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.
It’s time to name our halves:
FIVE-EIGHTH – JOHNATHAN THURSTON
Bulldogs, North Queensland (2002-17): 299 games – 87 tries, 846 goals, 16 field goals (2,056 points).
Queensland (2005-17): 37 Origins – 5 tries, 99 goals, 2 field goals (220 points).
Australia (2006-09, 2011-17): 38 Tests – 13 tries, 165 goals (382 points).
HALFBACK – ANDREW JOHNS
NRL ERA STATS
Newcastle (1998-2007): 173 games – 62 tries, 650 goals, 16 field goals (1,584 points).*
New South Wales (1998-2005): 16 Origins – 3 tries, 28 goals, 4 field goals (72 points).*
Australia (1998-2006): 19 Tests – 7 tries, 39 goals (106 points).*
‘JT’ and ‘Joey’ – in the end, the decision was relatively straightforward. Johnathan Thurston was the first player picked in our XIII alongside Cameron Smith, meaning the only other potential options were pairing him in the halves with all-time great No.6 Darren Lockyer to get Billy Slater into the side at fullback, or picking Cooper Cronk – underrated in the pantheon of the game’s best-ever halfbacks in my opinion – ahead of Andrew Johns, who achieved plenty in the four seasons before the NRL era kicked off.
But the legacy Johns created in the last decade of his career made it impossible to leave him out.
‘Thurston or Johns’ has been one of rugby league’s great barstool debates of recent years, but JT arguably inched his way in front after steering the North Queensland Cowboys to a maiden premiership in 2015 on the back of his record-breaking fourth Dally M Medal success.
And despite usurping Johns as the game’s greatest halfback, I’ve got no qualms in moving him to five-eighth for the sake of our line-up. He has played 95 of 299 first grade games, 15 of 38 Tests and 18 of 37 Origins with the No.6 on his back, while the roles have become increasingly similar in most teams.
Like Johns, Thurston’s brilliance and incredible all-round skill-set are matched only by his competitive streak and tenacity. A bright talent who won a grand final as a Bulldogs interchange player in 2004, Thurston virtually carried the Cowboys franchise on his back for the ensuing 12 seasons, setting new standards for consistency and excellence.
The Brisbane-born playmaker has a peerless passing and kicking game, and can unlock defences with his guile and footwork. His ability to produce the big play in clutch moments at club and representative levels will be marvelled at for as long as the game is played.
What sets Thurston apart is his durability. Before 2017, he played at least 17 first-grade games every season since joining the Cowboys, has racked up 38 Test appearances, and played a record 36 consecutive Origin games since his debut before that run was broken this year – a mark unlikely ever to be challenged – while playing a leading hand in 11 series wins in 13 seasons. On top of that, he is top point-scorer in Origin and Test history, and should finish his NRL career near the 2,300 points, 100 tries and 320 games marks.
Aside from the four Dally M Medals, JT boasts four Dally M Halfback of the Year gongs and three Five-eighth of the Year nods, as well as unprecedented three Golden Boots. Wayward off the field at times earlier in his career, Thurston is deservedly regarded as one of the great modern-day leaders and captains.
His golden point field goal and Clive Churchill Medal win in 2015 may have been the crowning glory of Thurston’s career, but his status as the greatest of all time was in all reality already sealed before that magical night.
Newcastle icon Johns is regarded by many as the most complete player in Australian rugby league history – a supreme match-winner. His prodigious talent was apparent from the moment he cemented the Knights’ No.7 jumper in 1994, accelerating toward representative honours and spearheading a euphoric maiden premiership for the club in 1997, but Johns’ form in the late-1990s prompted calls that he may be the best halfback the game had seen. That accolade was almost a fait accompli a few short years later, and debate shifted to whether he was the best player of all time.
‘Joey’ won a then-record three Dally M Medals, two Golden Boot awards and collected the Clive Churchill Medal in captaining Newcastle to the title in 2001.
Johns is widely considered New South Wales’ greatest Origin player; he was inspirational as captain in the 2002-03 series, while his performances in 2005 rank among the finest individual displays the game has witnessed. He was typically brilliant at Test level during a period when Australia was particularly dominant.
Johns’ masterful passing and kicking game, robust and determined running game, brilliant goalkicking and superb defensive capabilities were honed by incredible dedication and a fierce competitive streak.
Revelations in 2007 that Johns had been battled drug and alcohol problems and bipolar disorder throughout his career were condemned in some quarters, but in many respects they made his list of achievements all the more remarkable – a tortured genius of sorts. Johns was named at halfback in the ARL Team of the Century in 2008, setting a new benchmark for all No.7s to aspire to.
*Career Total – Newcastle (1993-2007): 249 games – 80 tries, 917 goals, 22 field goals (2,176 points)
New South Wales (1995-2005): 23 Origins – 4 tries, 37 goals, 4 field goals (94 points).
Australia (1995-2006): 26 Tests – 12 tries, 89 goals (226 points).
TOP 20 FIVE-EIGHTHS OF THE NRL ERA
1 Johnathan Thurston
2 Darren Lockyer
3 Brad Fittler
4 Benji Marshall
5 James Maloney
6 Kieran Foran
7 Trent Barrett
8 Michael Morgan
9 Braith Anasta
10 Todd Carney
11 Gareth Widdop
12 Anthony Milford
13 Laurie Daley
14 Jamie Soward
15 Preston Campbell
16 Terry Campese
17 Kevin Walters
18 Ben Ikin
19 John Sutton
20 Josh Reynolds
TOP 20 HALFBACKS OF THE NRL ERA
1 Andrew Johns
2 Johnathan Thurston
3 Cooper Cronk
4 Brett Kimmorley
5 Stacey Jones
6 Daly Cherry-Evans
7 Scott Prince
8 Craig Gower
9 Allan Langer
10 Mitchell Pearce
11 Shaun Johnson
12 Adam Reynolds
13 Brett Finch
14 Matt Orford
15 Peter Wallace
16 Ben Hornby
17 Brent Sherwin
18 Ben Hunt
19 Trent Hodkinson
20 Nathan Fien