As the Canterbury Bulldogs and Wests Tigers mull over captaincy replacement options for 2018, we’re providing some support for the clubs following a youth policy in the key leadership role.
The Warriors and Newcastle Knights raised eyebrows by installing relatively green stars as skipper last year – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (23) and Sione Mata’utia (21) – respectively, while rugby league history is littered with young guns who were handed the reins at an age where most players are still coming to grips with the big time.
A first-grade debutant at just 17 and a Test prop a few months after turning 20, rugged front-rower Roy Bull was made captain-coach of Manly in 1953 aged just 23. He was replaced as coach the following season by retained the captaincy for another couple of years.
Powerful St George prop Craig Young won a premiership in his maiden first grade season with ‘Bath’s Babes’ in 1977, before replacing grand final-winning captain Steve Edge as skipper two years later at the age of 22. ‘Albert’ turned 23 during the ’79 campaign and led the Dragons to another grand final success at the end of the season.
Fiery ex-Queensland halfback Greg Oliphant sprung one of the great selection surprises as coach of BRL club Norths in 1986, naming 18-year-old Craig Grauf as halfback and captain. Grauf had made just one appearance – as a wing replacement – in a pre-season match prior to his stunning call-up.
At the start of the 2010 season Warriors coach Ivan Cleary announced the shock decision to take the captaincy off veteran prop Steve Price and hand it ultra-consistent 23-year-old backrower/centre Mannering, who was just 23. The strong, silent type, Mannering led the Warriors to a grand final appearance in 2011. He took over the Kiwis captaincy in 2013, but stepped down from the club role ahead of the 2016 NRL campaign.
- Cameron Smith
At the age of 22, Queensland hooker Cameron Smith was made part of Melbourne’s novel five-man captaincy rotation in 2006. The youngest of the leadership group, Smith – who turned 23 during the season – was given the honour of leading the Storm into the grand final, a 15-8 loss to Brisbane. Smith was made sole skipper of the club during 2007 and led the Storm to a premiership that year, while he captained Australia and Queensland for the first time as a 24-year-old in the injury absence of Darren Lockyer.
- Phil Gould
In just his second first-grade start, 20-year-old backrower Phil Gould was made captain of Penrith following the retirement of long-serving skipper Mick Stephenson early in 1978. Gould did not hang onto the role, but the promotion was an early indication of the football nous that saw him become one of the great coaches after his 104-game first-grade career with Penrith, Newtown, Canterbury and Souths wrapped up. He became the youngest non-playing coach to win a premiership in 1988, guiding the Bulldogs to a title at his first attempt.
- Neville Smith
Former Queensland forward Neville Smith joined St George in 1939, and despite being just 22 years of age, he was given the captain-coach duties in his first season at the club. Smith debuted for NSW in 1940, before captain-coaching the Saints to their maiden premiership the following season.
- Brad Fittler
A self-confessed larrikin, Brad Fittler was forced to mature at a rapid rate after the Super League war broke out in 1995, catapulted in the dual roles of NSW and Australian Test captain only a few months after his 23rd birthday. But ‘Freddy’, who was a stand-in skipper for Penrith at just 20 in 1992, led the green-and-golds to a 3-0 whitewash of New Zealand and a World Cup triumph in ’95, going on to become one of the great captains.
- Nathan Cayless
With the likes of Jim Dymock making themselves unavailable for the Parramatta captaincy in 2000, coach Brian Smith made the surprise call to pitch 21-year-old New Zealand Test prop Nathan Cayless into the role at the start of the year. The consistent front-rower was a Kiwi Test skipper and losing grand final captain at 23 in 2001, while he eventually became the first player in history to captain one club in 200 first-grade matches.
- Bob Fulton
Destined for greatness from an early age, Bob Fulton captain-coached City Firsts against Country Firsts and skippered Manly in a grand final loss to Souths in 1967 at the tender age of 20. Ironically, the Sea Eagles legend starred in the 1972-73 Grand Finals under Fred Jones’ captaincy. He captained Manly to a premiership as a 28-year-old in ’76 and was 30 by the time he skippered Australia in a Test match.
- Reg Gasnier
Brilliant St George centre Reg Gasnier became the youngest captain in Anglo-Australian Test history in 1962, aged 23 years and 28 days. He was replaced by Keith Barnes after the 31-12 first Test loss to Great Britain, but later skippered the 1967-68 Kangaroos.
- Laurie Daley
Bradley Clyde was touted as the next NSW skipper after touring PNG in 1991 as Australian vice-captain at just 21 years of age. But when the Canberra lock declined the role, Blues selectors opted for a player just three months his senior – Raiders five-eighth Laurie Daley. The 22-year-old captained NSW to three straight series successes from 1992-94, while he led Australia in one Test in ’93, aged 23.
- Wally Lewis
Veteran prop Arthur Beetson was slated to again captain Queensland in the one-off Origin clash in 1981, but injury restricted the 36-year-old to the role of the non-playing coach. The Maroons selectors went from one extreme to the other, installing 21-year-old five-eighth Wally Lewis as skipper. Lewis led his state to a come-from-behind 22-15 victory and captained Queensland in 30 of his 31 Origin appearances, a record likely to stand the test of time.
- Dave Brown
Legendary centre Dave Brown was a rugby league prodigy, installed as Easts’ club captain in 1932 at the preposterously young age of 19. He skippered NSW for the first time in 1934 a couple of months after turning 21, while he became the youngest Australian Test captain in history the following season at 22 years and 177 days. Brown also led the Tricolours to premiership success in 1935, although injury ruled him out of the final.
This list originally appeared in The Book of NRL Lists by Will Evans and Nick Tedeschi, published in 2014 by Slattery Media Group.