The class of 2004 will be a favourite of tabloid editors, though less popular with the integrity unit.
Booze, bubblers, bikies and Bra Boys… this squad’s off-field rap sheet provides enough material for an ‘Underbelly’ mini-series.
But they’d prefer we concentrate on their on-field achievements, which were equally worthy of the back pages throughout their decorated careers.
Let’s begin with a man who returned to the top grade this year after a 12-year hiatus.
Fullback: Karmichael Hunt
Hunt was just 17 when he filled Darren Lockyer’s number one jersey at the Broncos, becoming the club’s youngest ever debutant.
He won a premiership, Origins and Australian jerseys as a teen before some questionable life decisions (namely AFL and rugby union, not to mention the off-field stuff) curtailed his rugby league CV.
Wingers: Manu Vatuvei and Sam Perrett
Warriors winger Vatuvei was impossible to stop when on song, racking up more tries (152) than any other New Zealander in premiership history. His achievements in retirement — a ‘Dancing With The Stars’ title followed by methamphetamine importation charges — are just as colourful.
Roosters rookie Perrett accrued fewer four-pointers, reality TV show victories and indiscretions.
Centres: Sonny Bill Williams and Reni Maitua
These Bulldogs buddies won the premiership together in their debut season, before becoming well acquainted with off-field headlines themselves.
Both players were more familiar with the back row than the centres, but the playing stocks in those respective positions forces them wide.
Five-eighth: Todd Carney
The patron saint of rugby league bad boys, Canberra’s Carney was as skilled at standoff as he was at selling newspapers. Lucky he has a Steady Eddy alongside him in the halves here.
Halfback: Cooper Cronk
A consummate professional, the Melbourne man forms a chalk-and-cheese scrumbase partnership with a loose cannon who could’ve used some of Cronk’s one-eyed application.
Remember, this was the man who described one Origin performance as every sinew of his body coming together in one perfect whole. Carney, and many of his teammates, regularly seemed to allow their sinews to wander elsewhere.
Props: Matt Scott and Fuifui Moi Moi
Another odd couple, our front row is the ever-reliable Cowboys mainstay Matt Scott and explosive Parra first-gamer Fuifui Moi Moi, a compulsory selection for that iconic name alone.
Hooker: Jeff Robson
The debutant class of 2004 didn’t give us many elite hookers (apologies, Heath L’Estrange and Riley Brown). So I’m looking around the dressing room for volunteers.
Whole-hearted, red-headed North Queensland back-rower Steve Southern immediately shot his hand up, but on skill, the job goes to Jeff Robson — the journeyman playmaker who debuted at Manly and played ten games at dummy-half.
Second-rowers: John Sutton and Anthony Tupou
Souths’ games record holder Sutton joins Roosters debutant Anthony Tupou in an impactful yet durable back row that shares almost 600 games of experience.
Locks: Jeremy Smith
An all-effort forward, the Melbourne debutant had a knack of collecting trophies later this decade with the Storm, Kiwis and Dragons. Smith is a calm head in a dressing room that desperately needs them.
Bench: Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Bronson Harrison, Feleti Mateo, Terry Campese
Broncos rookie Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Tigers first-gamer Bronson Harrison and Parra debutant Feleti Mateo are the big men on the bench, while I’ve chosen injury-addled Raider Terry Campese as the utility — he was a gun when fit, which was all too rare.
Big George Rose — who began at the Roosters before winning comps at Manly — is unlucky to miss purely for cult-hero value.
Coach: Des Hasler
Only five men — Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens, Brain Smith, Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart — have coached more first-grade games than Des Hasler, who began rebuilding Manly from the ground up in 2004.
This year’s other rookie coaches Anthony Kemp and Arthur Kitinis don’t supply stiff competition for this posting.
If coach Hasler can keep this side out of trouble, they’ve got the talent to trouble the top teams, especially with Cronk pulling the strings and pre-AFL Hunt at the back.
But that’s a mighty big if.
Next up, the class of 2005 — a team thinner on both talent and disciplinary issues.