The 2017 premiership was the 20th season since rugby league emerged from the rubble of the Super League war and came back together under the NRL banner.
Commentary Box Sports is taking the opportunity to celebrate the milestone by selecting a ‘Team of the NRL Era’ line-up – the best of the best from the past two decades.
As for the criteria, longevity, accomplishments at club and representative level, leadership, individual awards and – above all – the ability to influence the outcome of a match all hold significant sway. Achievements prior to 1998 will not be taken into consideration.
And to ensure each spot is filled by a genuine master of each position, we’ve set a minimum of 100 NRL games or a combined 30 Test and Origin appearances in that position to be eligible for the final line-up.
This time, we chose our centres:
CENTRE – GREG INGLIS
Melbourne, South Sydney (2005-17): 242 games – 139 tries, 9 goals, 4 field goals (578 points).
Queensland (2006-16): 30 Origins – 18 tries (72 points).
Australia (2006-16): 39 Tests – 31 tries (124 points).
CENTRE – JUSTIN HODGES
Brisbane, Sydney Roosters (2001-15): 251 games – 99 tries, 1 goal (398 points).
Queensland (2002-04, 2006-09, 2011-15): 24 Origins – 5 tries, 1 goal (22 points).
Australia (2006-09, 2011-13): 13 Tests – 4 tries (16 points).
Throughout rugby league history, some of the code’s most hallowed names graced the centres for all – or at least a significant part – of their glittering careers: Messenger, Brown, Gasnier, Langlands, Fulton, Rogers, Cronin, Meninga, Miles and Renouf.
But the position’s status as less lucrative in the modern, salary cap-dictated game has seen the flow of all-time great centres dry up over the past 20 years. Often the best centres attempt to reinvent themselves as a fullback, if their skill-sets allow.
In this year’s Origin series NSW fielded two of the NRL’s best fullbacks, Josh Dugan and Jarryd Hayne, in the centres for all three games, while Queensland’s Will Chambers – a genuine centre – was partnered by Broncos fullback Darius Boyd and Cowboys half Michael Morgan.
Nevertheless, a handful of contenders stood out in the centre stakes for our NRL 20-year Team.
Greg Inglis’ permanent switch to fullback at club level with Souths in 2012 – along with a couple of fruitful seasons as Melbourne’s five-eighth – has left him somewhat in no man’s land in the greatest-ever positional debates. But his spectacular record as a centre, particularly in the representative arena, stack up with the best of all time.
An automatic selection in the Australia and Queensland line-ups since 2006, Inglis has scored 23 tries in 26 Test appearances and 12 tries in 24 Origins as a centre. He also boasts 45 tries in 73 NRL games in the position, which includes a starring role in the 2009 grand final victory with the Storm.
The indigenous superstar’s size, power and pace has rendered him possibly the most supreme athlete rugby league has produced, but his abundant all-round skill-set understandably saw him gravitate towards the No.1 jumper.
The swag of honours ‘GI’ has earned as one of the best players of the NRL era include: the Clive Chruchill Medal at five-eighth (2007); Dally M positional awards at five-eighth (2008) and fullback (2013); the Dally M Representative Player of the Year award (2008 and ’09) for his performances at centre for Queensland and Australia; and the Wally Lewis Medal, Harry Sunderland Medal and Golden Boot during a stunning 2009 season in the centres.
The tussle for the second spot in this line-up was extremely close-fought, with Justin Hodges edging out Jamie Lyon and Mark Gasnier, and Brent Tate, Matt Gidley, Matt Cooper and Nigel Vagana only a fraction further back in the reckoning.
Hodges trumped Lyon on the score of his representative achievements (Lyon quit Origin and Test football at the end of 2010), and Gasnier on longevity (Hodges’ NRL career spanned 16 seasons to Gasnier’s 12, while Gasnier also had a season and a half out of the premiership playing rugby union).
But the rangy, aggressive Queenslander arguably just had his rivals’ measure as an all-round centre as well, while his ability to come back from a succession of injury problems – failing to play over 20 games in his last 11 seasons, and missing all of 2010 – and maintain his status as one of the game’s premier players for a decade was admirable.
A grand final winner with two clubs, the Roosters in 2002 and the Broncos in ’06 (the latter ironically at fullback), the Cairns product’s career truly hit its lengthy peak after returning to Brisbane in 2005 following an often-turbulent stay in Sydney.
Hodges was a constant X-factor, regularly turning quarter-chances into tries – and when the four-pointers dried up for himself, he became an even more potent provider for his teammates (he had a remarkable 31 try assists in 37 games in his last two seasons).
Though he never seemed to be running particularly fast, Hodges glided across the ground and was maddeningly elusive, which, combined with his brutish strength, made him one of rugby league’s toughest players to tackle.
The 2007 Dally M Centre of the Year and bona fide Origin great (Mal Meninga and Inglis – who he paired with 14 times for the Maroons – are the only players to make more Origin appearances at centre than Hodges’ 22) frequently wavered on the side of ill-discipline on and off the field, but he developed into a true leader. Hodges’ gracious exit as Broncos skipper in the heart-breaking 2015 grand final loss to the Cowboys was a fitting end to one of the modern era’s most fascinating careers.
TOP 20 CENTRES OF THE NRL ERA (1998-2017)
1 Greg Inglis
2 Justin Hodges
3 Jamie Lyon
4 Mark Gasnier
5 Brent Tate
6 Matt Gidley
7 Matt Cooper
8 Nigel Vagana
9 Ryan Girdler
10 Michael Jennings
11 Will Chambers
12 Clinton Toopi
13 Josh Morris
14 Steve Matai
15 Jarrod Croker
16 Steve Bell
17 Shaun Kenny-Dowall
18 Israel Folau
19 Willie Tonga
20 Darren Smith