Parramatta gave it everything they had but it just wasn’t enough, the Eels going down to the Penrith Panthers 8-6 in a heart-stopper in Mackay.
There are three names in this squad — two on the team sheet, and one in the coaches box — that make the class of 2002 very difficult to bet against.
But the other members of the dressing room are a more-than-capable support act, beginning with a Kiwi international who hails from that well-known corner of New Zealand, Cairns.
Fullback: Brent Webb
The Queenslander debuted for the Warriors in 2002 and after three years of New Zealand residency became a staple of the side that regularly troubled the Kangaroos in the mid-2000s.
Wingers: Matt Utai and Nathan Merritt
The Dally M rookie of the year, Canterbury’s Matt Utai, was lining up for the Kiwis by the end of his debut season.
Souths debutant Nathan Merritt had a slower start to his career, and departed for Cronulla for a couple of years. But he returned to Redfern one of the most relentlessly prolific try-scorers in the NRL era.
Centres: Willie Tonga and Adam Mogg
Tonga and Mogg both began at Parramatta before making their names at Canberra and Canterbury respectively, and representing Queensland too.
Five-eighth: Lance Hohaia
Hohaia was a regular in the Warriors side that qualified for their first grand final in 2002, and played the first of his 28 Tests that year as well. But his halves partner might take most of the playmaking responsibilities…
Halfback: Johnathan Thurston
There’s nothing I can write that will add to what you already know about the Maroons legend. And remarkably, he’s probably not even the best player in this side.
Props: Roy Asotasi and Brent Kite
Asotasi was a feature of Canterbury’s young, hungry pack that claimed the 2004 title before becoming a landmark Souths signing that powered the Rabbitohs back up the ladder post-readmission.
Dragons debutant Kite also played the bulk of his 300-game career elsewhere, a lynchpin of Manly’s two premierships under Des Hasler before finishing at Penrith.
The pair team up in a top-class front row that gets even better thanks to its dummy-half.
Hooker: Cameron Smith
Smith debuted as a halfback, but the bloke wearing the seven in this team is a pretty handy player too.
Fifty-six Tests, 42 Origins, two Dally Ms, two Golden Boots, a seemingly annual appearance on grand final day… Smith went okay for someone who looked like he should be pushing pencils for H&R Block.
Second-rowers: Anthony Watmough and Greg Bird
Barring any entanglements with the integrity unit, Watmough and Bird form a fiery back row that punched well above its weight (often literally). The disciplinarian holding the clipboard will iron out any behavioural issues.
Locks: Trent Waterhouse
The Penrith lock completes an all-NSW back row, and boasts one distinction not even Watmough and Bird managed. Waterhouse is the only New South Welshman to ever be sent off in the Origin arena, the third man into a brawl involving Steve Price and Brett White in Game 3, 2009.
Bench: Joel Clinton, Ben Ross, Kirk Reynoldson, Adam Woolnough
Broncos pair Steve Irwin and Scott Minto would be first picked on a trivia bench, but the quality of the starting 13 demands proper support.
Joel Clinton (Penrith), Ben Ross (St George Illawarra), Kirk Reynoldson (Melbourne) and Adam Woolnough (Newcastle) are the four big replacements. No need for a substitute dummy-half here.
Coach: Craig Bellamy
The Storm supremo is possibly this side’s greatest asset — quite a feat given the quality of player at halfback and hooker.
Ricky Stuart — who won the comp with the Roosters in his rookie year — represents a handy assistant.
If anyone can overcome a squad containing Thurston, Smith and Bellamy, they’ll be a seriously formidable outfit. The class of ‘02 looms as an early favourite for the rugby league rookie cup of this decade.
The 2003 team brings us another couple of members of Melbourne’s golden generation — let’s see how they stack up next.