While Benji Marshall was flick-passing his way to the Wests Tigers’ first premiership, this generation of bruisers were just beginning their NRL careers.
This 2005 debutant team might not be able to match some rival rookie classes for skill, though they’ll be tough to match in brute force — especially the pair of hard-hitting centres.
Their star player fills the number one jersey — again, not the silkiest fullback of this era, but certainly the most physical.
Fullback: Greg Inglis
The word ‘unbelievable’ is one of sport’s laziest cliches, and its overuse muddies its meaning. But Inglis did things on the rugby league field that literally were unbelievable — his acrobatic try assist in the 2008 centenary Test being a good example.
Even as a teenager, the Storm rookie monstered his opponents with size and speed, saving his most savage treatment for the Origin arena. It’s a shame his body blunted his influence in later seasons because he was transcendent at his peak.
Wingers: Wes Naiqama and Brad Tighe
St George Illawarra’s Wes Naiqama and Newcastle’s Brad Tighe were solid first graders, but this wing combo doesn’t boast as much strike power as many other rookie cup squads.
Centres: Beau Scott and Steve Matai
The old Rugby League Week player poll used to ask which player was the comp’s hardest hitter. These two tough tacklers were frequent responses.
Scott — who debuted for Cronulla before joining St George Illawarra, Newcastle and Parramatta — was more a second-rower but fills a hole at centre in this squad, joining steel-shouldered Sea Eagle Steve Matai.
Five-eighth: Jamie Soward
The Roosters rookie was often maligned throughout an NRL career that flourished at St George Illawarra and finished at Penrith — perhaps because of the Dragons’ dour style, or for being one of a long line of New South Welsh playmakers who failed to disrupt the Queenslanders’ burgeoning dynasty.
Regardless, he was an accomplished game manager whose kicking game in both general play and off the tee was integral to the Dragons’ drought-breaking 2010 triumph.
Halfback: Jarrod Mullen
Another Blues half done no favours by their brief Origin stint, the Newcastle mainstay felt a little like Nathan Hauritz following in the footsteps of Andrew Johns’ Shane Warne.
Mullen’s solid 200-game career earns him this place ahead of 2005 Dally M rookie of the year Tim Smith, who didn’t deliver on his potential at the Eels.
Props: David Shillington and Ben Hannant
These two big Queenslanders followed strangely similar paths. Both debuted at the Roosters in 2005 before blossoming elsewhere — Canberra in Shillington’s case, Brisbane in Hannant’s. Both earned their first Kangaroos cap in the 2009 Four Nations.
And both made their Origin bows the season before claiming the Dally M prop of the year award — Hannant in 2008 then 2009, Shillington in 2009 then 2010. Weird.
Hooker: Peter Wallace
The third unfortunate Blues half on this team sheet, Wallace sacrificed more than most to play Origin, rupturing his testicle at Suncorp Stadium in 2008.
That toughness came in handy later in his career too, when he played without an anterior cruciate ligament while reinventing himself as an effective hooker at Penrith, the club where he made his debut.
Second-rowers: Nate Myles and Sia Soliola
Cameron Smith (42) and Petero Civoniceva (33) are the only forwards to represent Queensland on more occasions than Nate Myles (32), the Dogs debutant who transformed into a different player every time he pulled on that maroon jumper.
Sia Soliola — who began at the Roosters before moving to St Helens and ending at Canberra — provides consistent support.
Locks: Simon Mannering (captain)
Another dependable Kiwi, Warriors stalwart Simon Mannering, locks the scrum. Mannering played the first of his 301 NRL games for the Auckland outfit in 2005, and the first of his 45 Tests a year later — an international tally topped by only four other New Zealanders.
Bench: Brett White, Greg Eastwood, Nigel Plum, Berrick Barnes
Kangaroos international Brett White and 28-Test Kiwi Greg Eastwood are obvious picks. Then Nigel Plum — who debuted at the Roosters before joining Canberra then Penrith — bolsters this side’s hard-hitting credentials.
The utility spot is a left-field option. Seasoned Wallaby Berrick Barnes played nine games for the Broncos in 2005, and that pedigree in rugby union earns him selection in this squad.
Coach: Shaun McRae
Using the eligibility criteria applied to the rest of this series, the Rabbitohs’ first-year coach technically doesn’t qualify, because he’d led St Helens, Gateshead and Hull FC in the Super League.
However, he was the only first-time NRL boss in the 2005 season, so he’s the only candidate for the job.
With the exception of Inglis, this team might not have the point-scoring power to force their way into the playoffs. But they’ll certainly leave a few bruises on their opponents.
And I’ll be backing them to beat the class of 2006, next up.