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The league-union versatility: A 13-man team of the best Australian dual code representatives

Roar Guru
19th December, 2023
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Roar Guru
19th December, 2023
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Here is a fun side to contemplate while you finalise your Christmas shopping list and stuff the turkey.

My take on the best rugby league team to be chosen from the 47 Australian dual rugby code internationals, which means players who have been selected to play for both the Wallabies and the Kangaroos.

Fullback

No competition here for Karmichael Hunt as he is the only contender who regularly played fullback in rugby league, being selected there for both Queensland and Australia on many occasions.

His fearless kick returns were something to see.

He left the NRL in 2009 for a controversial and highly lucrative dalliance in the AFL with the Gold Coast Suns before joining the Queensland Reds in 2015 and going on to be selected for the Wallabies for six tests two years later.

Wingers

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There is plenty to choose from here, beginning with Doug McLean Snr and his son Doug McLean Jnr, the only father and son dual internationals.

Then there is Mike Cleary who also represented Australia on the track at the Commonwealth Games in 1962, the versatile Matt Rogers, big Lote Tuqiri who played 67 tests for the Wallabies, and the freakish but polarising Israel Folou.

In the end, I have gone for the gifted Michael O’Connor, who just had to be in the side somewhere and Wendell Sailor, a player who talked as good a game as he played and was just as likely to run straight over the top of an opponent as around him.

O’Connor played 13 tests for the Wallabies, 19 Origins for NSW and 18 tests for the Kangaroos.

Sailor played for both the Reds and the Waratahs, 37 tests for the Wallabies, 17 Origins for QLD, and scored 21 tries for the Kangaroos in as many tests.

Wendell Sailor in full flight. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Centres

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None of us saw the great Dally Messenger play the game but by all reports, he was something else and is not only a rugby league immortal but also listed as the very first dual international. Far be it from me to leave him out of a team.

With Michael O’Connor on the wing, who will join him comes down to a choice between the great Herb Gilbert from the post-WW1 era, the powerful Stephen Knight from the 1970s, Knights and Eels champion Timana Tahu, and dual Roosters premiership winner John Brass.

Brass was a very underrated player in rugby league but was easily one of the best centres I have seen play the game, and he will take his place beside the great man.

Five-Eighth

There are three quality options here in Andrew Walker, Jimmy Lisle and Phil Hawthorne.

Andrew Walker played seven tests for the Wallabies and one for the Kangaroos and at times could do the impossible in attack, Jimmy Lisle formed a great partnership with champion Wallaby halfback Ken Catchpole in 1961.

He played just a handful of rugby league games before being selected for the Kangaroos for the third test against Great Britain in 1962.

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Phil Hawthorne was one of the most polished players ever to make the switch from union to league. He and Ken Catchpole were one of the Wallabies best halves pairings and he played 21 tests for the Wallabies before switching to rugby league with St George in 1968.

He had a superb passing game, was a great low-tackling defender, and apart from Souths Eric Simms, was probably the best field goal exponent the game has seen.

He played three tests for the Kangaroos in 1970 including one as captain.

Halfback

Leaving the excellent claims of the tough little Glebe halfback Chris McKivat aside, the number 7 jersey comes down to a shootout between Arthur Summons and Ricky Stuart.

Summons distinguished himself at five-eighth for the Wallabies before switching to rugby league with Western Suburbs in 1960 and went on to establish a reputation as one of the best halfbacks to play the game, playing seven games for NSW and nine tests for Australia, winning all five when he was captain.

Ricky Stuart was selected from Queanbeyan to join the Wallabies on their 1987 tour of Argentina, and while he played in three tour matches was unable to unseat either Brian Smith or Nick Farr-Jones for the test side.

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He switched to rugby league with Canberra the following year and went on to win three premierships with the club, and also played 14 Origins for NSW and nine tests for Australia.

For me, Summons just gets the nod.

Front Rowers

The relative merits of most of the pioneering dual code international forwards are hard to assess, and with fewer and fewer forwards successfully making the code switch over the years it is fortunate to still have some great forwards to select in this team.

Packing down in the front row in this team will be two hard men, Kevin Ryan and Rex Mossop.

Put simply, Ryan was one of the most feared players to lace on a boot, and deservedly so. He represented the Wallabies in five tests across the 1957 and 1958 seasons before joining St George in 1960 and was a key part of their premiership wins between 1960 and 1966.

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He played eight games for NSW, however untimely injuries saw him play only two tests for the Kangaroos.

Rex Mossop is better known for his later work as a TV host and rugby league commentator, but he was certainly the real deal as a player.

Mossop represented the Wallabies in eight tests from the Manly club between 1948 and 1951 before switching to rugby league with Leigh in England.

A fiery and uncompromising forward, Mossop joined the Sea Eagles in 1956 and made his test debut for the Kangaroos at the age of 30 in 1958, going on to play nine tests for his country.

Hooker

Ken Kearney is the obvious choice here, and he was a top-flight hooker in both codes.

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His rugby career was interrupted by the Second World War, but he still managed seven appearances for the Wallabies before switching codes to play for Leeds in the north of England in 1948.

He returned to Australia in 1952 to join St George, captaining the club in the first year of their record 11-year premiership run in 1956 and then taking the role of captain/coach for the next four premierships.

He played 31 tests for the Kangaroos and 17 games for NSW.

Second Rowers

Dick Thornett is the first back-rower picked, and what a sporting career he had. Olympic water polo representative, 11 games for the Wallabies, eight seasons for the Parramatta Eels, 13 games for NSW and 11 for the Kangaroos.

Thornett was big, mobile and hard to put down, he had excellent ball skills and was even known to land some long-range field goals when required.

He left rugby at the end of the 1962 season and established himself as one of the Eels’ greatest players throughout the 1960s.

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Packing down alongside Thornett will be Scott Gourley, another big mobile forward who just loved to run the ball.

Gourley went from captain of the Australian Schoolboys Rugby Team in 1986 to the back of the Wallabies scrum just two years later and played five tests for his country.

He switched to rugby league with St George in 1990 and went on to play one game for both NSW and Australia.

Lock

It is hard to go past Parramatta legend Ray Price for the lock position.

Price was a non-stop, fearless competitor who was the best lock forward going around in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

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He starred for both the Waratahs and Wallabies in 1974 and 1975 before joining the Eels in 1976 and immediately made his mark in the 13-a-side game, going on to play 15 games for NSW, 22 tests for Australia and was a key part of Parramatta’s four premiership wins in the 1980s.

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Here is how they line up:

1. Karmichael Hunt
2. Michael O’Connor
3. Dally Messenger
4. John Brass
5. Wendell Sailor
6. Phil Hawthorne
7. Arthur Summons
8. Kevin Ryan
9. Ken Kearney
10. Rex Mossop
11. Dick Thornett
12. Scot Gourlay
13. Ray Price

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