The 10 Best Centre Combinations of the NRL Era
Across the history of rugby league, many of the game’s greats have plied their trade in the three-quarter line.
Where Reg Gasnier, Dave Brown and Harry Wells laid down the marker for superstar centres, the likes of Mark Gasnier, Justin Hodges and Matt Cooper have continued to carry the flag in the NRL era.
To celebrate the contribution of men who wore the No.3 and No.4 jersey, we’ve named the Top 10 Centre Partnerships of the NRL Era.
10: Timana Tahu & Ben Smith (Parramatta Eels)
Years as a partnership: 2005-2007
As a duo, they went to the brink of a Grand Final appearance with the Eels in three straight seasons.
Tahu arrived at Parramatta as a star signing, having enjoyed three-consecutive seasons with more than 20 tries for the Newcastle Knights. A true athlete, he had pace and size, and through the early 2000s became a Test player for Australia and a regular in the New South Wales State of Origin side. Tahu’s reputation was in stark contrast to that of the unheralded Smith on the other side of the park, who had just three NRL caps to his name at the start of their time together, but would quickly go on to forge a living off his physical approach, allowed by a 6’4, 100kg-plus frame. At his best in the 2005 season, scoring 14 tries in 18 games, Smith added a no-nonsense edge to Parra.
Forty five tries between them in three seasons is evidence that Tahu and Smith were a potent and underrated attacking combo.
9: Brent Tate & Michael De Vere (Brisbane Broncos)
Years as a partnership: 2002-2004
They played together at opposing ends of their respective careers, but for three seasons Tate and De Vere were a near permanent fixture in an ever-changing Brisbane backline.
De Vere was Tate’s first ever centre partner when he debuted for the Broncos in 2002, starting what would be a stellar career where he overcame a number of serious injuries, resulting in more than 12 serious operations, to represent state and country. A fierce competitor, what Tate lacked in athletic ability he more than made up for in desire and technical understanding of the position, where he was a noted defender.
De Vere was a skillful customer who won NRL titles with Brisbane in 1998 and 2000, scoring 12 tries in the latter season. A brilliant goal kicker, he stood at over 1.8 metres and had a long stride which made him difficult to reel in once he broke free. Over the years De Vere’s centre play complimented some of the NRL’s greatest wingers, including Wendell Sailor, Michael Hancock and Lote Tuqiri.
Two classy customers who more than held their own in some great Brisbane teams.
8: Ryan Girdler & Paul Whatuira (Penrith Panthers)
Years as a partnership: 2002-2004
As the Panthers romped to Premiership glory in 2003, at the heart of a killer backline were centres Girdler and Whatuira.
Twice voted the Dally M Centre of the Year at the turn of the century, Girdler played the final three years of his career alongside Whatuira, bringing a steady influence to his edge of the field. With a passing game which allowed him to slot in seamlessly at five-eighth from time-to-time, and a natural sense for the game in attack, Girdler was a wonderful provider for his winger. A superb goal kicker as well, he didn’t play a single NRL season where he scored fewer than 100 points for the Panthers.
While not in the same class category as his Girdler on the left, Whatuira was ultra consistent, with little difference between his best and worst game, a fact which saw him amass 52 matches across the 2003-04 campaigns for the Panthers. On the right edge, ‘Fatz’ struck up a quality combination with a young Luke Lewis on the wing, helping him to 24 tries in his first two seasons as an NRL player.
A short but sweet centre pairing for Penrith.
7: Justin Hodges & Shaun Berrigan (Brisbane Broncos)
Years as a partnership: 2005-2007
An enigmatic hot head in his formative years as an NRL player, Hodges quickly became one off the most-consistently strong centres in the competition, and was a must-have in Queensland Origin sides and a regular for Australia. In 2007 he was voted the best centre in the NRL, having built his game around excellent dummy-half running and evasive play on the ball.
While Hodges was a specialist with the three or four on his back, in Berrigan the Broncos had one of the game’s most-versatile players who regularly featured in the halves, at hooker and off the bench. From the point Hodges arrived at Brisbane in 2005, Berrigan was predominantly a centre, scoring 19 tries that year thanks to his skillful play and tough running. Like a determined cattle dog in defence, Berrigan was a master at smothering his opposite number and neutralising him when he got near the ball.
Two classy players who could find their way to the try-line.
6: Kane Linnett & Justin O’Neill (North Queensland Cowboys)
Years as a partnership: 2015-present
Power on one side, pure pace on the other.
The centre partnership which helped drive the Cowboys to two Grand Final appearances in the space of three years, Linnett and O’Neill have a combined 35 tries in that time, and have so often provided the magical finishing touch to the brilliant work of Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan. Underrated by many, Linnett’s physical approach out wide makes him a tough customer close to the line, while away from the ball he forms part of the all-important Thurston defensive bodyguard team.
In O’Neill, North Queensland have a dynamic edge, with his pace up there with the very best in the NRL, and his ability to sniff out an opportunity priceless when his team needs a big play.
Both international players now, Linnett and O’Neill are the quiet achievers in a team full of superstars.
5: Jarrod Croker and Joseph Leilua (Canberra Raiders)
Years as a partnership: 2015-present
A prolific points-scoring partnership with vastly different qualities, Croker and Leilua have been an integral part of Canberra’s recent resurgence as a Premiership force.
After grabbing Leilua as an inconsistent player with a poor attitude mid-year in 2015, the Raiders ended up with a player who would quickly become the most-skillful centre in the comp. Leilua was in irresistible form in 2016, scoring 11 tries and firing 71 offloads on his way to the Dally M Centre of the Year gong. In addition to his own numbers, Leilua also helped wing partner Jordan Rapana to a remarkable 44 tries in 50 games across two seasons.
While not as dynamic as his mate on the right, Croker is ultra consistent and a brilliant team man, who would likely have played a number of representative games by now had it not been for a perceived weakness in defence. Croker is also a reliable goalkicker, and one of the NRL’s best leaders.
Chalk and cheese in style, Croker and Leilua make a fine partnership.
4: Paul Bowman & Josh Hannay (North Queensland Cowboys)
Years as a partnership: 1998-2007
You just knew these two wouldn’t let you down.
Neither player set the world on fire with ball in hand, a fact which is reflected in their respective career try tallies, but were both excellent defenders who could keep their edge together through talk and vision off the ball. Bowman, a three-time winner of North Queensland’s Player of the Year gong, was tough enough to play in the forwards as well as in the centres, and was a player everyone knew they could depend on.
After debuting for the Cowboys at the start of the NRL era, Hannay was part of the core group who took North Queensland from cellar-dwellers to genuine Premiership force between the late 1990s and mid 2000s. A strong one-on-one defender, he carried the ball with purpose and more often than not won his physical battles. His accurate left boot was also a key for the Cowboys time and time again.
North Queensland certainly got their money’s worth out of these two.
3: Jamie Lyon & Steve Matai (Manly Sea Eagles)
Years as a partnership: 2007-2016.
The baller and the bully.
Across 10 seasons where they were Manly’s primary centre Partnership, Lyon and Matai helped the Sea Eagles to become finals regulars, and two-time NRL Premiership winners. No centre could get close to Lyon between 2010 and 2014, a period in which the Wee Waa product won four of a possible five Dally M Centre of the Year awards.
While Lyon was a balanced player who defended well and had the skills of an NRL half, in that same time on the other side of the park Matai forged a reputation as the most-feared back in rugby league, built off his ferocious defensive hits and supported by the competition’s worst judiciary record, which saw him suspended for 21 games across six seasons. The 10-Test Kiwi wasn’t just a hitman though, possessing tough ball running and a clever ability to get over the line.
Between them Lyon and Matai formed a key part of Manly’s attack through the 2010s.
2: Matthew Gidley & Mark Hughes (Newcastle Knights)
Years as a partnership: 1998-2004
An enduring centre combination who were lethal in their pomp.
Gidley and Hughes were Newcastle’s predominant centre combination when they went all the way to the title in 2001, with Gidley responsible for setting up several of winger Darren Albert’s 16 tries in that campaign. Through the early 2000s, Gidley had a whole generation trying his renowned flick pass in backyards across Australasia. While individually brilliant, he combined wonderfully with his winger, forming potent combinations with both Albert and Timana Tahu for the Knights.
Hughes was ever reliable and versatile, representing New South Wales at fullback and appearing in five different positions at various times for Newcastle. But it was in the centres where he excelled, boasting an outstanding strike rate of 44 tries in 91 games in the position.
Both skillful enough to play five-eighth next to the great Andrew Johns, Gidley and Hughes were one of the great centre partnerships of their time.
1: Mark Gasnier & Matt Cooper (St George Illawarra Dragons)
Years as a partnership: 2000-2008, 2010-2011
For the best part of a decade, Dragons fans enjoyed the luxury of having two superstar centres occupying either side of the field.
Gasnier and Cooper had it all. Both good defensive readers who had the physicality to dominate their tackles, they were classy on the ball and could turn a half chance into a try, whether it be on their own or setting it up for their winger or inside man. Cooper remains one of the best one-on-one tacklers seen in the modern game, with strength beyond his size and a sharp eye for shutting down attacking movements, few could force an error from him in that area across his career. No slouch in attack either, Cooper scored 124 NRL tries and enjoyed seven campaigns where he crossed the line more than 10 times.
In Gasnier the Dragons had a brilliant attacking weapon, who at 1.90m and around 100kgs, was big enough to go through you, but agile enough to go around you using his footwork. The nephew of Reg Gasnier – arguably the greatest centre ever to grace the game – Mark won two Dally M awards in the position and was such a weapon that the Dragons even tried to play him as a five-eighth in order to get him more touches on the ball every game.
Two players who are considered by many to be among the best centres of the NRL era, who just so happened to play almost their entire career together for the Red V.