As we head into the 23rd installment of the Super League era in the UK, Rugby League Opinions takes a look at the competition’s 10 best players since its inception.
To make the list legitimate, we set a requirement that a player had to have played at least five seasons in the Super League competition to be eligible, which ruled out the likes of Sam Burgess and Jamie Lyon, who were brilliant in short stints.
While the top seven almost pick themselves, the spots towards the back end of the list could have gone to a number of players.
Left out is Kiwi magician Robbie Paul, who was a pivotal part of Bradford’s spectacular run in the 2000s, while there’s no room for the likes of Sam Tomkins or St Helens stalwart James Roby. Even blockbusting wing Lesley Vainikolo, who scored almost a try a game in his 149 appearances for the Bulls, couldn’t crack our top 10.
10 – Stuart Fielden
Clubs: Bradford Bulls (1998-2006); Wigan Warriors (2006-2012); Huddersfield Giants (2013)
Trophies: 4 Super League titles and 1 Challenge Cup title
Tests: 7 appearances for England, 24 appearances for Great Britain
An aggressive bookend who simply didn’t know how to take a backwards step, regardless of the opponent, Fielden was a dominant prop once recognised as the best forward in the world.
A renowned metre-eater, he was a key figure in laying a solid platform for Bradford’s formidable spine through the early 2000s, winning three Super League and World Club Challenge titles, making the competition’s Dream Team on three occasions and earning him a place in the club’s Team of the Century. In his prime Fielden was capable of nullifying the impact of the opposing forward pack with his confrontational nature, something which also saw him clash with other players in off-the-ball incidents.
In moving from Bradford to Wigan in 2006, Fielden became the most expensive player in the game, and the transfer remains a record Super League to Super League club fee.
9 – Keiron Cunningham
Clubs: St Helens (1994-2010)
Trophies: 4 Super League titles and 7 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 16 appearances for Great Britain, 7 appearances for Wales
A bulky dummy-half who took the field an incredible 496 times for the Saints, Keiron Cunningham will go down as one of the most durable players the English game has seen in the professional era.
Despite being more like a prop than a running dummy half, Cunningham was deceptively quick from the bottom of the ruck and deadly from close range, where his frame often allowed him to burrow through multiple defenders. After making the Super League’s Dream Team for the first time in 1996, Cunningham would be recognised as the competition’s best hooker a further six times through the 2000s. All up he wore the No.9 jersey in seven Challenge Cup final wins for St Helens and helped them to four Super League titles.
So revered by England’s Red V, he was immortalised in a statue outside their home stadium while still playing, and even after an ill-fated stint as the club’s head coach finished in his sacking, Cunningham will forever be remembered as one of the great Saints.
8 – James Graham
Clubs: St Helens (2003-2011)
Trophies: 1 Super League titles and 3 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 5 appearances for Great Britain, 35 appearances for England
A firebrand enforcer with an on-field temper to do his ginger locks justice, James Graham has achieved the remarkable feat of being one of the best props sighted in both the Super League and NRL in the past decade.
In a mark of just how good the Lancashire native’s career has been, Graham’s actually played his best football since arriving down under, but is deserving of a place on this list after a glittering career with St Helens which started with his debut as a 17-year-old in 2003. A workaholic presence in the middle of the park, his competitive nature sets him apart, while he has the ball skills to playmake at the line too. Undoubtedly the Super League’s best player in 2008, Graham won the Man of Steel Award, the first of two RLIF Prop of the Year gongs and selection in the Super League Dream Team.
Famously unfortunate in league Grand Finals, losing the last seven he has appeared in, Graham claimed only one Super League title from six Grand Final trips with the Saints, but had a mortgage on the Challenge Cup for a time, winning three-straight between 2006 and 2008.
7 – Sean O’Loughlin
Clubs: Wigan Warriors (2002-2017)
Trophies: 3 Super League titles and 2 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 19 appearances for England, 11 appearances for Great Britain
The last genuine jack-of-all-trades No.13 to roll off a Super League production line which at one stage was overflowing with them, O’Loughlin will rank as one of Wigan’s best ever.
Possessing world-class ball skills, ‘Lockers’ can direct traffic with the best of them, along with possessing the work ethic and physicality to handle the modern-day demands placed on a middle forward, meaning he has been able to interchange between the pack and halves throughout his career with ease.
In the last eight seasons O’Loughlin has missed out being the Super League Dream Team lock just twice, that in an era where for much of it he competed with the formidable Kevin Sinfield for individual honours in that position.
6 – Adrian Morley
Clubs: Leeds Rhinos (1994-2000); Bradford Bulls (loan – 2005); Warrington Wolves (2007-2013); Salford Red Devils (2014-2015)
Trophies: 1 Super League title and 4 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 17 appearances for England, 30 appearances for Great Britain
A modern-day throwback to a time when British forwards carried a reputation as the most-feared and brutal in world rugby league, Morley left a long trail of destruction across his 22-year career.
One of the most successful examples of a Super League to NRL convert, Morley won a title with the Sydney Roosters in 2002, later returning to the Old Dart to continue to dominate into his late 30s. In his pomp, Morley was the player people simply didn’t want to try and tackle, and post-contact he had the ability to keep driving and improving yardage gains. His fiery approach meant he had a loyalty card at judiciary meetings, but it’s also what made him so special.
While his only Super League success came during a six-game loan stint with Bradford in 2005, Morley enjoyed Challenge Cup glory across two separate decades, including winning three of a possible four between 2009 and 2012 with Warrington.
5 – Paul Wellens
Clubs: St Helens (1998-2015)
Trophies: 5 Super League titles and 5 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 20 appearances for Great Britain, 10 appearances for England
Perhaps the UK’s best answer to Billy Slater, Paul Wellens’ career was defined by his brilliant and brave defensive plays at the back of the field.
Born and raised just metres from the Saints’ former Knowsley Road homeground, after going on to carve a successful 18-year, 495-game career with the Merseyside club, Wellens undoubtedly deserves the moniker ‘Mr St Helens’. Safe as houses under the high ball, he rarely made mistakes and was a clever cover defender who would put his body on the line in the name of preventing try-scoring opportunities. While he wasn’t as athletically gifted as many other fullbacks in his time, Wellens made up for it with a strong technical understanding and positional play, which saw him score 231 tries.
Wellens was twice voted the best on field in the Challenge Cup final, and won the Man of Steel Award in 2006.
4 – Paul Sculthorpe
Clubs: Warrington Wolves (1994-1997); St Helens (1998-2008)
Trophies: 3 Super League titles and 4 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 1 appearance for England, 26 appearances for Great Britain
A player as talented and clever as he was hard working, Paul Sculthorpe was the best player in the Super League through the start of the 2000s and helped St Helens dominate both the league and Challenge Cup for a time.
Uniquely versatile, ‘Scully’ was a competent middle and edge forward, who won major titles as a five-eighth, lock, second-rower and even off the bench as a utility. After starting his career with Warrington, St Helens splashed what was at the time a record transfer fee for a forward to lure Sculthorpe to Merseyside, and he duly repaid them by helping the Saints to three Super League titles, four Challenge Cup triumphs and a pair of World Club Challenge wins over NRL opponents.
Once dubbed by a rugby league scribe as the game’s answer to David Beckham, Sculthorpe remains the only man ever to win consecutive Man of Steel Awards. A torrid run of injuries saw the back end of his career soured, managing over 13 Super League games just once in his final four seasons, but his place among the greats was already firmly secured.
3 – Andy Farrell
Clubs: Wigan Warriors (1991-2004)
Trophies: 1 Super League title and 4 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 9 appearances for England, 33 appearances for Great Britain
There’s no telling what Andy Farrell could have been had he not departed for rugby union in his prime, yet even in his abbreviated Super League career he stands out as one of the best ever.
The inaugural Super League Man of Steel in 1996, Farrell was a clever loose forward with silky ball skills, and was a brilliant goalkicker who still owns two of the top three spots for most goals kicked in a Super League season, and is the second highest points scorer ever in a single Super League campaign. In a nod to his consistent excellence, between 1996 and 2004, the lanky lock missed the Super League Dream Team just twice.
Having already won four Challenge Cup titles and a Super League crown, Farrell was untouchable in 2004 despite his Wigan side falling short of making the Grand Final, winning his second Man of Steel – becoming just the third multiple recipient of the award in history – in addition to being named the world’s best player, before deciding to take his talents to the 15-man game.
2 – Jamie Peacock
Clubs: Bradford Bulls (1999-2005); Leeds Rhinos (2006-2015); Hull KR (2016),
Trophies: 9 Super League titles and 4 Challenge Cup titles,
Tests: 18 appearances for England, 26 appearances for Great Britain
It’s no coincidence that Super League success followed off the back of Peacock’s beastly hit-ups throughout his career with Bradford and Leeds.
An unparalleled leader, Peacock carried both the Bulls and Rhinos clubs through their most-successful eras in history, bringing a relentless approach to the game which consistently ensured he sat among the world’s premier forwards for the best part of a decade and a half. Standing at almost two metres, he was equally as effective whether at prop, where he played the majority of the back of his career, or in the second-row. Peacock was included in the Super League Dream Team an admirable 11 times.
He enjoyed arguably his best season in 2003, powering to the Man of Steel Award along with the Rugby League Players Association Players’ Player of the Year, as Bradford won the UK treble.
1- Kevin Sinfield
Clubs: Leeds Rhinos (1997-2015)
Trophies: 7 Super League titles and 2 Challenge Cup titles
Tests: 21 appearances for England, 13 appearances for Great Britain
Arguably the best player to possess a British passport in the last 20 years, Sinfield was in a class of his own whether wearing the No.13 or No.6 jersey.
Invariably the Rhinos’ best player through a hugely successful era for the Yorkshire giants, Sinfield captained Leeds to seven Super League championships, three World Club Challenge victories and a pair of Challenge Cups, picking up Man of the Match honours in four of those title-winning matches. Across 19 seasons in the Super League, Sinfield had 10 where he clocked 200 or more points, and he remains the competition’s highest-ever points scorer.
Judged the best player in the world in 2012, Sinfield was voted best in his position three years earlier and boasts seven appearances in the Super League Dream Team.