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Opinion

The could-have-been Kangaroos: Part 1, backs

Roar Guru
28th February, 2021
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Roar Guru
28th February, 2021
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Over 770 players have been deemed good enough to represent Australia in rugby league internationals over the years, whether they be Test matches or World Cup games (including Super League).

Many of those chosen were legends of the game, while others – whose Test careers were significantly shorter – were no less deserving of being chosen. Along the way, though, there were some questionable selections, and some players who must be considered very lucky to have donned the Australian jersey for an international match. You know who they are.

There were also many players who were no doubt good enough to play for Australia, but never got the opportunity for whatever reason, whether it be injury, hot opposition or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I choose the back line who were good enough, but just never got the opportunity to play an international for Australia.

I have used the following selection criteria:
• Qualified to play for Australia
• Played in the ARL or NRL since 1980
• Never played a Test match or World Cup match (including Super League) for Australia or any other country
• Now retired from the game

Here are the backs.

1. Rhys Wesser (1998-2011)
Wesser played 219 games for Penrith and Souths along with four Origins for Queensland. Although small by today’s standards, he had a big heart, was a potent attacking weapon and was a prolific try scorer, crossing for 129 tries in his career. He had speed to burn and a great broken field runner, who set up countless tries for his teammates, and was also a solid last line of defence when required.

Rhys Wesser

Rhys Wesser was unlucky not to get a Kangaroos jumper. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Getting a run at fullback for the Australian side was no mean feat during Wesser’s time as the Australian number one jersey was well and truly in the grasp of firstly Darren Lockyer, and then Billy Slater once Lockyer made the move to five-eighth. Given that competition, Wesser did well to get on the field for Queensland during the brief period that the Maroons played Slater on the wing.

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Other fullbacks who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the green and gold were Brian Johnson (1979-1986), Jonathan Docking (1984-1991) and Michael Potter (1983-1996).

2. Darren Albert (1996-2006)
If you’re going to choose a winger, you may as well choose a fast one who knows how to get to the line. Enter Darren Albert, one of the fastest players to ever lace on a boot, and who scored 165 tries in his 230 games for Newcastle, St Helens and Cronulla. He also played one Origin for NSW.

Albert didn’t just score tries though, he also stopped them, and was renowned as a great cover defender who saved countless tries by running down the opposition, usually after giving them a healthy start.

Albert was a real credit to the game and only injuries at the wrong times in his career stopped him from notching up more representative games and a place in the Australian team.

3. Mark Hughes (1997-2006)
Apart from being an outstanding centre, Hughes was also versatile and could play just as well at either fullback or on the wing. In fact, he wore the number one on his back in his only three Origin matches for NSW in 2001. But it was at centre that he really excelled in his nine-year career with Newcastle, and he combined good pace and ball skills with solid defence.

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Like many players, injuries hampered Hughes’ representative career, not to mention the fact that Australia was blessed with some fairly handy centres during his time in the game, such as Matt Gidley, Ryan Girdler, Jamie Lyon and Brent Tate.

4. Michael Beattie (1980-1992)
It’s almost inexplicable that Beattie was never picked in any representative team, let alone never play for Australia. In his 211-game career with the Dragons, he formed outstanding centre combinations with some of the best centres to play in that era, including Steve Rogers, Brian Johnston, Michael O’Connor and Chris Johns, all of whom played both State of Origin and for Australia. But from where I was sitting in the crowd, none of these stars were playing any better than Beattie.

Beattie was a fine attacking player, had a great kicking game, was a fine leader of his team and club, and could hit as hard as any centre in the game in defence. While he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Australian side, getting past the centres competing for a place was always going to be a big hurdle. Players like Mal Meninga, Brett Kenny, Laurie Daley, Gene Miles and Steve Rogers didn’t stand aside for anyone.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Mal Meninga sat in front of Michael Beattie in the pecking order. (Photo by Getty Images)

Other centres who would certainly would have acquitted themselves well in the Australian side if the opportunity arose include Brad Izzard (1982-1992), Brian Hetherington (1978-1988), Paul Bowman (1995-2007), Ron Giteau (1974-1986) and Owen Craigie (1995-2005).

5. Ty Williams (2002-2010)
Williams’ career can be divided into two distinct parts – before Achilles tear and after. Prior to incurring this injury in the early rounds of the 2006 season, Williams was one of the most devastating ball runners in the competition, combining sheer speed with great footwork and upper body strength. No one was ever going to run Williams down.

In his first four seasons with the Cowboys (pre-Achillies injury) he scored an incredible 58 tries in 91 games, and was chosen to play all three Origin matches for Queensland in 2005. I’m certain that but for the injury, he would have gone on to further Origin selection and then made it into the Australian side.

Other talented wingers who came under consideration when choosing both Darren Albert and Ty Williams for this team were Ricky Walford (1982-1996), Matt Geyer (1997-2008), Amos Roberts (2000-2012), Mitch Brennan (1978-1988), Steve Turner (2002-2013) and Steve Gearin (1975-1986). There are some great finishers there.

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6. Michael Hagan (1984-1993)
Hagan wasn’t the greatest ball-running five-eighth of all time, but he certainly was one of the best on-field generals, and a player who led his team around with great effect. Hagan always seemed to have plenty of time with the ball in hand and looked to be a couple of plays ahead of the opposition.

He played over 190 games with Canterbury and Newcastle, and also had a couple of stints in England, but it was with the Knights where he really hit his straps in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Hagan was also a versatile player and appeared all over the back line when required. He also played five Origins for Queensland.

Hagan was certainly good enough to wear the green and gold, but had some fairly handy five-eighths in front of him in Wally Lewis, Laurie Daley and Cliff Lyons. It was hard to get past those guys.

Wally Lewis brings the ball up for Queensland.

Wally Lewis helped keep Michael Hagan out of an Australian jersey. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Some other five-eighths who were good enough to represent their country if the opportunity had arisen were Brett Finch (1999-2013), Steve Carter (1988-2002) and Tony Melrose (1980-1989).

7. Kevin Hastings (1976-1987)
I like my beer cold, my Irish whiskey to come from the Connemara, and my halfbacks to play like Kevin Hastings. All skill, strength and determination.

Put simply, Hastings was one of the best players to never get the recognition in representative football that he deserved. He played 239 games for the Roosters across 12 seasons, won the Rothmans Medal in 1981, was three-time Rugby League Week player of the year, Amco Cup player of the year in 1979, and three-time Dally M halfback of the year.

And for all of that, all he had to show for it in his representative trophy room were a couple of starts in City Seconds and one Origin game for NSW off the bench. How he wasn’t picked in the 1982 Kangaroo squad ahead of Mark Murray is a total mystery, particularly given the fact that Hastings could also play well at lock and hooker.

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Some other halfbacks who were good enough to represent the green and gold were Jason Taylor (1990-2001), Matt Orford (2000-2011), Trent Hodkinson (2010-2019) and Craig Field (1990-2001).

In Part 2, I’ll name the rest of the team: the forward pack and the bench.