Some of the game’s greatest names go through their entire careers without tasting sweet grand final success. Andrew Ettingshausen has just one grand final loss (to Brisbane in the 1997 Super League decider) to show for his 328-game tenure with Cronulla, while Nathan Hindmarsh endured two grand final defeats (2001 and ’09) in 330 games for Parramatta, but no premiership victories. Meanwhile, the likes of Greg Florimo, Mario Fenech and Craig Coleman never even had the chance to play in a grand final despite playing over 250 first grade games.
At the other end of the spectrum are the grand final winners that only the most ardent fans remember. Many young unknowns use their early premiership glory as a springboard to higher honours, but some remain confined to relative obscurity in the annals of rugby league history despite being part of a select band of players with a grand final triumph on their résumés.
The inaugural Commentary Box Sports XIII pays tribute to the most unheralded grand final winners of the NRL era.
1 Luke Phillips – Sydney Roosters (2002)
A brave, dynamic fullback who went close to Churchill Medal honours in 2000 on a losing Roosters side, Phillips doesn’t quite fit in to the unheralded category – but he is one of just three grand final-winning No.1s in the past 20 seasons (along with Luke Patten and Lachlan Coote) that has not played Origin or Test football. He was, however, a vital cog in the Roosters’ ’02 success, the season before Anthony Minichiello switched to the custodian role for the Tricolours.
2 Daniel Fitzhenry – Wests Tigers (2005)
Macksville-born Fitzhenry scored 44 tries in 137 games for the Tigers from 2002-10, with a two-season stint at Hull KR sandwiched in the middle. While many of the Tigers’ triumphant ’05 squad – arguably the least heralded premiership winners of all time – when on to achieve rep honours, the versatile Fitzhenry remained a solid clubman for the joint venture.
3 Justin O’Neill – Melbourne Storm (2012) and North Queensland Cowboys (2015)
Not only has O’Neill won premierships with two clubs in the past four seasons, he scored a try in both grand final victories – a fair effort for a player with just 93 NRL appearances to his name who has battled injury problems in the recent years.
4 Ben Harris – Bulldogs (2004)
A highly-rated young centre who won a grand final in his 40th NRL appearance, Harris never kicked on as expected – despite winning another title with Super League outfit Bradford the following year. He returned to the NRL with the Cowboys in 2008 but made just 41 appearances for the club over three seasons.
5 Dane Nielsen – Melbourne Storm (2009, 2012)
Anyone familiar with Nielsen’s bumbling efforts in a two-season stay with the Warriors (2013-14) will still be shaking their heads at the fact the three-quarter previously won two grand finals with Melbourne and represented the dominant Queensland side in three Origin matches. A subsequent stint with St George Illawarra was even less fruitful, sacked over an off-field incident after making just two first grade appearances.
6 Sean Rudder – Newcastle Knights (2001)
A valuable utility, Rudder was pitched into the Knights’ five-eighth hot-seat following the acrimonious departure of club favourite Matthew Johns. Partnering the incomparable Andrew Johns in the halves, Rudder was a limited but steady pivot, and shared in the Knights’ 2001 grand final victory. After 132 games for Newcastle, Rudder embarked on a three-season European stint in 2003 and later played one NRL game for the Roosters in 2008.
7 Shane Perry – Brisbane Broncos (2006)
Easily the least heralded premiership-winning halfback of the modern era, Perry proved a fine foil for five-eighth talisman Darren Lockyer in the star-studded Brisbane line-up. Perry played a total of 14 first grade games for Western Suburbs (1999) and the Bulldogs (2000-01) before resurfacing with the Broncos in 2006. After 44 games for the Broncos, the playmaker faded into obscurity once again, finishing his professional career with Catalans in 2009. Over the past 38 seasons, the only other grand final-winning No.7s to have not played Test or Origin footy are the far better credentialed Craig Polla-Mounter, Brent Sherwin, Matt Orford and Adam Reynolds.
8 Mark Bryant – Manly Sea Eagles (2008)
A no-frills prop, Cootamundra-born Bryant made 100 NRL appearances for Canberra and Manly from 2002-08 – including 82 as an interchange. After grabbing a premiership ring with the Sea Eagles in ’08, he spent five seasons in Britain with Super League strugglers Celtic and London.
9 Apisai Koroisau – South Sydney Rabbitohs (2014)
Most of Koroisau’s story is still to be written, but his claim to fame thus far is as Issac Luke’s replacement in the Souths line-up after the Kiwi Test hooker was rubbed out of the 2014 decider through suspension. The promising rake performed solidly in his 14th NRL appearance, collecting a winner’s ring before linking with Penrith for one season. Koroisau heads to Manly in 2016.
10 Andrew Lomu – Sydney Roosters (2002)
Andrew Lomu made his sole Test appearance for New Zealand just six days after celebrating in the Roosters’ 2002 grand final triumph, but spent the remainder of his career as a journeyman. The hulking prop finished with 89 first grade games for the Roosters, Sharks, Raiders and Broncos from 2000-07.
11 Shane Rodney – Penrith Panthers (2003) and Manly Sea Eagles (2011)
Although Shane Rodney represented City in 2004, he remains one of the most underrated players to pick up premierships with two different clubs. A wholehearted backrower, Rodney played 79 games for Penrith (2002-08) and 52 games for Manly (2009-11), before finishing his career with London.
12 Luke Swain – Penrith Panthers (2003)
Red-headed backrower Swain accompanied Rodney on the bench in the Panthers’ ’03 grand final side. After 79 games for the Panthers, Swain signed on as a foundation Gold Coast Titan, making 34 first grade appearances for the fledgling club before finishing his career with Salford City.
13 Daniel Abraham – Newcastle Knights (2001)
Goalkicking forward Abraham won a grand final in just his 14th NRL appearance, coming off the bench in Newcastle’s defeat of Parramatta in 2001. A highly-rated prospect, he represented Country in 2003-04 before a string of injuries derailed his progress. Abraham was cut loose by the Knights in 2007 after 100 games for the club, while a comeback attempt with the Cowboys in ’08 garnered a further six NRL outings.
14 Vic Mauro – Manly Sea Eagles (2011)
Lismore product Mauro made just six first-grade appearances in his first four seasons at Manly before forging a regular place in the top 17 in 2011, winning a grand final in his 28th NRL outing. At the end of the following season, Mauro linked with Salford City.
15 Heath L’Estrange – Manly Sea Eagles (2008)
The forgotten member of Manly’s 2008 premiership-winning side, L’Estrange has played 93 NRL games for the Roosters, Sea Eagles and Dragons from 2004-15. The utility earned perhaps his greatest recognition during four seasons at Bradford (2010-13).
16 Scott Anderson – Melbourne Storm (2009)
An underrated, hardworking prop typical of Bellamy-coached sides, Scott Anderson was part of the Storm’s ’09 grand final-winning side – his 28th NRL appearance. He joined the Broncos the following year and played 51 games in four seasons.
17 John Asiata – North Queensland (2015)
Another promising tyro who may yet scale rugby league’s heights, the 22-year-old Asiata – a skilful backrower with good footwork – collected a grand final winner’s ring in his 31st NRL appearance for the history-making Cowboys.