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.
Let’s get things underway with the No.1s:
FULLBACK – DARREN LOCKYER
NRL ERA STATS
Brisbane (1998-2011): 314 games – 105 tries, 254 goals, 20 field goals (948 points).*
Queensland (1998-2011): 36 Origins – 9 tries, 22 goals, two field goals (84 points).
Australia (1998-2011): 59 Tests – 35 tries, 31 goals, 2 field goals (204 points).
Though he played the last nine seasons of his extraordinary career at five-eighth, Darren Lockyer’s fullback tenure for Brisbane, Queensland and Australia prior to 2004 put him in the top bracket of rugby league’s greatest No.1s. Billy Slater may have edged past him in the pantheon of the code’s top custodians (and only just) but – like Laurie Daley getting picked at centre ahead of Steve Renouf in the Team of the 1990s and Ron Coote nabbing a second-row spot from the likes of George Treweek in the ARL Team of the Century – Lockyer simply had to be in this side.
The bare figures of the Roma product’s career are destined to amaze rugby league followers for generations to come. Records for most appearances in first grade, State of Origin and Test football – and unprecedented marks for most appearances as captain, most tries and longest career-span for Australia – are a testament to the modern-day legend’s durability and longevity.
But the numbers tell only part of the story of Lockyer’s unsurpassed consistency and match-winning brilliance. His place among Australia’s finest fullbacks of all time was assured in 2003 after he spearheaded the injury-ravaged Kangaroos’ incredible 3-0 Ashes cleansweep of Great Britain in his first series as skipper and was awarded the Golden Boot.
He was also a three-time grand final winner, a Churchill medallist, Origin series-winning skipper and three-time Dally M Fullback of the Year in the No.1 jumper, but equally important to his legacy was his role as the first genuine ‘second five-eighth’ style of fullback, taking on the bulk of the playmaking duties – particularly for the Broncos and Maroons – while also proving himself as the consummate all-rounder, a dazzling ball-runner capable of coming up with incredible defensive plays.
Lockyer shifted to five-eighth in 2004 – a selfless move for the benefit of his Brisbane club side – and became one of the best-ever pivots. Lockyer won a second Golden Boot in 2006 after captaining the Broncos, Queensland and Australia to stunning successes in one of the most extraordinary seasons by an individual in the code’s history. His gliding, incisive running and ball-playing class were features of his tenure at fullback – the position he was named in when Queensland’s Team of the Century was announced in 2008 – while he developed into one of the best ball-players and cool-headed match-winners of all time after his transition to the No.6.
Lockyer can lay claim to being arguably the greatest clutch player rugby league has ever known. As his career wore on, Lockyer produced match-deciding plays in the dying minutes and seconds with incredible regularity. Lockyer possessed remarkable toughness, while he invariably responded to criticism with a man-of-the-match performance.
Voted the NRL’s top fullback in all but one year from 1998-2003 (an injury-hit ’99, when he was shaded by one vote by Robbie Ross) in Rugby League Week’s Players’ Poll, Lockyer was widely regarded as one of the game’s top five players as a 21-year-old in 1998 – a status he held onto for the ensuing 13 seasons before hanging up the boots in 2011.
*Career Total – Brisbane Broncos (1995-2011): 355 games – 123 tries, 341 goals, 21 field goals (1,195 points).
TOP 20 FULLBACKS OF THE NRL ERA (1998-2017)
1 Darren Lockyer
2 Billy Slater
3 Anthony Minichiello
4 Darius Boyd
5 Brett Stewart
6 Matt Bowen
7 Greg Inglis
8 Jarryd Hayne
9 Karmichael Hunt
10 Brett Hodgson
11 Ben Barba
12 David Peachey
13 Josh Dugan
14 Rhys Wesser
16 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
17 James Tedesco
18 Clinton Schifcofske
19 Matt Moylan
20 Kurt Gidley