Rugby league's best of the best since 1980.
Rugby league's best of the best since 1980.

No Lockyer, no Johns: The people’s team of the modern era

THE quest to find the greatest players of the modern era has ended in controversy, with Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer missing selection in the people's choice team of the best players since 1980.

The punters voted for Johnathan Thurston ahead of Johns and Lockyer missed out to Billy Slater at fullback and Wally Lewis at five-eighth.

Read on to see how close the two legends came and where the people and the experts differed.

Fullback: Billy Slater (59%)

Expert's pick: Billy Slater

A dominant win for Slater, who attracted the second-highest percentage of the vote for any player in any position. Darren Lockyer came in second, way back on 14 per cent, with daylight coming in third.

Widely considered the greatest fullback in the code's 112-year history, Slater is second on the all-time tryscoring list with 190 four-pointers and of his 319 NRL games, 311 were in the No. 1 jumper.

Slater perfected the art of modern fullback play: his communication and off-the-ball work was peerless, he had the speed and vision to create opportunities for others and was so supremely fit he was as dangerous in the 80th minute as the first. Won the Golden Boot in 2008 and Dally M in 2011 and played a combined 61 games for Queensland and Australia.

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Slater mastered every aspect of fullback play. Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.
Slater mastered every aspect of fullback play. Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

Wing: Brett Morris (29%) and Eric Grothe Snr (30%)

Expert's pick: Brett Morris and Eric Grothe Snr

Isn't it nice when we all agree? Morris and Grothe topped the fan vote ahead of Wendell Sailor in third on 12 per cent.

Morris has won two premierships and is still at the top of his game at 33. Has great pace, is ultra safe under the high or bouncing ball and is a noted tryscorer. He has scored 153 tries from 254 games during his 15-year career which resulted in premierships at St George Illawarra and the Roosters. His record at representative level is unmatched with 23 tries in 18 Tests for the Kangaroos - losing just one game.

Grothe Snr is original wrecking-bull. Near unstoppable to tackle, he was part of Parramatta's golden 1980s era. He won four premierships and played in another grand final. He is best remembered for his pumping knee-action running style and his runaway try in the 1983 preliminary final against Canterbury where he beat six players. Played eight Tests and nine games for NSW. Inducted into the NRL hall of fame in 2008.

Morris is a consumate professional. AAP Image/Craig Golding.
Morris is a consumate professional. AAP Image/Craig Golding.

Centre: Mal Meninga (44%) and Greg Inglis (17%)

Expert's pick: Mal Meninga and Mick Cronin

If Meninga wasn't a walk-up start I would have been very disappointed in all of you. But the punters have opted for Greg Inglis over Mick Cronin.

It's hard to go past 'Big Mal' for the top position.

Meninga assembled one of rugby league's finest resumes in an illustrious 17-year career. He captained Canberra to three premierships while he is the only player to make four Kangaroo tours. Meninga is literally a giant of the game.

'GI' started his career on the wing before moving to five-eighth and fullback, but he was at his brilliant best in the centres. Inglis' size, power and pace made him the perfect centre, and a nightmare for opposition defences. The boy from Kempsey, on the NSW mid north coast, dominated at all levels of the game.

Meninga was as good as it gets. Photo by Getty Images.
Meninga was as good as it gets. Photo by Getty Images.

Five-eighth: Wally Lewis (34%)

Expert's pick: Brett Kenny

Lewis and Kenny had many a great duel in the 1980s, and the Parramatta legend was much closer to the Queenslander than many remember. Having said that, it's hard to argue with Lewis getting home, given he's an Immortal and all.

A fierce competitor who was strong and deceptively quick, Lewis had plenty of whack in defence, too. He dominated Origin - rugby league's biggest stage - for more than a decade, collecting a remarkable eight man-of-the-match awards. So clever, so creative.

Lewis was the king of Origin football.
Lewis was the king of Origin football.

Halfback: Johnathan Thurston (41%)

Expert's pick: Andrew Johns

In what is quickly becoming one of rugby league's great debates, the people have opted for Johnathan Thurston over the expert's pick, Andrew Johns. It was no blowout - Thurston got 41 per cent of the vote compared to Johns' 36, but the Cowboys man earned a clear victory.

The busiest halfback in league history, you can't deny Thurston's champion status. Like Johns, he dominated with premierships, Dally M Medals and Golden Boots. His records for Queensland and Australia were also exemplary.

There was nothing Thurston did not achieve. Picture by Brett Costello.
There was nothing Thurston did not achieve. Picture by Brett Costello.

Prop: Glenn Lazarus (47%) and Shane Webcke (20%)

Expert's pick: Glenn Lazarus and Shane Webcke

Lazarus attracted the third-highest percentage of the vote of any player in any position, while Webcke's reputation clearly abides to this day.

The only player in premiership history to win grand finals with three different clubs, Lazarus was the premiere prop forward of the 1990s, and there was some distance back to second. Across 21 Test matches, 19 State of Origin appearances and 254 NRL games for Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne, Lazarus was a fixture at the highest levels of the sport and one of the modern game's true winners.

All the other props who came after Shane Webcke wanted to be Shane Webcke, but there can only be one. The best forward in the world in the early 2000s, Webcke became an automatic selection for Queensland and Australia, and a three-time premiership player with Brisbane, by doing the little things right and doing them as well as he could every single time. They don't make them like him anymore.

Lazarus won at every level of the game.
Lazarus won at every level of the game.

Hooker: Cameron Smith (67%)

Expert's pick: Cameron Smith

Many fans have complicated feelings about Cameron Smith, but his record is undeniable. No player in any position attracted a higher percentage of the vote with over two-thirds of punters selecting Smith.

Smith isn't just the greatest hooker of modern times, he is the greatest hooker ever to play this sport, maybe the greatest player who has laced on a boot in the 125-year history of rugby league. Nobody has ever been as good as Smith is for as long as he has been.

There are too many accolades to mention, too many records to rattle off, too much to denote without feeling like something has been left out. There will never be another player like him.

Smith is the best hooker of all time. AAP Image/Hamish Blair.
Smith is the best hooker of all time. AAP Image/Hamish Blair.

Second row: Steve Menzies (36%) and Gorden Tallis (24%)

Expert's pick: Steve Menzies and Nathan Hindmarsh

Menzies ran away with the vote to top the count for second rowers, but according to the punters Tallis gets in ahead of Hindmarsh.

The numbers for Menzies are just astonishing. There's the 349 NRL matches, the most of any running forward and the fifth most of all time.

There's the 180 tries, the third most of all time, 33 ahead of the mythical Frank Burge, the former tryscoring king of the forwards, 78 more than the third most prolific tryscoring forward of all time, Luke Lewis.

There's the 22 tries he scored in 1995, the most by any forward in a single season since 1918 and the first time in half a century a forward topped the tryscoring lists. There's the 20 tries he scored the year after that, one of eight seasons he scored more than 12 tries. Only Steve Menzies could do these things, because if other forwards could have, they would have.

Beyond that, there's the 11-year Test career, the 11-year Origin career, the two premierships with Manly that came 12 years apart. Nobody alive today watched Frank Burge play, but he's an Immortal now and Menzies took nearly all his records. That really says something.

The last angry man, Tallis inspired fear throughout the league whenever he took the field, playing with a barely controlled rage that he channelled en route to becoming one of modern rugby league's most intimidating figures.

As Brisbane, Queensland and Australian captain, Tallis feared nothing and threw himself into situations other players would gladly avoid. Winner of the Dally M award for second rower of the year in 1999, Tallis was part of the inaugural class for the revamped Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2019.

Tallis was a fearsome competitor.
Tallis was a fearsome competitor.

Lock: Brad Clyde (34%)

Expert's pick: Sam Burgess

Burgess is something of a descendant of Clyde in style, so it's fitting the Raiders man finishes just ahead of the Rabbitoh, who scored 18 per cent of the vote.

The former Blues and Kangaroos star made 144 appearances in the No.13 jersey for the Raiders and Bulldogs from 1988-2000. A two-time Clive Churchill Medal winner (1989,91), Clyde rose on the big stage and was also crowned Dally M lock of the year in 1989-90. Remains one of Canberra's greatest-ever products.

Clyde was the best player of his time.
Clyde was the best player of his time.

 

THE PEOPLE'S NRL TEAM OF THE MODERN ERA

1. Billy Slater 2. Brett Morris 3. Mal Meninga 4. Greg Inglis 5. Eric Grothe Snr 6. Wally Lewis 7. Johnathan Thurston 8. Glenn Lazarus 9. Cameron Smith 10. Shane Webcke 11. Steve Menzies 12. Gorden Tallis 13. Brad Clyde

 

THE EXPERT'S NRL TEAM OF THE MODERN ERA

1. Billy Slater 2. Brett Morris 3. Mal Meninga 4. Mick Cronin 5. Eric Grothe Snr 6. Brett Kenny 7. Johnathan Thurston 8. Glenn Lazarus 9. Cameron Smith 10. Shane Webcke 11. Steve Menzies 12. Nathan Hindmarsh 13. Sam Burgess



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