The last 20 years has seen a number of superstars grace our sport on both sides of the world.
So to mark two decades since the millennium, I have chosen my greatest rugby league XIII of the 21st century. Here are my choices…
Full-back: Billy Slater
Who else was it going to be? For a huge chunk of his career, ‘Billy the Kid’ was perhaps the best player in the world. Not only did he have speed to burn, but he had the strength and intelligence to be one of the finest defensive full-backs ever seen. He was also devastating in attack and could read the game like nobody else, poaching over 150 NRL tries. Slater won World Cups, Grand Finals, State of Origins and World Club Challenges, while on a personal level he claimed two Clive Churchill Medals and a Golden Boot. Arguably the greatest no.1 of all-time and undoubtedly part of the finest trio (Slater, Cronk and Smith) the NRL has ever seen.
Wingers: Brett Morris and Ryan Hall
One half of the lethal twin combo, Morris burst onto the scene at St George, helping them to the 2010 NRL Grand Final in stunning fashion. Three years later, he was scoring twice in the World Cup Final for Australia and after a good spell at Canterbury, he joined NRL Champions Sydney Roosters and helped them win back-to-back titles. Alongside we have another current Roosters player but one that produced his best moments in Super League. Like Morris, Ryan Hall is steeped in Grand Final history, winning six league titles with Leeds Rhinos, scoring crucial tries in three of those finals. He’s also won the Lance Todd Trophy and has a sensation try-scoring record of 36 in 38 for England. Crowned the world’s best winger at the end of 2011, many believes Hall would have thrived in the NRL if he had made the move down under earlier.
Centres: Latrell Mitchell and Greg Inglis
Boy, imagine having these two in their prime and in the same side. Warrington-bound Greg Inglis is undoubtedly a legend of the sport, producing some of the most memorable moments of the last two decades. He made his name at a star-studded Melbourne team before going on to become South Sydney’s main man, with his defining moment coming in the 2014 NRL Grand Final. ‘G.I.’ has won it all and his legacy is that great, whenever someone with devastating speed and power breaks onto the scene, they are compared to Inglis. Possibly the player to come closest to those attributes is Latrell Mitchell who helped the Sydney Roosters to back-to-back titles before following in Inglis’ footsteps and joining the Rabbitohs. He has showed glimpses of his star quality for Souths, but the fact he makes this team at just 23 years old underlines just how special Mitchell is.
Halves: Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk
The masterminds of Queensland’s State of Origin dominance and Australia’s World Cup winning sides, Thurston and Cronk are undoubtedly the greatest half-back pairing of the last 20 years. ‘JT’ was in a league all on his own as he consistently produced world class moments week in week out, with his winning drop-goal in the 2015 NRL Grand Final never to be forgotten. Thurston was world class, he could win a game all on his own and did it all with a smile on his face. JT’s class often saw Cronk get overlooked, but his part in the all-conquering Melbourne, Queensland, Australia and Roosters sides can’t be understated. It’s no coincidence that every team he played in won titles, he was the brains behind the brawn and one of the most composed players to ever take to a rugby league field.
Props: James Graham and Jamie Peacock
The emergence of top-class English forwards has become the norm in rugby league. The rough, tough and uncompromising nature of Adrian Morley built the platform for the likes of James Graham to go down under and dominate. His move to the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2012 saw him become an NRL great with his ability to make yards, play big minutes and pass like a half-back. ‘Jammer’ played in seven consecutive Grand Finals and was a regular for England. Alongside him we have a man that never played domestically in Australia, but the achievements of Jamie Peacock cannot be matched by anyone, anywhere. The former England and Great Britain skipper is Super League’s most successful player, having won nine Grand Finals, two trebles and 22 major trophies. ‘JP’ is the ultimate Man of Steel and his trophy haul is unlikely to ever be repeated.
Hooker: Cameron Smith
Arguably the greatest no.9 in rugby league history. Smith has been the best rugby league player of the last 20 years, and that’s based on all of skill, effort and consistency. The Australia and Queensland captain is Melbourne Storm’s most iconic player, having led the club in an unrivalled period of success. Smith has lifted the NRL trophy, the State of Origin and the World Cup multiple times each. He’s also racked up over 500 appearances and nearly 3000 points. The 37-year-old is still the best hooker in the game now and it will be a sad day for the sport when he hangs up his boots.
Second-rowers: Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams
These two had some incredible battles and in their prime were a joy to watch. Slammin’ Sam was the best forward in the NRL for a sustained period in the 2010s, with his defining moment coming in the 2014 Grand Final as he incredibly played on with a broken cheekbone to claim the Clive Churchill Medal . He maintained his huge reputation before a shoulder injury forced him to retire last season, but we may not have seen the last of Burgess – here’s hoping anyway! As for Sonny Bill, well what hasn’t he done? He burst onto the scene as a teenager in the Bulldogs premiership-winning team of 2004, earning a fearsome reputation in the process. Having rocked the rugby union world, ‘SBW’ returned to the NRL to help Sydney Roosters to the 2013 title, and he’s back at the Tricolours for a third spell this season. In his prime, Williams was pretty much unplayable and the player every kid wanted to be.
Loose-forward: Kevin Sinfield
This selection will likely split opinion, but few can argue with that this man has achieved. Kevin Sinfield is the third highest points scorer in rugby league history and the only man to captain a team to seven Super League Grand Final triumphs. ‘Sinny’ is also a two-time Harry Sunderland award winner, former Golden Boot winner and Super League’s all-time top points scorer, goal kicker and appearance maker. Add to that his second place in the 2015 Sports Personality of the Year and it’s clear to me that he belongs in this team. Sinfield is arguably the greatest captain and kicker the sport has witnessed and his achievements in the sport are too often overlooked.