Clubs: St George Illawarra, Canterbury, Sydney Roosters.
Club games (to 2018): 238 (146 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 18, NSW: 15.

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This was a massively difficult decision. I really wanted Brett Mullins, and “Mad Dog” MacDougall had solid claims too, but Brett Morris’ career record cannot be ignored.

By the end of the 2018 season, Morris had scored 146 tries from 237 games, providing great service to St George, where he won a premiership in 2010 and then with Canterbury.

Powerful and deceptively quick, Morris was a regular in the NSW Origin side from 2010 to 2017. Despite this being a lean period for NSW, Morris was impressive enough to play 18 Tests for Australia between 2009 and 2014. This was partly due to a massive 2009 club season where Morris scored 25 tries including two hat tricks and four in a match against the Cowboys. He rewarded the selectors’ faith by being the top try scorer in the 2009 Four Nations tournament.

Morris has an impressive strike rate at national level, scoring 23 tries in 18 Tests. Highlights included four tries in a rout against the USA and five doubles. In fact, Morris scored in 14 of 18 Tests he played.

He is in the veteran class now, but Morris is highly-regarded enough to have been picked up by the premiers to replace Blake Ferguson for 2019.

Morris: “You’ve got to keep working hard. That’s one thing I’ve always prided myself on – my work ethic.”

6. Benji Marshall

Honours: Golden Boot Award 2010, Dally M five-eighth of the year 2011.
Years active: 2003 – present.
Clubs: Souths Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra, Brisbane.
Club games (to 2018): 289 (88 tries, 402 goals, 14 field goals).
Representative career: Tests: 27 (NZ).

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Benji Marshall was a side-stepping, flick-passing football genius out of the great Keebra Park nursery. In only his third year of first-grade league (but after playing only 11 games in his first two years) Marshall was a major part of delivering Wests Tigers their first premiership, the first in a long, long time for either Balmain or Wests.

While Scott Prince was rightfully named the player of the grand final, it’s Marshall’s flair and that flick pass which is best remembered. The most striking thing about Marshall in those early days was his obvious love of just playing the game.

Marshall played 27 Tests for New Zealand during their most successful era. With Marshall at No.6, New Zealand won their first World Cup in 2008 with a comprehensive victory over Australia. They repeated the dose in the 2010 Four Nations final with Marshall captaining his national side. Marshall was subsequently awarded the Gold Boot as the world’s best rugby league player.

In recent years Marshall has evolved into a steady and experienced game manager, mentoring those around him, both at Brisbane and now back at Wests Tigers where it all began. Was it a coincidence that Luke Brooks had his best season in 2018?

Wayne Bennett, writing the foreword in Marshall’s autobiography Benji, Benji Marshall: My Game, My Story, said: “Rare are the moments as a coach when I can just sit back and enjoy a game of football. Benji Marshall gives me those moments”.

Benji Marshall

Benji Marshall. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

7. Chris McKivat (Co-Captain)

Honours: ARL hall of fame, Sports Australia hall of fame, NSW Sports hall of fame.
Years active: 1910–17.
Clubs: Glebe.
All games: 115 (27 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 7; NSW: 13.
Nickname: ‘Hairy Bloke’.

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This was the single most difficult selection call I had to make across all the alphabet teams. After much agony, I have passed over fall of fame player and personal childhood idol Steve Mortimer in favour of Australia’s first great halfback and captain, Chris McKivat.

McKivat holds the unique distinction of captaining his country on tours of Great Britain in both rugby league and rugby union. He must have been some player and leader. A Glebe stalwart in both codes, McKivat captained the Wallabies during their successful 1908-09 tour of Great Britain. This included leading Australia to a gold medal victory over England in the London Olympics and Test wins over Wales and England. McKivat played more than 20 Tests and tour matches for the Wallabies between 1907 and his defection to rugby league.

McKivat also captained the ‘Wallabies’ in the series of four matches played against the ‘Kangaroos’ in 1909. As a result, he was banned from rugby union for life. For more information on this little-remembered league vs union series see my F Team article.

So, at the age of 29, McKivat defected to rugby league and in 1911-12 led the Kangaroos on an undefeated Test series against Great Britain to win the Ashes for the very first time. It would be another 50 years before Australia again claimed the Ashes in on British soil, then under Clive Churchill.

McKivat must have been a shrewd running halfback or at least a great support player, as he scored seven tries from as many appearances for Australia and Australasia in an era when wings and centres did the bulk of the try-scoring. He was also very durable, playing in 32 of the 35 games on tour.

McKivat also captained the Glebe Dirty Reds during their most successful era. Glebe finished top of the table in 1910 only to be beaten in the final by Dally Messenger’s Easts team. Then in 1911 Glebe finished second (again to Easts), but no finals matches were played and Easts were awarded the premiership.

A Manchester Daily Despatch in 1911 remarked: “At halfback he stands alone in the whole world of Northern Union football.”

8. Peter ‘Mick’ Madsen

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Honours: QRL team of the century, ARL hall of fame, QLD Sport hall of fame.
Years active: 1921–37.
Clubs: Brothers Toowoomba (QLD).
All games: 149 (12 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 9; QLD: 41.

Mick Madsen has claims to being Queensland’s greatest ever prop forward. He was part of the mighty ‘Galloping Clydesdales’ Toowoomba team of the 1920s that defeated all comers during the 1920s, including England, New South Wales, New Zealand and South Sydney. Despite never leaving his hometown, Madsen made two Kangaroo tours and played in two other Ashes series and captained his country in a Test.

Madsen was an incredibly strong front rower and was durable as well, representing Toowoomba every year for 12 years. With Madsen in the front row with fellow hall of famer Herb Steinohrt, Queensland defeated New South Wales in the 1928, 1931 and 1932 interstate series.

Madsen was the first player to ever fly in for a Test match, when he was a last-minute call up during the 1936 Ashes.

9. Jeff Masterman

Honours: Dally M hooker of the year 1981, Dally M rookie of the year 1981.
Years active: 1978–85.
Clubs: Kurri Kurri, Eastern Suburbs.
Club games: 166 (9 tries for Easts).
Representative career: Tests: 2, NSW: 2.
Nickname: ‘Star’.

For a team with possibly the most depth of all the alphabet sides, the M Team were surprisingly light on for hookers. With apologies to Andrew McCullough, I’ve gone with Jeff Masterman.

After Easts had lured John Lang down south for a final season in 1980 they were again on the lookout and picked up Jeff Masterman, who had represented NSW Country from Kurri Kurri between 1978 and 1980. Masterman was an immediate hit, being selected for New South Wales in two interstate matches in 1981 (the last ever non-State of Origin clashes).

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He then played in both Tests against France that year, scoring a try on debut. Easts took out the minor premiership before falling to Newtown in the preliminary final, and Masterman took out the ‘Dally M’ rookie of the year and hooker of the year awards.

Masterman never again reached those heights although he was first choice hooker for the Roosters for a further two seasons, with the club reaching another preliminary final in 1982, where they were destroyed by a rampant Parramatta.

10. Nate Myles

Honours: Dally M second-rower of the year 2012.
Years active: 2005–17.
Clubs: Canterbury, Sydney Roosters, Gold Coast, Manly, Melbourne.
Club games: 233 (7 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 9; QLD: 32.

Paul Gallen tackles Queensland player Nate Myles

Nate Myles and Paul Gallen. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

There is a fair argument that Nate Myles was the most valuable forward in the 2006-17 Queensland State of Origin dynasty. His representative career coincided with the period perfectly and Myles was always there to do the dirty work and let his star teammates shine. A model of toughness and consistency, Myles was overall player of the series in 2012 and won Queensland player of the series twice. He missed only two matches between 2006 and 2016.

Myles also represented Australia nine times between 2010 and 2015.

At club level, Myles played more than 230 games across five different clubs over 14 years, highlighted by a grand final appearance with the Roosters in 2010. He also won the Dally M as the best second rower in the competition in 2012 while playing for the Gold Coast.

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11. Gene Miles

Honours: ARL hall of fame, QLD Sports hall of fame, QRL team of the century.
Years active: 1980–92.
Clubs: Wynnum Manly (QLD), Brisbane, Wigan (UK).
All games: 320 (127 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 14; QLD: 23.
Nickname: ‘Geno’.

This M Team has an impressive backrow, so much so that a Golden Boot winner can’t get a look in.

Gene Miles began by forming some of the most formidable centre pairings in representative history before evolving into a matchwinning wide running second rower. As a result he was named on the bench of Queensland’s team of the century and is a member of the ARL hall of fame.

Those centre pairings were with Mal Meninga and Brett Kenny, and he played all but one of his Tests with one or the other. The rangy Miles was equally able to rampage around over or through opposition fullbacks or send his winger away with one of his trademark basketball passes.

Miles won three premierships with the great Wynnum Manly side of the 1980s alongside such players as Wally Lewis, Colin Scott, Greg Dowling and Bob Lindner. Miles won the Rothmans Medal as the BRL’s best player in 1987, the last year before the Broncos were created. He joined the New South Wales competition with the Broncos in 1988 and captained the side from 1990 (and was named Dally M captain of the year in 1991) but left the club just before they broke through for a first premiership.

Miles finished his career in England with Wigan, where he won the 1992 championship, Challenge Cup and premiership treble. Martin Offiah in particular benefited from Miles ability to bend the line and pop an overhead pass.

Miles was a colossus for Queensland during the 1980s, losing only one series and playing 20 games. At national level Miles toured with the 1982 Kangaroos but did not break into the Test side. By the 1986 tour he was close to the premier centre in the game, scoring a hat-trick in the first Test before switching to the forwards in 1987. He was selected in the second row for the 1989 tour of New Zealand but pulled out with a hand injury and then retired from representative football.

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12. Bob McCarthy MBE

Honours: ARL hall of fame, NSW Sports hall of fame.
Years active: 1963–78.
Clubs: South Sydney, Canterbury.
All games: 372 (176 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 15; NSW 11.
Nickname: ‘Macca’.

Bob McCarthy was the prototype of the modern wide-running second rower and also took possibly the most famous intercept in Australian rugby league history.

From the Sunday Mirror after the 1967 grand final: “An unbelievable try … and probably no other forward in Sydney could have scored it”.

McCarthy was the first forward since Frank Burge over 50 years before to score 100 premiership tries through devastating power and speed running out wide. A Redfern local, McCarthy played in three of Souths’ four premierships between 1967 and 1971 and, unusually for a forward, was the competition’s leading try-scorer in 1970, including scoring the matchwinning try in Souths’ grand final victory over St George.

Despite a grand final appearance in 1965 and the 75-metre intercept that turned the 1967 grand final for Souths, he was not selected for New South Wales or Australia until 1969, but he then became a fixture for the next five years. McCarthy’s non-selection for the Kangaroo tour immediately following the 1967 grand final – the team was picked that night – was one of league’s great selection mysteries. Apparently, it took a while for the representative selectors to move from the belief that forwards should stay in the middle of the field.

McCarthy toured with the 1970 and 1972 World Cup squads and was made vice-captain of the 1973 Kangaroos. He captained the side for the second Test and scored a vital try as Australia claimed victory. McCarthy also scored a try in the 1974 Ashes decider in his last international appearance.

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After 13 seasons for the Rabbitohs McCarthy moved to Canterbury for two seasons, helping them to the semi-finals, before returning to the Rabbitohs, where injuries forced his retirement prior to the start of the 1978 season.

In 2004, McCarthy was named in South Sydney’s greatest ever team.

13. Steve Menzies

Honours: ARL hall of fame; Dally M second-rower of the year 1994, 1995 and 1998; Dally M lock of the year 2002.
Years active: 1993–13.
Clubs: Manly, Northern Eagles, Bradford (UK), Catalans (France).
All games: 533 (266 tries).
Representative career: Tests: 13, NSW 20.
Nickname: ‘Beaver’; Roy and HG nickname: ‘Methuselah’.

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Between the back row and centres there is a heck of a lot of strike in this team!

Steve Menzies is the greatest try-scoring forward in the history of Australian rugby league. Over an amazing 21-year club career Menzies scored 238 tries from 477 appearances, 180 of which were in the NRL – only Ken Irvine and Billy Slater have scored more. Menzies scored at least one try in 140 matches, one more than Irvine. As well as his fantastic hole running, Menzies was as tough and durable as they come and safe as a bank in defence.

Menzies celebrated two premierships from six attempts with Manly across 12 years, including in his final game for the club in 2008, when they thrashed Melbourne 40-0 in the most lopsided grand final in history. During his long career Menzies saw the powerhouse Manly team of the mid-1990s and the disastrous Northern Eagles merge, returning the Manly club to the top of the pile in the mid-2000s. Through it all he played at least 20 matches for 12 years in a row.

Like many, Menzies went to the UK to finish his career. However, unlike almost anybody, after 15 years in the NRL Menzies gave a further six years of quality service to Bradford and Catalans, scoring 58 tries in 128 games and earning selection in the Exiles team that played against England in 2011.

Menzies had a ten-year representative career, including selection for the 1994 Kangaroo tour as a 20-year-old and for the 1995 World Cup squad that won against the odds without any Super League players. During 1995 Menzies scored two tries in each of the four Tests in a row.

Menzies debuted for New South Wales during their shock 1995 loss to Queensland’s depleted ARL squad. After 20 games for the Blues at second row or from the bench Menzies’s last series was in 2006, the beginning of a Queensland era of dominance. Menzies won the NSW player of the series that year.

Menzies was Manly through and through. The local junior was the grandson of founding Sea Eagles centre Mackie Campbell.

Bench

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14. Barry Muir
Valleys (QLD), Wests (QLD); 1957–68; Tests: 25, QLD: 26; nickname: ‘Garbo’
Halfback. ARL hall of fame. Sports QLD hall of fame. Cockroach-hating, fiercely competitive and scheming half who won two series for Queensland in 1959 and1960. Vice-captain of the first team to win the Ashes in England for 50 years.

15. Steve Mortimer
Canterbury; 1976–88; Tests: 9, NSW: 16; nickname: ‘Turvey’
Halfback. ARL hall of fame. Four-time premiership winner for the Bulldogs and captained New South Wales to their first-ever State of Origin series win. Bulldogs 70-year team of champions.

16. Anthony Minichiello
Sydney Roosters; 2000–14; Tests: 19 (plus six for Italy), NSW: 7; nickname: ‘The Count’
Fullback. Golden Boot 2005. A pinball runner, the best fullback in the game in the mid-2000s and two-time premiership winner. Fullback for NSW State of Origin dominance from 2003 to 2005.

17. Willie Mason
Canterbury, Sydney Roosters, North QLD, Hull Kingston Rovers (UK), Newcastle, Manly, Catalans (France); 2000–16; Tests: 24 (plus three for Tonga), NSW: 13
Prop. Dominant and slightly crazy Bulldogs prop. Part of the champion 2004 premiership side and over 20 Tests as an impact player.

Honourable mentions

This team has more depth than almost any other. You could make another very competitive side out of this lot.

Hugh McGahan (second row, 32 Tests (NZ), 1987 Golden Boot – desperately unlucky), Adrian Morley (prop, 47 Tests (UK) – super unlucky), Rod Morris (prop, 15 Tests – unlucky), Rex ‘Moose’ Mossop (prop, 12 Tests), Brad Mackay (lock, 12 Tests), Michael Morgan (five-eighth, 12 Tests), Adam ‘Mad Dog’ MacDougall (wing, 11 Tests), Brett Mullins (fullback, eight Tests), Paul ‘Mary’ McGregor (centre, three Tests), Adam Muir (second row, two Tests), Josh McGuire (lock, six Tests), Gavin Miller (second row, two Tests), Josh Morris (centre, six Tests), Cameron Munster (five-eighth, two Tests and counting), James Maloney (five-eighth, three Tests), Lionel Morgan (wing, three Tests), Mark ‘Sparkles’ McGaw (centre, four Tests), Mark Murray (halfback, six Tests).

And there you have the M Team. The backline and back row provide serious try scoring strike power, and during a long season they would have excellent injury cover.

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Next time we look at the Ns, one of our lesser sides.