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Saluting 25 years of the NRL era: Here’s our star-studded Dream Team, 1-17

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The NRL era 17 | As the National Rugby League celebrates 25 seasons, let’s fantasise over what the greatest team of its era might look like, from 1-17 and a coach.

The formation of the NRL in 1998 gave birth to a new age of professionalism in Australian rugby league.

Since reunification following the bitter Super League War, the progression of athleticism, skill and entertainment have excelled at an unprecedented rate. 

As a result, us modern day fans have been privileged to witness a wealth of superstars perform groundbreaking feats; creating unrivaled sporting theatre and forging legacies that have moved and inspired unlike any era before. 

To select the greatest side of the past 25 years with such a deep player pool to choose from was no mean feat, and some great players did miss out – but boy it was fun. 

So keeping in mind that only games and achievements from 1998 onwards have been taken into account, let’s get cracking! 

NRL era Best 17 Dream Team

Backline

Fullback – Billy Slater (Storm) 

NRL – 319 Games, 190 Tries, 4 x Premierships (2007*, 2009*, 2012, 2017)

Representative – 30 Tests for Australia, 31 Origins for Queensland, 2 x World Cup Titles (2013, 2017)

Individual Honours –  Dally M Medal (2011), 2 x Clive Churchill Medals (2009, 2017), 3 x Dally M Fullback (2008, 2011, 2017), Dally M Rep Player (2010), 2 x Wally Lewis Medals (2010, 2018), Golden Boot (2008)

Swerving, scheming, scintillating Slater; the greatest fullback of the modern era and perhaps ever. A career founded on an industrious determination to succeed, gifted us a star attraction who delivered game-breaking feats with misleading ease. That chip and chase try in his second Origin start was undeniable proof he belonged on the big stage and craved the big moments. He is the second most prolific try-scorer in Australian rugby league and an ornament to the game. 

Wing – Jarryd Hayne (Eels, Titans) 

NRL – 214 Games & 121 tries

Representative – 11 Tests for Australia, 10 Tests for Fiji, 23 Origins for New South Wales, 1 x World Cup Title (2013)

Individual Honours – 2 x Dally M Medals (2009, 2014), Dally M Rookie (2006), Dally M Winger (2007), 2 x Dally M Fullback (2009, 2014), 3 x Brad Fittler Medals (2007, 2008, 2014)

No footballer was more electrifying than Hayne at the peak of his powers. His Rookie of the Year season produced 17 tries in 16 games and was an appropriate precursor for the havoc he was to wreak for years to come. His incredible run of form in the backend of 2009 will forever be lauded in NRL folklore as one of the greatest individual stretches in history. He single-handedly inspired Parramatta from 14th on the ladder after 18 rounds to an unlikely Grand Final berth. If Hayne’s attitude and application matched his talent, he could have been the greatest the game has ever seen.

Centre – Greg Inglis (Storm, Rabbitohs) 

NRL – 263 Games, 149 Tries & 3 x Premierships (2007*, 2009*, 2014)

Representative – 39 Tests for Australia, 32 Origins for Queensland, 1 x World Cup Title (2013),

Individual Honours – Clive Churchill Medal (2007), Dally M Five-Eighth (2008), Dally M Fullback (2013), 2 x Dally M Rep Player (2008, 2009), Wally Lewis Medal (2009), Golden Boot (2009)

It is not at all hyperbolic to suggest ‘GI’ is the greatest athlete to have ever played rugby league. In full flight his graceful strides were mesmerising – albeit hazardous for those who dared confront him. He won Premierships at fullback, centre and five-eighth, yet it was his move to South Sydney that will forever underpin his legacy. He was the heart, soul and inspiration which drove the Rabbitohs to their first successful title campaign in 43 years. Inglis’ Grand Final try and iconic goanna crawl celebration will be replayed for as long as the game is played.

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Centre – Jamie Lyon (Eels, Sea Eagles)

NRL – 294 Games, 122 Tries, 2 x Premierships (2008, 2011) 

Representative – 8 Tests for Australia, 10 Origins for New South Wales

Individual Honours – 4 x Dally M Centre (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014), 2 x Dally M Captain (2012, 2014)

A naturally gifted athlete who moved fluidly around the park, Jamie Lyon oozed class. Within 18 months of NRL debut, ‘Killer’ forced his way into Australian selection with a standard of play maintained until retirement 16 years later. He won a Grand Final at five-eighth to complement another at centre, which exemplifies his elite skill-set and potency with ball in hand. A reluctance to play representative footy perhaps detracts from his overall record, but is in no way emblematic of any shortcomings in ability compared to his peers – Lyon is one of the greats of the modern game. 

Wing – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Roosters, Warriors)

NRL – 195 Games, 58 Tries, 1 x Premiership (2013) 

Representative – 20 Tests for New Zealand

Individual Honours – Dally M Medal (2018), Dally M Winger (2013), 2 x Dally M Fullback (2015, 2018), Dally M Captain (2020)

A man that moves as sharp laterally as he does forward, ‘RTS’ is a human highlight reel with the fastest feet in football. A prodigious athlete who terrorised and bamboozled NRL defences at the Roosters early in his career, Roger matured into an inspirational skipper when he moved to the Warriors. He led them to their only finals series of the past 11 seasons, and claimed the Dally M Medal in the process – one can only hope we haven’t seen the last of him in the NRL. 

Five-Eighth – Darren Lockyer (Broncos) 

NRL – 304 Games, 105 Tries, 3 x Premierships (1998, 2000, 2006)

Representative – 59 Tests for Australia, 36 Origins for Queensland, 1 x World Cup Title (2000)

Individual Honours – Clive Churchill Medal (2000), 3 x Dally M Fullback (1998, 2001, 2002), 3 x Dally M Five-Eighth (2004, 2006, 2007), 2 x Dally M Rep Player (2001, 2006), Wally Lewis Medal (2006), 2 x Golden Boot (2003, 2006), Hall of Fame Induction (2008)

Lockyer was a bonafide superstar for the entirety of his career and arguably the greatest player to never win a Dally M Medal. ‘Locky’ was a dazzling fullback In his younger years before transitioning to the role of five-eighth and chief playmaker in 2004. Regardless of position, Lockyer was the focal point in attack and consistently produced clutch plays at every level when the game was in the balance. A trait illustrated perfectly in 2006 when he kicked the decisive field goal in the Grand Final, and the winning tries in both the State of Origin decider and Tri-Nations final.

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Halfback – Andrew Johns (Knights)

NRL – 173 Games, 62 tries, 1,584 points, 1 x Premiership (2001) 

Representative – 19 Tests for Australia, 16 Origins for New South Wales, 1 x World Cup Title (2000)

Individual Honours – 3 x Dally M Medals (1998, 1999, 2002), Clive Churchill Medal (2001), 3 x Dally M Halfback (1998, 1999, 2002), Dally M Rep Player (2005), 2 x Golden Boot (1999, 2001), Hall of Fame Induction (2008), 8th Immortal (2012)

Johns is widely regarded as the greatest footballer to play the game and the formative years of the NRL played host to his golden age. His unprecedented armoury of attacking kicks, supreme pass-selection and ability to step off both feet had defences perpetually on notice. ‘Joey’ elevated those around him and transformed average first-graders into excellent hole-runners and try-scoring machines. One of his greatest strengths though – unlike many other halfbacks – was his defence, as he regularly put bigger men on their backside. He revolutionised the position and what is now expected of those who wear seven.

Forward pack

Front Row – Petero Civoniceva (Broncos, Panthers)

NRL – 309 Games, 3 x Premierships (1998, 2000 and 2006) 

Representative – 45 Tests for Australia, 6 Tests for Fiji, 33 Origins for Queensland

Individual Honours – Dally M Prop (2008), Hall of Fame Induction (2018)

A man-mountain of bone and brawn, Civoniceva was the benchmark for front row forwards throughout his career and the pillar of any side he represented. His longevity in rugby league’s most physically demanding position is awe-inspiring; throughout his 15 year career he averaged over 20 NRL games per season, plus representative fixtures. He remains one of the game’s greatest ambassadors and role models.

Hooker – Cameron Smith (Storm) – Captain

NRL – 430 Games, 2786 Points, 72% Win Rate, 5 x Premierships (2007*, 2009*, 2012, 2017, 2020)

Representative – 56 Tests for Australia, 42 Origins for Queensland, 2 x World Cup Titles (2013, 2017)

Individual Honours – 2 x Dally M Medals (2006, 2017), 9 x Dally M Hooker (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020), 5 x Dally M Captain (2011, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2019), 4 x Dally M Rep Player (2007, 2011, 2013, 2016), 4 x Wally Lewis Medals (2007, 2011, 2013, 2016), 2 x Golden Boot (2007, 2017)

Smith was the most influential and prolific player of the modern era and played the game on his own terms. He controlled the tempo, mesmerised opponents with guile, and executed with precision. He never overplayed his hand, rarely made a mistake, and inspired his men by both action and word. A leader and craftsman that will never be replicated – he is an immortal in waiting. 

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Front Row – Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs) 

NRL – 182 Games, 1 x Premiership (2014)

Representative – 26 Tests for England/Great Britain

Individual Honours – Clive Churchill Medal (2014), Dally M Lock (2014)

Earmarked as England’s answer to Sonny Bill Williams – Burgess did not disappoint. He scored a try on international debut at just 18 years of age and forged a career built on power, intimidation and footballing nous. Slammin’ Sammy played without fear or self preservation, never more evident than his 80-minute Man of the Match performance in the 2014 Grand Final after he suffered a fractured cheekbone on the first hit-up of the game. Whether playing in the middle, or on an edge, his presence was felt by all around him. He was arguably the greatest forward of his generation. 

Second Row – Gorden Tallis (Broncos) 

NRL – 141 Games, 2 x Premierships (1998, 2000)

Representative – 13 Tests for Australia, 15 Origins for Queensland, 1 x World Cup Title (2000)

Individual Honours – Clive Churchill Medal (1998), Dally M Second Rower (1999), Hall of Fame Induction (2018)

The ‘Raging Bull’ only played seven seasons in the NRL but he gets a start every day of the week. Tallis’ rampages treated the opposition with utter disdain, while his subtle ball-playing abilities capitalised on any opportunity to send a teammate streaming downfield. He was brutish and uncompromising in defence – just ask Brett Hodgson – and the fiercest competitor the game has seen. 

Second Row – Nathan Hindmarsh (Eels) 

NRL – 330 Games

Representative – 22 Tests for Australia, 17 Origins for New South Wales, 1 x World Cup Title (2000)

Individual Honours – 5 x Dally M Second Rower (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006)

Oft crowned a defensive workhorse toward the end of his career when he lost a yard of pace, many may have forgotten Hindmarsh as the hard-running colt from the early 2000’s. He was a constant attacking threat for Parramatta and a key reason they reached two Grand Finals and four Preliminary Finals during his time at the club. Unfortunately, he will forever go down in infamy as perhaps the greatest player to never win a Premiership. 

Lock – Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys)

NRL – 235 Games, 1 x  Premiership (2015)

Representative – 12 Tests for Tonga, 10 Tests for New Zealand

Individual Honours – Dally M Medal (2016), 3 x Dally M Lock (2015, 2016, 2018)

Taumalolo is a human wrecking ball who steamrolls defenders for fun. His powerful frame and incredible leg speed propelled him to the mantle of the greatest metre-eating forward of the past decade. He plays high-velocity footy for big minutes in the middle of the park, and torments his competitors with subtle late footwork and an ability to distribute the footy before or through the line. His legacy at only 29-years of age includes being the only middle of the past 40 years to win the Dally M Medal, a Premiership, and a commitment to Tonga over New Zealand that started a chain-reaction of players prioritising Tier Two nations that continues to strengthen international rugby league.

Bench

Jonathan Thurston (Bulldogs, Cowboys) 

NRL – 323 Games, 90 Tries, 2,222 Points, 2 x Premierships (2004, 2015)

Representative – 38 Tests for Australia, 37 Origins for Queensland, 1 x World Cup Title (2013)

Individual Honours – 4 x Dally M Medals (2005, 2007, 2014, 2015), Clive Churchill Medal (2015), 4 x Dally M Halfback (2005, 2007, 2009, 2015), 3 x Dally M Five-Eighth (2012, 2013, 2014), Dally M Captain (2015), Wally Lewis Medal (2008), 3 x Golden Boot (2011, 2013, 2015)

Phenomenal talent and skill aside, what encapsulates JT’s essence as a footballer best was his desire. He never took a breather or left it up to one of his teammates, he busted his guts to make a positive contribution every moment he was on the field. It’s because of this trait that so often he was the man to ice a big game in the dying stages – never more evident than the 2015 Grand Final. He inspired via action and effort, is the Godfather of rugby league in North Queensland, and will be immortalised for his contributions soon enough. 

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Matt Scott (Cowboys)

NRL – 268 Games, 1 x Premiership (2015)

Representative – 22 Tests for Australia, 22 Origins for Queensland, 1 x World Cup Title (2013)

Individual Honours – Dally M Prop (2011), Dally M Captain (2015)

Scott was an unrelenting presence for the Cowboys, Maroons and Kangaroos. There was nothing flashy about the way he played, but every run was brimming with purpose and every tackle made with the utmost force. His resilience to bounce-back from injury and an Origin-dropping early in his career to become one of the best forwards of his time is a testament to his willpower and character – every team needs a Matt Scott.

Sonny Bill Williams (Bulldogs, Roosters) 

NRL – 123 Games, 2 x Premierships (2004, 2013)

Representative – 12 Tests for New Zealand

As a young tyro for the Bulldogs ‘SBW’ rose to prominence by flattening his rivals in defence and tearing them apart in attack using a deadly concoction of agility, strength and skill. On his return for the Roosters he retained all this but developed an element of cunning and selectiveness to his game that allowed him to pick apart his competitors at the most opportune moments. Williams was box office in the NRL and the only blight on his rugby league career is that we didn’t see more of him. 

Paul Gallen (Sharks)

NRL – 348 Games, 1 x Premiership (2016)

Representative – 32 Tests for Australia, 24 Origins for New South Wales, 1 x World Cup Title (2013)

Individual Honours – 3 x Dally M Lock (2011, 2012, 2017), 1 x Wally Lewis Medal (2014), 1 x Brad Fittler Medal (2011)

Born of guts and grit, nobody toiled harder or longer than Gallen. His tenacity tested the attrition of his opponents and he demanded the same from his troops. Gallen’s 80-minute performance at prop for New South Wales in 2016 has gone down in legend as one the more courageous and dogged displays in Origin history. It was only the second time he started at prop throughout his career and perfectly summarises his make-up and mettle. 

Coach

Wayne Bennett (Broncos, Dragons, Knights, Rabbitohs) 

NRL – 627 Games, 60% Win Rate, 4 x Premierships (1998, 2000, 2006, 2010)

Representative – 20 Tests for England/Great Britain, 15 Tests for Australia, 15 Games for Queensland

Individual Honours – 2 x Dally M Coach (2000, 2015)

Arguably the greatest man-manager and motivator the game has seen. Bennett is the original modern-day supercoach with a storied career that spans four clubs (soon to be five) and two nations. His longevity and overarching impact in his chosen field is unrivalled. 

Picture of Mat Barnes
Mat Barnes
A self-confessed sports nerd who would spit the dummy as a kid on family beach days so he could stay home to watch the cricket - Mat has lived and breathed sport his entire life. Following a three year stint as a Sports Statistician with Fox Sports Australia, he has since enjoyed an extended period in the golf industry helping grow the game he has loved since he was a kid. While Mat loves golf amongst many other sports and codes, his passion for the NRL and the Newcastle Knights is borderline obsessive!

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