The 10 Best Defenders of the NRL Era
If it’s true that defence wins Premierships, we’re declaring this list as the unbeatable 10.
While it rarely makes it onto highlight reels in the post shoulder charge era, good defence is an art form never under appreciated by coaches, while for players it tends to either be their major boast or Achilles’ heel.
Sheer tackling output, minimal misses and refined technique were prerequisites for this list, rather than the ability to put on a huge shot (that list of the best hitters in the NRL era is coming up soon on Rugby League Opinions)
Nine forwards and a sole back have made this list, while honourable mentions go out to players like Nigel Plum and David Stagg, who employed impeccable tackling technique throughout their careers, along with defensive workaholics such as Cameron Smith, Jake Friend, Andrew Ryan and Nathan Friend.
Here’s our list of the Top 10 Defenders of the NRL Era.
10: Steve Menzies
Clubs: Manly Sea Eagles, Northern Eagles.
Rep honours: 13 Tests for Australia, 20 Origins for New South Wales
What’s the worst part about being the most prolific try-scoring forward in Premiership history? It tends to take away from all the great work you did on the other side of the ball for 21 years.
Famed for his attacking brilliance, which saw him score 180 tries at club level, ‘Beaver’ was also a brilliant defender who could be relied upon. Of note is that fact that Menzies was equally adept at defending in the middle of the field, or any edge position from centre, second row or even five-eighth, with each position requiring a different skill set, not to mention the athletic challenge of marking up on some of the fastest players on the park.
While his defensive feats won’t command much space on his career highlight packages, Menzies did it week in, week out for a very long time and deserves his place on this list.
9: Beau Scott
Clubs: Cronulla Sharks, St George Illawarra Dragons, Newcastle Knights, Parramatta Eels.
Rep honours: 3 Tests for Australia, 11 Origins for New South Wales
Technically brilliant in the tackle and an astute reader of attacking patterns, Beau Scott is the ability to predict the play and then punish whoever was carrying the ball.
While others on this list boast catalogues full of defensive records and histories of high output, Scott makes it on the basis of his pinpoint contact which make his hits effective and often utterly brutal. When he is stationed on the edge as a second-rower, you avoid the area whenever possible. If he is playing in the middle, you pray to the rugby league gods that he doesn’t find you. A wonderful communicator off the ball, having Scott in your team is like having a defensive coach on the field for every play.
Across stints at four different clubs, three Tests for his country and a five-year Origin career, Scott took as taken his fearsome reputation as a defender with him.
8: Shaun Fensom
Clubs: Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys.
A tireless worker in the middle of the park, Fensom has been among the game’s most prolific tacklers since his days in the U20s for Canberra.
In 2011 the New South Welshman ventured into 70-plus territory when he wrestled his way through 75 tackles against the Bulldogs, setting a new club record for Canberra, crushing his own previous record of 55, and falling just short of Michael Luck’s overall record in the process. That year he surpassed Alan Tongue’s record for the most tackles in a season for the Raiders with 1135. Since then Fensom has consistently averaged around 40 tackles per game in his career.
Fensom’s lack of a single representative jumper continues to be the cause of much debate in rugby league circles, and for many years around rep season the #FensomForCountry hashtag makes an appearance, driven by a number of prominent rugby league journalists.
7: Matt Cooper
Club: St George Illawarra Dragons.
Rep honours: 7 Tests for Australia, 13 Origins for New South Wales
The centre position is widely regarded as the most difficult spot on a rugby league field to defend from, yet Matt Cooper made it look easy for the best part of a decade.
Typically defending next to a winger – a group hardly renowned for their defensive qualities – and a smaller half who was a target, Cooper managed to stand out for his work off the ball. Strong as an ox, he could meet most players one-on-one and put them back towards where they came from, while he was athletic enough that he rarely got beaten on the outside or with footwork. But the 246-game Dragon was smart, too, with the ability to read defence that bit earlier than most which allowed him to take preventative action.
Cooper formed one of the greatest centre partnerships of the NRL era alongside Mark Gasnier, and while the fleet-footed Gasnier will be remembered for his attacking prowess, Cooper’s defensive efforts were just as impressive.
6: Tonie Carroll
Club: Brisbane Broncos.
Rep honours: 7 Tests for Australia, 5 Test for New Zealand, 18 Origins for Queensland
The fact that master coach Wayne Bennett trusted Carroll to serve as the great Darren Lockyer’s defensive bodyguard for the majority of his career tells you more than any statistic ever could.
With thighs like tree trunks, and a technique that lined people up just the right way, when ‘Tunza’ drove into a tackle his target tended to stay hit. Through years of playing centre, in the middle of the park and as an edge second-rower, Carroll developed a strong understanding when it came to reading opposing attack, and what they were likely to throw at him, and as a result tended to get his man more often than not.
Such was Carroll’s dedication to the art of defence, in retirement he even started up his own business teaching kids how to tackle using the correct technique.
5: Alan Tongue
Club: Canberra Raiders.
Standing at 180cm and lucky to weigh 90kgs wringing wet, Tongue had zero right to be a one-man tackling machine.
His unique style, which saw him dip just before the contact and then drive up underneath the ball carrier, rocked rib cages, sucked the air out of opponents and often caused the ball to come free. A dogged redhead who wouldn’t go away, in 2010 some of Tongue’s teammates recalled a story when, after persistently smashing the great Shane Webcke in a series of tackles, he caused the Brisbane prop to fire in his direction “I wish you’d just piss off you little red nut”. In 2006 the versatile lock or hooker set a new NRL record with 1087 tackles across 25 games.
A tough customer who wiped away more than his fair share of broken noses in order to play on, Tongue led from the front with committed defence.
4: Michael Luck
Clubs: North Queensland Cowboys, New Zealand Warriors.
It’s somewhat fitting that Michael Luck started his professional career with the Cowboys, given his defensive work often resembled an animal herder rounding up violent stock.
A non-stop worker off the ball, Luck hovered around the ruck looking for involvement. Back in 2009, the Queenslander set a new NRL record by making an incredible 78 tackles across 90 minutes in a draw with the Melbourne Storm. Although some versions of the NRL’s notoriously dodgy stat-keeping fraternity have different interpretations of the number, it is widely believed that Luck was the first man ever to make over 70 tackles in a game. That same year he eclipsed the four-figure mark by clocking 1053 tackles across 23 games, despite the Warriors missing the play-offs and winning just 29 per cent of their games that year. Luck was also the competition’s top tackler in 2007 (959) and 2008 (957).
The fact that Luck never played for the Maroons is perhaps even more mind boggling than his defensive numbers.
3: Nathan Hindmarsh
Club: Parramatta Eels.
Rep honours: 23 Tests for Australia, 17 Origins for New South Wales
Despite him having been retired since 2012, there remains a strong case to suggest Nathan Hindmarsh has made more tackles in his life than he has hot dinners.
That’s a nod to his defensive haul rather than a knock on his culinary abilities, with the Parramatta legend amassing 11,981 tackles in his NRL career, the first man in the code’s history to go above the 10,000 mark. Hindmarsh is a member of the NRL’s exclusive ‘70-plus club’ of players who have registered over 70 tackles in a single game, and after his debut year in 1998, he failed to make over 500 tackles in a season just once. In nine of his 15 seasons, Hindmarsh was responsible for over 10 per cent of the total tackles the Eels made in a season. While his rig didn’t immediately scream ‘physical freak’, Hindmarsh had a rarely seen anaerobic capacity, with tests showing that during his career he could at times push through lactate levels five times beyond the point where the average athlete fatigued.
There have been enduring criticisms of Hindmarsh, claiming his numbers were inflated by the ‘flopping’ in on other people’s tackles. While that excuse might wear up until his 7000th or 8000th tackle, his final tally leaves no option but to consider him an immortal of defence.
2: Simon Mannering
Club: New Zealand Warriors.
Rep honours: 44 Tests for New Zealand.
You’re not truly a Warriors fan until you’ve sat at a game and declared out loud your admiration for Simon Mannering’s defensive efforts.
Ankle taps, leg tackles that turn rampaging props into motionless prey, driving hits to prevent quick play the balls, extra efforts to shut down offloads; Mannering can, and does, do them all. Despite being one of the smaller middle forwards in the competition, Mannering possesses remarkable strength and a work ethic matched by few. Ranked in the NRL’s five most prolific tacklers for three straight years heading into 2018, Mannering averaged 1039 tackles per game in that time. Across his career Mannering has over 8000 tackles to his name, but more significantly averages only a touch over a missed tackle per game in that time, making him one of the most economical defenders the game has seen.
A resilient player, who for the majority of the back half of his career has pushed through injuries that would have kept many out, Mannering has played more than 16 games every single year since 2006.
1: Dallas Johnson
Clubs: Melbourne Storm, North Queensland Cowboys.
Rep honours: 1 Tests for Australia, 12 Origins for Queensland
A gutsy lock forward who simply couldn’t help but throw himself at the legs of rampaging opponents, Dallas Johnson provided an old-school twist to the modern game.
Craig Bellamy once declared Johnson “the hardest-working and toughest player I have ever encountered in rugby league” – some claim from a man who has coached Cameron Smith through his entire career. But the Atherton junior’s numbers are just as impressive as that quote, once clocking 62 tackles in the space of 77 minutes in a State of Origin game, unsurprisingly setting a new record in the process. After playing in four-consecutive NRL Grand Finals for the Storm, Johnson spent a year in France before arriving at the Cowboys and promptly smashing the club record for most tackles in a season, with 1006 in his first 24 games in 2011.
While defence was the main reason Johnson when on to become the player he was, it was also the leading contributor in his eventual demise, with repeat concussions caused by his fearless low tackles contributing to his retirement in 2013.