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The best rugby league rookies of the 2000s

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Roar Guru
16th August, 2021
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In selecting a side of the best players to make their NRL debut in the first decade of the new millennium, the temptation is to simply steal Mal Meninga’s State of Origin team sheet and name 17 Queenslanders who went on to run roughshod over New South Wales.

But in the wash-up I was surprised that the majority of selections had never bent a banana in their lives.

Although seven of the first nine names – and eight in total – were staples of Big Mal’s dynasty, I managed to find a spot for seven New South Welshmen and two New Zealanders.

Brent Tate, Justin Hodges and Corey Parker are among the Maroons most unlucky to miss out, but I’m sure they’ll sleep just fine on a bed feathered with triumphant Queensland jumpers.

Let’s kick off with one of their former teammates, a simple selection at the back.

Fullback: Billy Slater
A generation of exceptional fullbacks reshaped the way rugby league was played in the first decade of the new millennium. This selection is easy because Billy Slater is the clear standout, but Greg Inglis, Matt Bowen, Anthony Minichiello, Brett Stewart and Karmichael Hunt are among this era’s brightest stars.

Billy Slater

Billy Slater. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Wingers: Darius Boyd and Anthony Minichiello
I didn’t want to shoehorn specialist fullbacks into the wing for the sake of recognising the depth in that position, but both of these blokes made genuine contributions on the flanks.

Anthony Minichiello played his first three seasons out wide as future referee Luke Phillips wore the Roosters’ No. 1, lining up in two grand finals there.

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Darius Boyd also won a decider in this position, but he saved his best wing work for Origin, forming a lethal left-edge combination with a man he accompanies in this team too.

Centres: Greg Inglis and Jamie Lyon
Few images encapsulate Queensland’s Origin dominance like Greg Inglis sucking in some poor Blues defender then flicking a ball to Darius Boyd to score untouched – other than maybe Greg Inglis steamrolling some poor Blues defender to score himself.

Inglis’s 18 Origin tries and Boyd’s 17 are head and shoulders above the nearest chasers – Billy Slater and Dale Shearer on 12 – and the combination is an easy selection here too.

Maroons teammates Brent Tate and Justin Hodges or Saints stalwarts Mark Gasnier and Matt Cooper had decent claims to join Inglis in the centres, but I can’t go past Jamie Lyon, a personal favourite for his old-school attitude (and physique). He was one of the last genuine footballers in a game that’s shifted towards athletes.

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Halves: Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk
Johnathan Thurston is a no-brainer, so the only question is who joins him.

If you select Thurston in his favoured No. 7, then the ageless and ever-entertaining Benji Marshall, perennial winner James Maloney and 2011-13 era Kieran Foran are the leading specialist No. 6s who could join him.

But I rank Cooper Cronk – this generation’s other outstanding halfback – above those three players, so Thurston can wear the No. 6 jersey to accommodate him, as he did so often at rep level after Darren Lockyer.

That arrangement worked pretty well for the Cane Toads and Kangaroos, so I trust it will succeed with this make-believe team too.

Johnathan Thurston

Johnathan Thurston (Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)


Johnathan Thurston of the Maroons kicks a goal

Johnathan Thurston. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Props: Matt Scott and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
Another Cowboy, Matt Scott, is the first prop picked. But there’s no clear partner, like Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva for the 1990s team.

Not that there aren’t terrific front rowers to choose from: Brent Kite, James Tamou, Ben Matulino, Roy Asotasi, David Shillington and Jason Ryles are only a handful of the era’s elite enforcers.

However, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’s three premierships – and impressive longevity for a front rower who sails so close to the wind – earns him the gig.

Hooker: Cameron Smith (captain)
No explanation needed. Next.

Cameron Smith Dally M Medal 2017

Cameron Smith, the GOAT (Matt King/Getty Images)

Second rowers: Sonny Bill Williams and Willie Mason
Queensland stalwarts Corey Parker, Josh McGuire and Sam Thaiday can point to their rep resumes, NSW rivals Anthony Watmough, Greg Bird and Glenn Stewart could inject plenty of mongrel, and Andrew Ryan and Ryan Hoffman wouldn’t let you down.

But it’s hard to look past these two Canterbury teammates for impact.

Other back rowers might have more deserving CVs or longer lists of achievements, but if you asked opponents who they’d least like to face, I’d wager these two names would be their honest answer.

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Lock: Paul Gallen
Paul Gallen is emblematic of how the No. 13 jersey transformed throughout this era. At the start of the decade your lock was typically a bulky playmaker – think Jason Smith or Jimmy Dymock, or Brad Fittler in a rep team – or a slightly undersized workhorse like Tawera Nikau or Kevin Campion.

By the end of the noughties, though, locks had become a third prop, mutating the vernacular of the game. In an era when front rowers rarely pack down in the front row of a scrum and locks rarely lock them, that nomenclature has been replaced by ‘middles’.

And no middle was more middle-y than Gallen.

Bench: Wade Graham, Brent Kite, Andrew Ryan and Sam Thaiday
I wouldn’t place Graham ahead of other back rowers who’ve played more rep footy, but selecting this team as if it were a real side playing a real game, his ability to cover the halves as well as pump out minutes in the forwards makes him a perfect bench option.

Plus he gets big bonus points for being a personal favourite – another old-school footballer rather than a modern-day athlete, and the sort of personality you want populating a dressing room.

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Kite is the next best specialist front rower (shading Asotasi), Ryan is the next best specialist second rower (shading Parker) and Thaiday covers both the front and back row, and after Scott he was the standout forward among the Queensland dynasty-builders eligible for this team.

Coach: Craig Bellamy
Craig Bellamy and Des Hasler are the only two supercoaches to pick up a clipboard for the first time in the noughties.

Despite Hasler enjoying a winning record over Bellamy (17-15) – the only current NRL coach who can boast that – the Melbourne maestro earns this job.

Des can join him in the coaches box if he’s happy being No. 2, which should be no issue for such a shrinking violet.

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