Melbourne’s pack intend to make life hell for Penrith Panthers star Nathan Cleary in their upcoming preliminary final, but they say it’s nothing personal – just what they do to kickers.
The class of 2006 is the weakest team named in this series so far.
I don’t mean to disparage any of the names on this team sheet — every game they played in the NRL is precisely one more than my ability warranted, and any athlete with the talent and application to reach the top grade deserves respect.
And there are some very good players in the 2006 team — guys who won comps and earned international jumpers.
But when they’re listed one to 17 and stacked up against the 16 rookie cup sides unveiled before them, this generation of debutants sticks out at the bottom end.
Why? Who knows. I could present some unqualified demographic hypothesis about junior pathways drying up or kids defecting to rival sports, but strong sides follow in 2007, ‘08 and ‘09.
Plus, debut years often come down to chance — someone who started 20 games in their first year is just as eligible as a rookie who appeared for ten minutes off the bench in Round 24.
The former could’ve easily debuted a year earlier, the latter a season later. Luck has a big say in players’ availability for these rookie cup squads. Like all representative rugby league sides, eligibility is very random.
Anyway, enough gibber about qualifying for this make-believe team, which begins with its most decorated member.
Fullback: Darius Boyd (captain)
Boyd was Wayne Bennett’s favourite player and he’s the darling of this dressing room too. The Broncos debutant won a comp in his rookie year then another with Bennett at the Dragons before following his coach to Newcastle then back to Brisbane.
En route he gathered 337 NRL appearances (the most by an outside back, unless fullback/five-eighth Darren Lockyer counts), 17 Origin tries (the most besides Greg Inglis), and 23 Kangaroos caps without defeat (the most anyone has played without losing, full stop).
Jarryd Hayne also debuted in 2006 but isn’t considered.
Wingers: Michael Gordon and Taniela Tuiaki
Journeyman Penrith rookie Michael Gordon gives this team a dependable goal-kicker on one flank, while explosive Wests product Taniela Tuiaki provides one of the great ‘what could have been’ stories on the other.
Tuiaki won the Dally M winger of the year gong in 2009 after scoring 21 tries in 22 games that season, but never set foot on the field again thanks to a crippling ankle injury.
Centres: Brett Morris and Chris Lawrence
Forgive me, I haven’t confused the Morris twins — I’m aware Brett is the winger and Josh is the centre — but I’ve chosen the recent retiree out of position to maximise the talent spread across this team.
His centre partner is Chris Lawrence, another Tiger curtailed by injury. Lawrence was a newly minted Kangaroo when he suffered a horror dislocated hip aged just 22 in 2011 — that he managed another decade as an effective first-grader is commendable.
Five-eighth: Ben Roberts
The Bulldogs debutant, who later moved to Parramatta and Melbourne, is a standout among a thin crop of playmakers.
Halfback: Rangi Chase
Chase played a single game for the Tigers in 2006 then 31 more for the Dragons over the next two seasons. But the New Zealander dominated Super League when he moved to Castleford to the extent that he controversially represented England, qualifying due to residency.
That form in the UK justifies his selection over his only real competition among 2006’s rookie class, the Warriors’ Grant Rovelli.
Props: Sam Rapira and Luke Douglas
Kiwi regular Sam Rapira is the first prop picked, alongside Luke Douglas, who played a record 215 games straight after making his debut in Round 2, 2006.
Hooker: Isaac De Gois
Journeyman dummy-half Isaac De Gois emerged at the Tigers before accruing 225 games at Cronulla, Newcastle, Cronulla again and Parramatta — a solid enough CV for this side.
Second-rowers: Dave Taylor and Gavin Cooper
Broncos debutant Dave Taylor could’ve been anything, thanks to his freakish combination of size and skill. We regularly saw glimpses of devastating form, but things never quite clicked consistently at the Broncos, Rabbitohs, Titans or Raiders.
Cowboys debutant Gavin Cooper milked more out of his potential. After two years each at Gold Coast and Penrith, he reacquainted himself with Johnathan Thurston at North Queensland to form a lethal left-edge combo for eight productive years. He might not enjoy such good service in this team.
Locks: Adam Blair
Storm debutant Adam Blair — who ended up playing more Tests for the Kiwis (51) than anyone besides Ruben Wiki (55) — completes a good back row that’s probably the strength of this squad.
Bench: Adam Cuthbertson, Zeb Taia, Matthew Bell, Stuart Flanagan
Cuthbertson was a reliable member of good Manly teams, while Parra, Newcastle and Gold Coast forward Zeb Taia wins a spot for his Super League achievements with St Helens.
Penrith debutant Matthew Bell deserves a bench spot for playing 113 of his 142 games off the pine, and scoring just one solitary try in his career, while Tigers first-gamer Stuart Flanagan can be our interchange dummy-half with three Tests for Hungary under his belt.
Coach: Ivan Cleary
Rookie Warriors coach Ivan Cleary and Parra interim Jason Taylor — two men with similarly bitter memories of the Wests Tigers — are the two options for the clipboard.
Cleary’s ability to avoid the sack at the Warriors during a period when they went through coaches like panic buyers go through toilet paper, then building this Penrith side into the force they are today, makes it an easy selection.
Wooden spooners. Sorry.
Next up, the class of 2007 — a much stronger team, especially in the outside backs.