After crowning a champion team of the 1990s, it’s time to assess the various rookie classes that emerged in the first decade of the new millennium.
The number of first-grade teams shrunk from 17 to 14 in the year 2000, but the amount of quality debutants didn’t dry up.
This team features club combinations all over the park, Origin-calibre players up and down the team sheet, plus an elite coach if we can bend the eligibility rules a little.
Fullback: Anthony Minichiello
One of the era’s definitive fullbacks is an easy selection at the back. He came through as a winger as the Roosters qualified for their first grand final in 20 years in 2000, but he’s best deployed in his eventual fullback position to maximise the amount of talent in this side.
Wingers: Pat Richards and Justin Hodges
The wingers are a bit of a headache, with more solid NRL players — such as Amos Roberts and Henry Fa’afili — than A-grade stars.
Pat Richards’ goal-kicking and longevity earn him one spot, then with an un-splittable club combo filling the centre spots, very occasional winger Justin Hodges is shunted wide too.
Centres: Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper
These two Saints began their decade-long NRL partnership in the year 2000, and fittingly made their Origin debut together as well: Game 3, 2004.
Five-eighth: Jamie Lyon
The glut of centres forces the Eels rookie to five-eighth in this team. However, the Manly recruit should feel comfortable in the number six — Lyon won the 2008 title there alongside his halves partner in this team.
Halfback: Matt Orford
Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Danny Buderus and Andrew Johns. Those were the last four names etched on a Dally M Medal before Orford won his in 2008.
A Northern Eagles debutant who returned to Brookvale after cutting his teeth in Melbourne, Orford was integral to building the Eagles into a premiership threat — a fact easily overlooked due to his lack of rep jumpers and Daly Cherry-Evans’ rapid emergence from his shadow.
Props: Jason Ryles and Luke Bailey
Another St George Illawarra pair team up in a formidable front row that yielded 23 Origins and 18 Tests between them.
Hooker: PJ Marsh
Marsh was used more often as an impact player off the bench than a starting number nine, but the Eels rookie is clearly the stand-out rake from this debutant class.
Second-rowers: Andrew Ryan (captain) and Willie Mason
Parramatta’s Andrew Ryan eventually teamed up with Willie Mason at Belmore, and they do so again here.
Lock: Braith Anasta
Another 2004 grand final-winning Bulldog locks the scrum. Although Anasta was a specialist five-eighth, he wears the 13 to leave the Manly halves pairing intact, and to bring a ball-playing quality that fellow 2000 rookies and specialist locks Alan Tongue and Daniel Abraham can’t.
Bench: Ben Hornby, Josh Perry, Brad Meyers, Chris Flannery
The versatile Ben Hornby is a perfect bench utility, especially with so many Dragons mates in the dressing room. His 2010 premiership teammate Nathan Fien is unlucky to miss.
Rep regulars Josh Perry, Brad Meyers and Chris Flannery complete a strong bench, which could easily have been populated by Maroons Carl Webb, Chris Beattie and Ashley Harrison, or Kiwi international Jason Cayless.
Coach: Trent Robinson
With the number of NRL clubs — and therefore the number of coaching jobs — shrinking from 17 to 14, not a single new coach got their start in 2000.
However, the Wests Tigers’ only debutant in their first campaign as a joint venture turned out to be a pretty handy coach, so he can take the reins of his fellow rookies here.
The class of 2000 is a seriously good side and a probable playoff contender. How they square up against teams that boast the decade’s absolute A-listers — Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and maybe even one or two that don’t hail from Queensland — is the question.
Next up, 2001, where we start to see some seeds of the Maroons dynasty that defined the era.