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Greatest Indigenous Rugby League Players of All Time

When creating a list, whether the milk and bread for your trip down the shops, or a to-do list to plan your day...they’re often fraught with danger. So it is with lists of ‘The Best Ever’. They’re often contentious. Far from certain. Un-scientific. When you create them from the votes of a multitude of people, even more so.

Surveys and polls are difficult things to design at the best of times, but creating a popularity contest across a field of footy players is especially tough although some positions weren’t even close to a contest.

That was the case with halfback where barely a soul selected anyone other than Johnathan Thurston. That’s understandable - the guy is certain to be named an Immortal - although consider how many amazing indigenous half backs there have been. Ewan McGrady & Preston Campbell have both been named THE BEST player in a given season, yet neither of them received more than a couple of votes. Contrast that with Greg Inglis, who was chosen by most people for both Fullback AND Centre positions. We opted for him at Centre because well...Eric Simms. There were also loads of wingers selected and basically no clear number 1 or 2 so in the end, we actually relied on the feedback we got from twitter to trump for Nathan Blacklock and we’ve got to say, from the moment we picked him, it just seemed...right. Elsewhere, Laurie Daley won out on votes but it was all Cliff Lyons in the Twitter poll. We chose Laurie because honestly, in his day he was basically unstoppable. Cliffy is much loved and we’re one of his biggest fans, but he always seemed to suffer in rep selection and even in the Indigenous team of the Century, he was picked at Lock. That’s partially because whilst most of the forwards picked themselves, Greg Bird snuck into our lock spot just ahead of Jeff Hardy, Ian Russell and Ron Gibbs. Great players all but unlike the rest of the forward positions there was no true stand out for Lock.

It is also important to consider what Rugby League, and sport in general, has meant to indigenous Australians. As with most of us in this great, brown, southern forms part of our identity. Who we are. Whom we aspire to be. Keep that in mind as you read a little about each of these great players and consider not just their playing careers but their impact on the country. And while we’re at it, please go check out our new collection of t-shirts featuring indigenous legends. We’ll be donating all profits from their sale to the charity Deadly Choices, so if you like ‘em. Buy em!

All that aside, we made a list from your votes. There are some great names in this team and I reckon it could take on any from almost any era.

So without further it is, as voted by YOU.

(btw - you can still vote and win a t-shirt, the competition is open until Jan 30th!)

Fullback: ERIC SIMMS

Club(s): South Sydney

First Grade Games: 206

It is a shame to include someone in a list and add a caveat, even more so when that someone is Eric Simms. Greg Inglis actually received the most votes for our Fullback and Centre spots, and we chose him at Centre because...well, Eric Simms. Maybe you never saw Simms play, but name any other player for whom the rules of the game were changed because they were just too damned good. In 1971, the League changed the points awarded for field goals from two to one, essentially to accommodate the fact that Simms was scoring them field goals so freely. He played eight times for Australia and his entire career for the Rabbitohs, and still holds their all-time point scoring record.


Club(s): Balmain, Gold Coast

First Grade Games: 98

Wing was a tough position, namely because there have been so many outstanding indigenous wingers. From Ricky Walford to Nathan Merritt, Wendell Sailor and Lionel Morgan. Although only one was a standout in votes and that man was Larry Corowa. Corowa only played six seasons of top flight footy and his first, in 1978, ended with 24 tries, making him Balmain’s top point scorer that season. His greatest attribute was his speed, which was truly frightening and when paired with outstanding evasiveness in tight spots, won him a spot on the 1978 Kangaroo Tour. Since then, he has been named in both the Indigenous Team of the Century and Balmain Team of the Century.


Club(s): Sydney Roosters, St George, St George-Illawarra

First Grade Games: 142

The second wing spot was a tighter finish, with all those mentioned above winning votes. Blacklock squeaked it though and when he did it just felt...right. As the boys from Inside Sport’s ‘Dead in Goal’ podcast mentioned recently, he was a hell of an entertainer, and it wasn’t just his backflips.

Like Merritt, Blacklock was undervalued by rep selectors during his career, never playing State of Origin although making two appearances for Australia.

His try scoring numbers are just plain silly. As top try scorer in the NRL for three straight seasons, he scored 121 tries in 141 first-grade games in Australia and then added another 33 in 47 in UK Super League, just for fun.


Club(s): Melbourne, South Sydney

First Grade Games: 242*

Most League fans know that Greg Inglis has been unstoppable as either a Centre or a Fullback during his career. In terms of your votes, he received the most in both positions. We’ve mentioned why we didn’t select him as fullback, although the choice is best explained through a recent conversation I had with a mate who said “If GI had played as a regular fullback earlier, he’d probably have ended up as an immortal in that position”. But he didn’t, because Melbourne had a certain Billy Slater. A fan favourite, an excitement machine and an absolute beast of a player, the signing of Inglis was the first piece that led to a Souths Premiership win in 2014, their first in 43 years.


Club(s): Sydney Roosters, St George, St George-Illawarra

First Grade Games: 142

Whilst GI was a shoe-in from your votes, Steve Renouf was a clear second choice, although it also demonstrates the difficulty in comparing his pomp Renouf was pretty much the best player in the world. His distinctive headgear, the most recognisable until JT came along, gave him the appearance of additional elusiveness. Blessed with outstanding balance and with legs like tree trunks, Renouf had great initial acceleration and an unnerving knack of being in the right place at the right time. However, as his try in the ‘92 Grand Final demonstrated he wasn’t the fastest over longer distances, it just never seemed to matter.


Club(s): Canberra Raiders

First Grade Games: 244

There was much love in the votes and twitter feedback for Cliff Lyons but Daley was the clear winner and that in essence is part of his appeal. Everyone loved to watch Lyons, sometimes even his team mates, but Daley was a born winner, blessed with two great feet, initial speed off the mark and a super footy brain. His partnership with Ricky Stuart gave the Raiders three Premierships and he led an era of NSW State of Origin dominance that now feels like it occurred sometime after the Middle Ages.


Club(s): Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys

First Grade Games: 299

Johnathan Thurston isn’t big. He isn’t quick. His step is not bad, but isn’t really a weapon. He can dummy, but it doesn’t seem natural. In short, sometimes when you watch him, you’re a little unsure of what makes him so good. But that’s also because you and I are mere mortals, and Johnathan Thurston is the greatest player of all time to many people. The fact is, Thurston is probably the smartest player to ever play the game, who seldom seems to be thinking at all...but is always reacting. He kicks goals too. And he’s tough. And there is that laugh. And his new comfort taking on responsibility for his community. JT. Legend.


Club(s): Cronulla, Gold Coast

First Grade Games: 235

Lock was a contentious position with a litany of decent suggestions: Jeff Hardy, Ian Russell, Ron Gibbs. To further enhance the difficulty here, in the Indigenous Team of the Century, Cliff Lyons slotted in at lock to ensure he got a guernsey. In our survey, however, Bird won the most votes for this position and it is a fair reflection of a decently talented, if no-frills footballer, who played consistently for his state and country and did so with distinction, toughness and a desperate will to win.


Club(s): St George, Brisbane

First Grade Games: 214

The runaway winner in this category, Tallis was a monster, particularly in State of Origin where the photo of his face to face confrontation with Terry Hill is one of the competition’s most iconic images. Tallis was big, strong, fast and scary. His breakout season for the Dragons had clubs everywhere clamouring for his signature and this moment was one of the most contentious during the Super League war. Always a hard nosed competitor, his resilience came to the fore when he chose to sit out the 1996 season rather than play for St George.



Club(s): Brisbane

First Grade Games: 279

When the votes were tallied, big Gordy was number one, but Sam wasn’t far behind. Sam Thaiday seems to have been around forever, with the second highest number of games played on this list. If you’re a Blues probably wish he’d give it up already having played 29 times for Queensland alongside another 32 for Australia.


Club(s): Balmain, Easts, Parramatta

First Grade Games: 221

We’d could probably just put ‘Duh’ in this section, as Artie was probably the first player picked in this side with barely a vote for another prop. It can be partially attributed to the mystique that surrounds him, especially from the infamous first Origin match. But Beetson was more than just myth. A strong burst of speed, coupled with deft ball handling meant that Beetson could move the attack around as much as any half or hooker in his day and this fundamentally changed the way front row forwards played the game, and how opponents defended them. Beetson was the first indigenous person to captain Australia in any sport in 1973 and in 2003 he became Rugby League’s Eighth (and only indigenous) Immortal.

Front Row: SAM BACKO

Club(s): Canberra, Brisbane

First Grade Games: 135

When Big Artie is your front row mate, you’d better have something about you and Sam Backo certainly did. His size was his greatest asset but he also possessed great hands and could pop a pass with the best of them. Although his most famous Origin moment was a blooper in a post-match interview, it belied an articulate and thoughtful bloke who now spends most of his time working and campaigning for causes dear to his heart.  


Club(s): Manly

First Grade Games: 118

The hooker in the Indigenous team of the century, it is odd to look back now and think that Mal Cochrane never actually played serious rep football, despite captaining the Australian Schoolboys. He came into grade at Manly by taking the place of the incumbent Australian hooker in Max Krilich and never looked back in a career that included one Premiership and a Rothmans medal for best player in 1986, the year he would fail to make the Kangaroo tour, missing out to Benny Elias and Royce Simmons.


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