While he engaged in a vocal exchange via the media with Wayne Bennett in Penrith’s last finals match, coach Ivan Cleary has kept his response short and sweet this time around.
The class of 2003 is the first in this series to feature a player still running around in the NRL today.
The ageless Benji Marshall and a couple of title-winning Tigers star in this side, as do a sprinkling of names that came to define the tetchy Melbourne-Manly rivalry that flared up later in the decade.
Speaking of, let’s kick off with a fullback so good he forces Billy Slater to the wing…
Fullback: Brett Stewart
The Sea Eagles stalwart played a single game in 2003, then another 232 in a try-stuffed career. When he retired in 2016, only five men had scored more than his 163 tries — including the man he’s forced to the flank in this side.
Wingers: Billy Slater and Matt King
It feels almost blasphemous to choose Billy Slater anywhere other than fullback, and he was plainly a better player over a longer period than Stewart.
But the Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos trophy magnet is selected on the wing in this line-up because he displayed more versatility than Stewart, particularly at rep level. Plus, he gets to team up with mop-haired Melbourne mate Matt King on the flanks here, too.
Centres: Dene Halatau and David Stagg
Centre is a problem position for the class of 2003, with very few specialists.
Halatau (Tigers) and Stagg (Broncos) — who coincidentally joined each other at Canterbury in 2010 — played only 50 of their 455 NRL games in the centres, but these selfless team men have put their hands up to fill this thin spot.
Five-eighth: Benji Marshall
Having made his debut as a fragile-shouldered, hair gel-slicked, waif-thin 18-year-old, Benji Marshall has now spent nearly half his life as a first-grade footballer.
Marshall’s durability has perhaps overtaken his audacious talent as his defining quality, reinventing himself at St George Illawarra, Brisbane, Wests and Souths after more than a decade at the Tigers the first time around.
His flick pass in the 2005 decider will be replayed on grand final day for as long as our game exists.
Halfback: Robbie Farah (captain)
Halfback was another bald patch on this team list, but with a stack of more-than-capable hookers, Tigers talisman Robbie Farah will be happy to pair up with his old mate Benji in the halves.
Warriors debutant Thomas Leuluai was the only feasible alternative, mainly for his work with Wigan rather than in the NRL. But Farah shifting to seven helps accommodate two other premiership-winning hookers in this squad.
Props: Chris Heighington and Sam Thaiday
Another ultra-durable Tiger — 338-gamer Chris Heighington — forms a nuggety front row with Sam Thaiday, who’s more a second-rower than a prop but is shoved out by the surplus of good options in that position.
Heighington perhaps wasn’t the most impactful player among a strong class of debutant enforcers, but his stamina cannot be denied. Cameron Smith, Steve Menzies, Paul Gallen and Corey Parker are the only forwards with more NRL appearances on their CV.
Hooker: Mick Ennis
Ennis and Farah spent their careers jostling over the NSW jersey but hopefully this arrangement can successfully squeeze them onto the same team sheet.
The disagreeable dummy-half debuted for Newcastle before stints at St George Illawarra, Brisbane, Canterbury and Cronulla.
Second-rowers: Glenn Stewart and Ryan Hoffman
Manly second-rower Glenn Stewart joins regular September opponent, Melbourne’s Ryan Hoffman, in the back row. Curiously, these two New South Welshmen never played an Origin together, often replacing each other throughout the Blues’ darkest era.
Locks: Dallas Johnson
Another whole-hearted Storm forward locks the scrum. Fun fact: Johnson made his debut in the same game as Billy Slater, and the pair notched their 150th appearance together five years later.
Bench: Dean Young, Mick Weyman, Ben Creagh, Frank Pritchard
Saints royalty Dean Young is the third best hooker in this side but a really handy substitute, joined by future premiership teammates Ben Creagh and Mick Weyman, who debuted for Canberra.
Penrith product Frank Pritchard snatches the final bench spot. Antonio Kaufusi, Keith Galloway, Jacob Lillyman, Ashton Sims, Bryce Gibbs and Neville Costigan could have all easily been selected.
Coach: Nathan Brown
The current Warriors boss has no shortage of critics, but with only Souths’ Paul Langmack for competition, the 2003 Dragons rookie earns this job almost by default.
I wish I could trade one of the two world-class fullbacks or three title-winning hookers for a specialist rep-level halfback. More three-quarters would’ve been useful, too.
Nonetheless, the combination of Stewart, Slater and Marshall — supported by a compact but tireless pack — will overwhelm plenty of opponents.
Next comes the class of 2004, a team that might spend more time in disciplinary hearings than on the training paddock.