Australian Rugby League’s Greatest Centres
From barnstorming giants to sleek speedsters, the centre position has produced some of rugby league’s greatest attacking exponents and iconic performers.
Though gifted centres in their own right, the likes of fullback legend Graeme Langlands, and five-eighth geniuses Bob Fulton, Brett Kenny, Laurie Daley and Brad Fittler were considered in their primary positions for the purposes of whittling down a stunning array of talent in a list of just 10.
10. Harry Wells
A powerful and elusive centre, Wells began his premiership career at South Sydney but debuted for Australia in 1952 from his hometown of Wollongong, and developed into one of the decade’s dominant players after joining Western Suburbs Magpies in ’56. He scored 13 tries in 29 Tests from 1952-60, touring twice with the Kangaroos, playing in two home Ashes campaigns and three World Cups.
A seasoned Wells and a young Reg Gasnier partnered up spectacularly at representative level, lining up in the centres in 15 Tests for Australia in 1959-60; the duo was named together in the Team of the 1950s in 2007. The midfield commander rates as a genuine Magpies legend despite leaving for a long tenure in NSW Country in 1962 as a 29-year-old, while his ability to beat defenders with swerve, speed or raw strength is entrenched in the era’s narrative.
9. Greg Inglis
‘GI’s’ permanent switch to fullback at club level with Souths in 2012 – along with a couple of fruitful seasons as Melbourne’s five-eighth – has left him somewhat in no man’s land in the greatest-ever positional debates. But his spectacular record as a centre, particularly in the representative arena, stack up with the best of all time.
An automatic selection in the Australia and Queensland line-ups since 2006, Inglis has scored 23 tries in 26 Test appearances and 12 tries in 24 Origins as a centre. He also boasts 45 tries in 73 NRL games in the position, which includes a starring role in the 2009 grand final victory with the Storm. The indigenous superstar’s size, power and pace has rendered him one of the most supreme athletes rugby league has produced, but his abundant all-round skill-set understandably saw him gravitate towards the No.1 jumper.
8. Steve Renouf
A breathtaking attacking force in the centres without peer in the 1990s, Renouf scored a phenomenal 142 tries in just 183 games for the Broncos. The head-geared flyer possessed unbelievable acceleration, great footwork, a unique swerve and a whip-crack of a fend, but also matured into a fine defensive player.
Also the co-owner of club records for tries in a match (four – on five occasions) and a season (23), Renouf averaged over 16 tries per year from 1991-98. He played in Brisbane’s first four premiership wins, scoring a famous long-range try in the ’92 Grand Final and crossing for a hat-trick as man-of-the-match in the ’97 Super League decider. Although he didn’t produce his best in 11 Origins, Renouf scored 11 tries in 10 Tests – including the match-winner on debut in the ’92 World Cup final – and starred on the ’94 Kangaroo Tour.
7. Michael Cronin
Michael Cronin’s greatness is a two-pronged phenomenon – he was a magnificent presence at centre setting up his supports, and he was a point-scorer the likes of which Australian Rugby League had never seen.
The Gerringong great had already toured with the 1973 Kangaroos and made 12 Test appearances before Parramatta finally lured him to Sydney in 1977. He won back-to-back Rothmans Medals in his first two seasons for the Eels, and broke the premiership record for points in a season with 282 (a mark that stood for 20 years) among 547 points in games at all levels – a world record for a calendar year.
Veteran Cronin was a steadying influence in the dazzling young Parramatta backline that won four premierships (1981-83 and 1986), retiring in triumph with great mate Ray Price after the 1986 Grand Final. Cronin’s career pointscoring total of 1,971 remained a record for 14 years. He toured with the Kangaroos again in 1978 before retiring from representative football prior to the 1982 tour with 309 Test points to his name – a record total that took more than three decades to surpass. Cronin’s popularity and importance in Parramatta’s folklore was emphasised by his naming as the Eels’ greatest clubman by the Men of League in 2008, while he was picked in the centres for the NSW Country Team of the Century.
6. Steve Rogers
Steve Rogers’ selection as a reserve in the NSW Team of the Century is a glowing endorsement of his status as one of Rugby League’s brightest stars of the 1970s and early-1980s. He debuted for Cronulla, played in a grand final and toured with the Kangaroos in 1973 as an 18-year-old, and won the coveted Rothmans Medal in 1975. Rogers toured twice more with the Kangaroos (1978 and 1982), forming one of the greatest centre partnerships with Mick Cronin during a 24-Test career and captaining his country against France in 1981.
An incisive ball-runner with brilliant speed, footwork and balance, and a copybook defender, it was at centre that ‘Sludge’ shone on the representative scene. But he proved his versatility and playmaking class by winning the Dally M Medal in 1981 while playing at lock for the Sharks. Named Cronulla’s greatest clubman by the Men of League during the 2008 Centenary celebrations, Rogers fell agonisingly short of winning an elusive premiership during a two-season stint at St. George.
5. Tom Gorman
Tom Gorman’s treasured place in Australian Rugby League history was solidified when he became the first Queenslander to captain a Kangaroo Tour, leading the 1929-30 squad to Britain and through the famous ‘Chimpy’ Busch ‘no try’ Ashes series. But ‘Gentleman Tom’ had already crafted a legacy as arguably the finest centre of the 1920s.
Gorman was an integral part of Toowoomba’s ‘Galloping Clydesdales’ line-up that defeated all-comers during the mid-1920s and was a mainstay of the Queensland backline during a period of Maroons dominance unmatched in the pre-Origin era. He made his Test debut against the touring Lions in 1924 and captained Australia in all three Tests of the hard-foughtseries loss to the 1928 England tourists. A stylish and elusive attacking centre, players and pundits in both hemispheres marvelled at his class. Gorman was chosen to partner Mal Meninga in the centres in Queensland’s Team of the Century named in 2008.
4. Dally Messenger
Herbert Henry ‘Dally’ Messenger was the code’s first superstar, a glorious exponent of every facet of the game, whose status and fame was almost greater than the code itself during its formative seasons. The preeminent rugby union player of his time, Messenger’s defection was one of the most significant precursors to the breakaway rugby league movement’s eventual success.
Messenger toured Britain as a guest with the trailblazing New Zealand ‘All Golds’ in 1907-08, and was the undeniable star again on the pioneering 1908-09 Kangaroo Tour, top-scoring with 155 points. He captained Australia in Tests against England on the tour and at home in 1910, but declined the opportunity to tour with the 1911-12 Kangaroos.
Messenger captained Eastern Suburbs to a hat-trick of premierships from 1911-13, retiring after the third triumph. A masterful attacking player and a goalkicker extraordinaire, Messenger’s deeds with the boot and with ball in hand are entwined within rugby league’s pioneering folklore. He was named as a reserve in the ARL Team of the Century and on the wing in the NSW Team of the Century in 2008 – 100 years after he spearheaded the fledgling code. Admirers exhausted every possible accolade and metaphor in describing his footballing genius, but Messenger’s most common soubriquet sums him up best: ‘The Master.’
3. Mal Meninga
ARL Team of the Century centre Mal Meninga’s list of achievements is almost as colossal as his giant frame that terrorised defenders throughout a 17-year top-level career. A teenage sensation with Brisbane Souths in the late-1970s, Meninga won BRL Grand Finals in 1981 and 1985 before joining Canberra and captaining the club to premiership success in 1989-90 and 1994. He is the only player to make four Kangaroo Tours and captain two squads to Great Britain and France, while his Test appearances and points totals were record marks at the time of his retirement. Meninga was the highest point-scorer in Origin history until a couple of years ago, with 161 in a then-record 32 appearances for Queensland.
A large part of ‘Big Mal’s’ legendary legacy stems from his comeback from four broken arm injuries that derailed his 1987-88 seasons, winning the Golden Boot and leading the Raiders to their historic maiden grand final triumph in 1989. A destructive runner with express pace in the first half of his career, Meninga developed into a skilful, first-rate ball distributor as he progressed. He tormented Great Britain in five Ashes series, but never more importantly than in his towering displays as captain in the hard-fought 1992 campaign at home.
Meninga was named at centre in the Teams of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the Australian and Queensland Teams of the Century. His contribution to the Raiders was recognised by his selection as Canberra’s greatest clubman by the Men of League in 2008.
2. Dave Brown
‘The Bradman of League’ handle is a fair indicator of the astonishing feats of the Easts and Kangaroos centre phenomenon of the 1930s, Dave Brown. An uncontainable attacking force, Brown debuted for Eastern Suburbs at the age of 16 in 1930, and was the overwhelming star of the 1933-34 Kangaroo Tour, setting a record to stand the test of time with 285 points in 32 matches. Brown became Australia’s youngest-ever Test captain against New Zealand (22 years and 177 days) in 1935 and led his country in the Ashes series against the touring Lions in 1936.
As captain of the first two premierships of the Easts dynasty that won three straight titles from 1935-37, Brown set a host of almost inconceivable records in the 1935 season – his 45 points in a match and 38 tries in a season (in just 16 games!) have never been remotely challenged, while his 244 points stood as a record season total for 34 years. He joined English club Warrington at the end of 1936 for a luminous four-season stint, but returned to finish his career as captain-coach of the Tricolours, overseeing another premiership in 1940 and retiring a year later.
Brown played down his remarkable point-scoring exploits as a by-product of playing in a champion team, but that sentiment was typical of his trademark modesty – the records are a tangible marker of a footballing genius of the highest order. He was a glaring omission from the ARL Team of the Century in 2008, but was chosen as a reserve in the NSW Team of the Century.
1. Reg Gasnier
St. George champion Reg Gasnier was the next in the line of great Australian centres after pioneering superstar Dally Messenger and 1930s phenomenon Dave Brown – but ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ arguably exceeded the deeds and the ability of the Easts legends. Gasnier’s unparalleled attacking brilliance saw him chosen as one of the four original Immortals in 1981, while he was named in the ARL Team of the Century in 2008.
A three-time winner of E.E. Christensen’s NSW Player of the Year honour, the St. George junior made his first-grade debut in 1959. Gasnier missed the grand final with injury in that season, but won six subsequent premierships with the all-conquering Dragons, scoring three tries in the 1960 grand final. His first-grade career garnered an incredible 127 tries in 125 games – a strike-rate among try centurions bettered only by Harold Horder – and he topped the premiership on three occasions. Gasnier scored 28 tries in 39 Tests, including Ashes hat-tricks on the 1959-60 and 1963-64 Kangaroo Tours.
His incredible tryscoring potency was despite his reputation as a wholly unselfish centre and a tremendous provider for his wingers. Blessed with blinding pace and acceleration, he was a superbly balanced runner – Gasnier in full stride was as close to beauty as rugby league came. He became Australia’s youngest Ashes captain in 1962 and was chosen to captain-coach the 1967-68 Kangaroos – his third tour to Britain and France. But Gasnier broke his leg in the first Test loss to Great Britain, and although Australia retained the Ashes, he broke down again in his comeback game in France. Gasnier retired after the tour aged just 28 – a cruel way for one of the game’s most admired and gifted players to exit. But the premature departure did little to diminish his aura – the name ‘Gasnier’ still evokes sparkling memories of rugby league genius for the ages.