This is the sixth article in a series where I’ll name who I think were the best players to play in a grand final in each decade, focusing this time on the 2000s.
The selection criteria I have used are:
• The player must have actually played in at least one grand final in the decade in question. This includes the ultimately ill-fated 2007 and 2009 grand finals.
• A player is only considered for selection in one decade, even if he played in grand finals in more than one decade.
• The player’s form in the decade is taken into account.
The new millennium got off to a turbulent and controversial start as the NRL sought to change itself yet again.
The great South Sydney club were booted from the competition, two further foundation clubs in the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Balmain Tigers were merged into the Wests Tigers, while yet another foundation club in the North Sydney Bears were merged in an ultimately doomed forced marriage with Manly.
Four foundation clubs were gone in one year, leaving a 14-team competition. Fast forward two years to 2002, and Souths were back where they belonged, and then just a year later the Northern Eagles’ marriage was over, with only Manly surviving the divorce, and North Sydney out of the competition.
The NRL continued as a 15-team competition until 2007, when the Gold Coast Titans joined, leaving the 16-team competition that we have to this day. Try to keep up.
But the fun and games didn’t just end there, unfortunately. Firstly, in 2002, the Bulldogs were stripped of 37 of the 41 points that they had accumulated up to Round 23 that year for salary cap breaches, effectively giving them the wooden spoon in place of the minor premiership.
Then, in 2010, salary cap breaches were uncovered at Melbourne, which saw them not only have their 2007 and 2009 premierships stripped from them, but play the 2010 season for zero points.
In the 2000s:
• Melbourne won two grand finals and lost two.
• Brisbane won two grand finals.
• The Sydney Roosters won one and lost three.
• Manly won once and lost once.
• Newcastle, Penrith, the Bulldogs and the Wests Tigers each won one grand final.
• Parramatta lost twice.
• The Cowboys and the Warriors each lost one grand final.
There were some wonderful players running around in the 2000s, as evidenced by the quality of the players left out of this list.
Anyway, here’s my pick of the best of the best who made it to the biggest game of the year. All references to grand finals played relate only to grand finals in this decade.
Fullback: Billy Slater (Melbourne)
Slater really hit the ground running after making his first grade debut for the Storm, and by the end of the decade had played in four grand finals, winning two.
Matt Bowen (North Queensland), Brett Stewart (Manly) and Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta) were also impressive.
Wingers: Anthony Minichiello (Sydney Roosters) and Hazem El Masri (Bulldogs)
Minichiello was equally effective at either fullback or on the wing and played in four grand finals, winning just the once.
Better known for his unbelievable goal kicking, El Masri was also a very good winger who rarely missed a scoring opportunity, as evidenced by the fact that he sits in equal eighth place on the rugby league all-time try-scoring list with 159 tries.
Other classy wingers worth consideration were Lote Tuqiri (Brisbane), Francis Meli (Warriors) and Matt Sing (Sydney Roosters and North Queensland), who shares that eighth place with El Masri.
Centres: Matt Gidley (Newcastle) and Greg Inglis (Melbourne)
Gidley was all class and there was no one better at putting his winger either into the clear or over the line for a try. He played in one winning grand final.
Inglis was one of the most difficult propositions for the defence in the history of the game, and played in four grand finals, winning two.
Ryan Girdler from Penrith also came under consideration.
Five eighth: Brad Fittler (Sydney Roosters)
Fittler is one of the best all-round players of the modern era and played in four grand finals, winning only once.
Other classy pivots from this decade worth mentioning are the mercurial pair of Preston Campbell (Penrith) and Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers).
Halfback: Andrew Johns (Newcastle)
Johns barely had a weakness in his game and usually controlled proceedings from start to finish. He captained Newcastle to their grand final victory in 2001.
There were many other halfback contenders in this decade including Stacey Jones (Warriors), Craig Gower (Penrith), Craig Wing (Sydney Roosters), Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland), Cooper Cronk (Melbourne) and Scott Prince (Wests Tigers).
Lock forward: Craig Fitzgibbon (Sydney Roosters)
Fitzgibbon was a tireless worker at the back of the scrum and was a 100 per cent effort every week player. He played in four grand finals, winning one.
Luke Ricketson (Sydney Roosters), Kevin Campion (Brisbane and the Warriors) and Dallas Johnson (Melbourne) were other very strong contenders.
Second row: Ben Kennedy (Newcastle) and Nathan Hindmarsh (Parramatta)
Ben Kennedy was one of the best forwards of his era and played in one winning grand final. No one could do what Kennedy could do.
Nathan Hindmarsh simply thrived on hard work and had a never-say-die attitude. He played in two losing grand finals.
Other second-row contenders were the Penrith ‘hair bears’, Joe Galuvao and Tony Puletua, the unpredictable Adrian Morley from the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne’s Ryan Hoffman, and Anthony Watmough from Manly.
Front row: Brent Kite (Manly) and Petero Civoniceva (Brisbane)
Kite was at the peak of his form towards the end of the decade an played in two grand finals, winning one.
Big Petero was the dominant front rower of the decade and played in one winning grand final.
Hooker: Cameron Smith (Melbourne)
Not much more could be written about Smith. He captained Melbourne to three grand finals and won two.
Danny Buderus (Newcastle)
Buderus was a top-flight hooker and a NSW Origin institution who was part of the Knights’ winning 2001 grand final team.
Brad Thorn (Brisbane)
Thorn was a weapon both in attack and defence and played in two grand finals, winning both.
Nathan Cayless (Parramatta)
Cayless was one of the best front rowers in the business and a natural leader, and captained Parramatta in two grand final losses.
Andrew Ryan (Parramatta and Bulldogs)
Andrew Ryan was a stand-out back rower at club, state and national level.
He played in one losing grand final for Parramatta before heading to the Bulldogs where he captained them to their 2004 grand final victory.