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.
Next up, the wingers:
WINGER – DARIUS BOYD
Brisbane, St George Illawarra, Newcastle (2006-17): 267 games – 76 tries (304 points).
Queensland (2008-17): 28 Origins – 17 tries (68 points).
Australia (2008-14, 2016-17): 23 Tests – 16 tries (64 points).
WINGER – MANU VATUVEI
Warriors (2004-17): 226 games – 152 tries (608 points).
New Zealand (2005-10, 2012-15): 28 Tests – 22 tries (88 points).
Choosing wingers for composite line-ups has become increasingly difficult over the past 30 years. Since the 1980s heyday of Eric Grothe and Kerry Boustead, the game has produced arguably just one genuine all-time great flank-man – Wendell Sailor.
There have been plenty of outstanding wingers – Willie Carne, Michael Hancock, Rod Wishart, Brett Morris, Nathan Blacklock, Lote Tuqiri, Hazem El Masri, Adam MacDougall, Semi Radradra – but none that were dominant for a decade.
Here’s my two-fold explanation: the tendency for representative selectors to choose the next-best centres and fullbacks on the flanks, and the fact many young guns that start out as wingers move to more lucrative, more involved positions closer to the action.
The likes of Andrew Ettingshausen, Dale Shearer, Michael O’Connor, Jamie Ainscough, Brent Tate, Matt King, Israel Folau, Jarryd Hayne, Darius Boyd and Dane Gagai have been Test and Origin staples on the flank – at the expense of specialists – despite playing only a small proportion of their first-grade careers as wingers.
Josh Mansour, a late inclusion for the injured Boyd, is the only player in Australia’s World Cup squad to have appeared on the wing at NRL level in 2017.
Meanwhile, Kangaroos flyers Tom Trbojevic and Valentine Holmes made the fulltime transition from wing to fullback for their clubs this year, and Canberra’s teenage sensation Nick Cotric is already being earmarked for a shift to fullback or centre.
The selection of prolific Bulldog El Masri, who played just one Test and one Origin, and Brent Tate, a veteran of just 16 first grade matches, five Origins and 13 Tests as a winger, in David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual ‘Team of the 2000s’ at the end of 2009 highlights the trend. Compare that duo with the other team of the decades pairings: Ken Irvine and Brian Carlson (1950s), Irvine and Johnny King (1960s), Boustead and Terry Fahey (1970s), Boustead and Grothe (1980s), and Sailor and Hancock (1990s).
Which brings us to the most difficult selections in Commentary Box Sports’ NRL 20-Year Team.
Darius Boyd was a 19-year-old rookie premiership winner with Brisbane in 2006, playing all 27 games and enjoying two more outstanding campaigns with the club predominantly on the wing, where he made his Test and Origin debuts in 2008.
He hasn’t played an NRL game on the wing since a career-defining move to St George Illawarra in 2009, developing into one of the code’s top custodians – including the Clive Churchill Medal and a Dally M Fullback of the Year nod in 2010.
Boyd’s place in this line-up is on the strength of his extraordinary contribution as a winger on the rep stage – arguably no player has been more influential in the position in the Test and interstate arenas since Boustead.
A brilliant finisher – 11 tries in 14 matches on the wing for Australia, 16 tries in 23 Origins on the wing for Queensland – Boyd has been staggeringly consistent and durable (he played 28 straight Origins from his debut) and a virtual automatic pick for both sides at wing or fullback.
Boyd’s positional play is superb, his defence faultless and his mistake-rate extremely low. But his skill-set was wasted on the flank at club level. Ultimately, though, his tenure as a representative winger is just as important to his legacy as his decade as a top-shelf NRL fullback.
On the other extremity, I’ve gone for a player who will no doubt be the most contentious pick in our line-up and in many ways the antithesis of the ultra-reliable Boyd: Manu Vatuvei.
Contentious because Vatuvei has a few obvious and significant flaws: easy to exploit defensively, at-times poor handling, and prone to the occasional out-and-out shocker.
Now onto ‘The Beast’s’ pluses.
Warriors icon Vatuvei’s 150 tries are the most for a winger in the NRL era – and second only to all-time record-holder Ken Irvine – while his tally of 152 touchdowns (equal-10th in premiership history) is bettered only by only Billy Slater (183), Brett Stewart (163) and Nathan Merritt (154) since 1998.
Of his NRL-era contemporaries, only Blacklock (0.88) and Stewart (0.70) boast a better strike-rate than Vatuvei’s 0.67 tries per game of players with a century of first-grade tries to their name.
But it’s more than purely quantity – Vatuvei’s ability to score with multiple defenders on him and only inches to spare bely his cumbersome frame and oft-maligned clumsy handling, while he produced countless runaway tries where his underrated speed over a distance complemented his brutish power.
He also took Sailor’s ‘extra forward’ style of play and raised the bar; no player has made more tough carries out of his team’s danger-zone than Vatuvei, and he was the trailblazer for the modern trend of it being almost a prerequisite for wingers to rack up 120-plus metres per game.
Vatuvei’s 22 tries in 28 Tests is a Kiwis record and he rarely produced a poor performance in the international sphere. Two tries in the 2005 Tri-Nations final boilover; four tries against England in the 2008 World Cup; easily New Zealand’s best in the 2013 World Cup final blowout against Australia; two tries in the 2014 Four Nations final triumph; and another double in a man-of-the-match performance as the Kiwis powered to a historic Anzac Test win in 2015 – fittingly, his final appearance for the Kiwis.
His bad games were appallingly bad, but Vatuvei never received due credit for invariably bouncing back with a blinder. Just a year after his infamous display at Parramatta Stadium in 2007, ‘The Beast’ was named the RLIF Winger of the Year and one of Middleton’s Top 5 Players of 2008 – just the second winger to receive that honour.
You wouldn’t want your life to depend on Vatuvei successfully gloving a bomb, but given how relentlessly he was targeted, the Auckland-born giant improved drastically in that department as his career wore on. Somewhat paradoxically, no winger was more dangerous in the air at the other end of the field.
Then there’s his feat in becoming the first player in premiership history to score 10 tries in 10 consecutive seasons, something that eluded even the legendary Irvine. For a player that managed more than 20 games just twice in his career it’s an astonishing accomplishment, never mind the fact the Warriors missed the finals in the last four seasons of that streak and he played outside some truly ordinary centres during those latter campaigns.
The complete winger? Far, far from it. But Manu was a big-game performer who brought so much more to the table than just unparalleled tryscoring prowess, and his departure has been an overlooked factor in the Warriors bottoming out in 2017.
Brett Morris pushed hard for a spot on the score of his incredible Test tryscoring record (23 in just 18 matches) and some outstanding campaigns for the Dragons but he only really had five years at the very top, while Sailor and Tuqiri would almost certainly been the pairing if they had not switched to rugby union in the early-2000s. Lack of rep footy (which was by no means their fault) held back the claims of El Masri and Blacklock.
TOP 20 WINGERS OF THE NRL ERA (1998-2017)
1 Darius Boyd
2 Manu Vatuvei
3 Brett Morris
4 Wendell Sailor
5 Hazem El Masri
6 Matt Sing
7 Nathan Blacklock
8 Timana Tahu
9 Adam MacDougall
10 Lote Tuqiri
11 Semi Radradra
12 Jason Nightingale
13 Nathan Merritt
14 Brent Tate
15 Israel Folau
16 Matt Geyer
17 Luke Burt
18 Marcus Bai
19 Akuila Uate
20 Josh Mansour