The Greatest NRL Forward Packs of All Time
We’ve named 10 of the best rugby league forward packs of all-time.
10. Balmain Tigers (1988)
Prop: Steve Roach
Hooker: Ben Elias
Prop: Bruce McGuire
Second Row: Paul Sironen
Second Row: David Brooks
Lock: Wayne Pearce
Led by all-time great lock Wayne Pearce, the consummate professional, Balmain’s rugged and dynamic forward pack was the cornerstone of the club’s late-1980s success. Enforcer Steve Roach was in the Beetson mould of ball-playing props capable of breaking the line, Ben Elias helped revolutionise the role of the modern hooker with his playmaking ability from dummy-half and Paul Sironen was a powerhouse second-row runner and an uncompromising defender – all three toured with the 1986 and 1990 Kangaroos. Along with Pearce, former NSW backrower David Brooks brought the industrious element to the Tigers engine-room, while aggressive prop Bruce McGuire made his Origin and Test debuts in 1989. Roach’s suspension on the eve of the ’88 finals was a cruel blow to the Tigers, but they nevertheless made a phenomenal charge from the fifth-place playoff all the way to the grand final, where they went down to Canterbury.
Four players from Balmain’s 1988 pack were named in our Greatest Wests Tigers Team.
9. Sydney Roosters (2013)
Prop: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
Hooker: Jake Friend
Prop: Sam Moa
Second Row: Sonny Bill Williams
Second Row: Boyd Cordner
Lock: Aidan Guerra
The Roosters held their opponents scoreless an astonishing six times on their way to claiming the 2013 title, largely thanks to their aggressive forward pack. But the dynamic element that Sonny Bill Williams added also helped establish the Tricolours as the NRL’s attacking benchmark. ‘SBW’ enjoyed an incredible year in his first season back from rugby union, while Boyd Cordner and Aidan Guerra cemented their reputations as two of the game’s finest backrow talents. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves challenged for the mantle as the code’s top front-rower and Sam Moa – who boasted just one NRL appearance before linking with the Roosters in ’13 – became one of the all-time great bargain buys. Hooker Jake Friend, rated the heir apparent to Cameron Smith’s Queensland Origin jumper, completed an outstanding engine-room with his work-rate and vibrant dummy-half play. Off the bench, former Test forward Luke O’Donnell, the versatile Mitch Aubusson and Kiwi regular Frank-Paul Nu’uausala played key roles in the premiership success. Williams, Waerea-Hargreaves, Moa and Nu’uausala represented the Kiwis at the ensuing World Cup, Cordner was in Australia’s winning side and Guerra earned a Kangaroos call-up the following season after playing for Italy in the World Cup.
8. Brisbane Broncos (2000)
Prop: Shane Webcke
Hooker: Luke Priddis
Prop: Petero Civoniceva
Second Row: Gorden Tallis
Second Row: Brad Thorn
Lock: Kevin Campion
Following the retirement of Allan Langer and the introduction of unlimited interchange, coach Wayne Bennett transformed the Broncos from a razzle-dazzle attacking force into a relentless outfit that based its game on power. The club’s forward pack was at the forefront of the comprehensive 2000 NRL premiership triumph. Front-rower Shane Webcke, second-rower Gorden Tallis – both of whom were named in Australia’s 100 Greatest Players eight years later – and Brad Thorn were established among the world’s best forwards, while durable prop Petero Civoniceva, crafty hooker Luke Priddis and industrious lock Kevin Campion all made their Origin debuts the following season.
7. Manly Sea-Eagles (1996)
Prop: David Gillespie
Hooker: Jim Serdaris
Prop: Mark Carroll
Second Row: Daniel Gartner
Second Row: Steve Menzies
Lock: Nik Kosef
Manly’s team of the mid-1990s was a formidable blend of defensive ruthlessness and unmatched scoring potential, while the club’s forward pack laid the platform for grand final success in 1996. In try-scoring freak Steve Menzies, rugged ball-player Nik Kosef and dynamic workhorse Daniel Gartner, the Sea Eagles possessed a young, superbly-balanced backrow triumvirate regarded as one of the best of all time. Veteran Test props David Gillespie and Mark Carroll were about as intimidating a front-row combination as any team has fielded in the modern era, while 1994 Kangaroo Jim Serdaris was a classy, industrious hooker with tremendous instincts from dummy-half. The Sea Eagles also boasted a bench that contained Des Hasler, Owen Cunningham and Neil Tierney. Gartner, the only member of the pack that had not played for Australia before the ’96 grand final, made his Test debut at the end of the season against Papua New Guinea.
6. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (1985)
Prop: Peter Tunks
Hooker: Billy Johnstone
Prop: Peter Kelly
Second Row: David Gillespie
Second Row: Steve Folkes
Lock: Paul Langmack
Coach Warren Ryan’s ‘Dogs of War’ outfit that won back-to-back premierships in 1984-85 was built around a cast-iron tough forward pack containing hit-men, non-stop workers and skilful ball-players. Peter Kelly, one of the finest props to not represent Australia, was man-of-the-match in the ’84-85 grand finals, while front-row partner Peter Tunks made the first of six Test appearances in ’85. Workhorse Steve Folkes and playmaking lock Paul Langmack toured together on the 1986 Kangaroo Tour, which fearsome tackler David Gillespie missed through injury before going on to make 19 Test appearances. Tough hooker Billy Johnstone played 83 games in the blue-and-white jumper as one of the most respected rakes of the decade.
5. St George Dragons (1959)
Prop: Monty Porter
Hooker: Ken Kearney
Prop: Harry Bath
Second Row: Billy Wilson
Second Row: Norm Provan
Lock: Peter Provan
St George’s relentless forward pack was the cornerstone of the club’s 11 straight premierships from 1956-66, and the engine-room in ’59 was right up there with the best of the Dragons’ record streak. Legendary captain-coach Ken Kearney’s guile and rugged play at hooker was complemented by the class of fellow all-time greats Norm Provan, a future Team of the Century second-rower, and the brilliant Harry Bath. Enforcer Billy Wilson, who later captained Australia, Norm’s underrated brother Peter, a future premiership-winning skipper with Balmain, and six-time grand final winner Monty Porter rounded out a magnificent six-man unit. Bath is regarded as arguably the greatest player never to represent Australia; the wily forward carved out his legend in English club football before returning to Sydney with the Saints and winning three premierships. He retired after the 1959 grand final, in which he was sent off with Manly’s Rex Mossop. ‘The Old Fox’ also set a premiership record for most points in a season by a prop (205) that season.
4. Eastern Suburbs Roosters (1975)
Prop: Ian Mackay
Hooker: Elwyn Walters
Prop: Arthur Beetson
Second Row: Barry ‘Bunny’ Reilly
Second Row: Ron Coote
Lock: Kevin ‘Stumpy’ Stevens
Future Immortal prop Arthur Beetson was at his dynamic, aggressive, ball-playing best as the captain of the Roosters side that won premierships in 1974-75, leading the club to a premiership record 19 consecutive wins and a then-record 38-0 grand final victory in the latter season. He was brilliantly supported by Test greats and former South Sydney multiple premiership winners Ron Coote and Elwyn Walters, while Ian Mackay represented Australia in the post-season World Series matches. Barry ‘Bunny’ Reilly – also known as ‘The Axe’ – was a demon tackler and a tremendous club-man, while Kevin ‘Stumpy’ Stevens was a valuable and versatile performer who retired after winning a premiership with his former Easts coach Jack Gibson at Parramatta in 1981.
Read our fantasy match up between Eastern Suburbs Roosters’ 1975 side and the Parramatta Eels of 1982
3. Eastern Suburbs Roosters (1935)
Prop: Ray Stehr
Hooker: Tom McLachlan
Prop: Max Nixon
Second Row: Sid ‘Joe’ Pearce
Second Row: Harry Pierce
Lock: Andy Norval
Dave Brown starred in a backline of mind-blowing ability, but the Tricolours’ forward pack was equally outstanding – and just as important to the club’s legendary period of success in the mid-1930s. Front-row tough guy Ray Stehr, industrious second-rower Sid ‘Joe’ Pearce – son of Easts legend ‘Sandy’ Pearce – and brilliant lock Andy Norval were named among Australia’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008, while Harry Pierce went on to play five Tests on the 1937-38 Kangaroo Tour alongside club-mates Stehr, Norval and Pearce. Prop Max Nixon played 103 games for Easts, while hooker Tom McLachlan also featured in the 1936-37 premiership wins as the Tricolours made it a hat-trick of titles.
Read more: Sydney Roosters All-Time Greatest XIII
2. St George Dragons (1965)
Prop: Robin Gourley
Hooker: Ian Walsh
Prop: Kevin Ryan
Second Row: Elton Rasmussen
Second Row: Norm Provan
Lock: Johnny Raper
Separating the great St George engine-rooms of the halcyon 1956-66 era is near-impossible, but the 1965 line-up that secured the club’s 10th straight title gets the nod here. Future Rugby League Immortal Johnny Raper and captain-coach Norm Provan, playing in his final season, were picked in the ARL Team of the Century 43 years later, while Ian Walsh – who took over Provan’s dual roles the following season – was desperately unlucky not to be named as hooker in that composite side. Queenslander Elton Rasmussen formed a brilliant second-row combination with Provan at club and Test level, while dual international Kevin Ryan is regarded as arguably the hardest tackler to ever grace a rugby league field. Ryan and Walsh were named among Australia’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008 alongside Provan and Raper.
Read more: St George’s All-Time Greatest Team.
1. South Sydney Rabbitohs (1971)
Prop: John Sattler
Hooker: Elwyn Walters
Prop: John O’Neill
Second Row: Bob McCarthy
Second Row: Gary Stevens
Lock: Ron Coote
Wall-to-wall class and toughness – the Rabbitohs’ forward pack powered the club to five straight Grand Finals from 1967, winning four of them, and the experience of the ’71 six-man unit rendered them the pick of the bunch. Courageous captain John Sattler and fellow enforcer John ‘Lurch’ O’Neill formed arguably the most intimidating front-row pairing of all time, while wily Elwyn Walters was the dominant rake of the era. Hard-tackling Gary Stevens, revolutionary tryscoring second-rower Bob McCarthy and lock marvel Ron Coote – an ARL Team of the Century second-rower – former a backrow triumvirate of incredible balance and ability. This Souths pack played a combined 83 Tests; remarkably, the legendary Sattler played the least with four, but joins McCarthy and Coote in the hallowed list of Australian captains.
Read More: South Sydney’s Greatest 13
Honourable mentions: Canterbury (1942, 2004); Canberra (1989, 1994); Manly (1972); Brisbane (1992); Melbourne (1999); South Sydney (1928, 1954).
Looks like the Roosters have a history of great packs
I liked 2004: 8. Cayless 9. Wing 10. Morley 11. Crocker 12. Fitzgibbon 13. Ricketson**
Rugby League’s Greatest forward packs or just NRL teams ? Typical Australian arrogance here and never changes.
Ed: You’re right, Liam. The title has been corrected. It was just an oversight, though – no Australian arrogance here.
Haha, there you go with those early 2000s Roosters again… Good pack though.
The usual bollocks where some journo refuses to leave the past behind.
What’s the bet this fella never saw the ’35 Roosters or the ’59 Dragons, but put them in simply because he was told how good they were?
I bet he never saw any of the packs prior to the ’85 Bulldogs as an adult and still holds other teams in ridiculously high esteem.
I seriously doubt many teams prior to 1980 could handle the modern age of professional athletes. Their tickers and smoking habits could only take them so far.
Where’s the ’89-90 Raiders? Lazarus, Walters, Todd, Lance, Coyne and Clyde?
The ’97-98 Broncos? Webcke, Lee, Gee, Tallis, Thorn, Carroll – with Civoniceva and Campion on the bench.
The 2004 Bulldogs? O’Meley, Perry, Asotasi, Mason, Ryan, Grimaldi with SBW and Maitua on the bench.
The 2002 Roosters? Cayless, Bonetti, Cusack, Morley, Fitzgibbon, Ricketson with Flannery, Fletcher and Crockeron the bench
The ’92/3 Broncos, and the ’99/00 Storm side? Honourable mentions? Pfft, they should be in the top five.
Those sides are virtually all Origin/Australian reps, and most had stellar careers regardless of which club they moved to, & there are many others I can recall since the late ’80s (because I am not blind and feckless enough to talk about teams I never saw play)
Modern sides will never be ALLOWED to eclipse the ancient eras, the eras with no real road trips, no interstate comps, no professionalism – no comparison. A bunch of virtual inner-Sydney sides that barely involved even NSW country athletes.
Hey Nicholas, you make some good points and your input is appreciated.
It’s obviously an extraordinarily difficult job to create a ‘greatest ever’ list – and fair enough if you think no one should bother to try – but if you’re going to attempt it, you need to consider the older sides that have stood the test of time.
The packs you’ve named are all very talented. As you say, in each case, they’re ‘virtually all Origin/Australian reps’. However, to put that in perspective, three members of the 1971 South Sydney pack actually captained Australia – that’s fairly remarkable. The Dragons of the 50s & 60s would be uncontroversial selections by most standards and, as for the Roosters of ’35, they had 3 players who would later be named among Australia’s 100 greatest ever.
Anyway, we take your points, but we also think Will has done a great job with what is a tremendously difficult task.
For the record Nicholas, the #1 side here had a front-row from Newcastle, Tweed and Gunnedah; the #2 side contained two Queenslanders, an Irishman and the NSW Country Team of the Century hooker – not exactly ” A bunch of virtual inner-Sydney sides that barely involved even NSW country athletes”. I agree too much kudos is often given to the teams and players of Australian rugby league’s ‘golden age’ – but the fact is these teams won a stack of premierships, and their collective achievements are greater than those that narrowly missed out.