The Best Front Row Partnerships of the NRL Era
It’s arguably the hardest position on a rugby league field, and so often the place where games are ultimately won or lost over 80 minutes.
Having one top-class prop forward is good, but having two is better.
In celebration of the greatest engine room combinations in the game, here’s our list of the 10 top front row partnerships of the NRL era.
10 – Mark O’Meley and Willie Mason
(Canterbury Bulldogs, 2002-2007)
Ogre and Big Willie helped set the tone for the Bulldogs in an era where their pack was one of the most feared in the world.
The presence of Steve Price meant O’Meley and Mason didn’t always team up as props, but when they did, opposing sides knew they were in for a torrid day in defence. While they were built differently – O’Meley 1.8m and just over 100kgs, and Mason rangy and closer to 115kgs – they shared a common attribute; hard running. They packed down together at the front of the scrum in the Bulldogs’ 2004 Grand Final win, taking it to the Roosters’ much-vaunted pack, with Mason being voted the best player on the field.
O’Meley and Mason followed each other to the Sydney Roosters in 2008 and played a further two seasons together.
9 – Adrian Morley and Jason Cayless
(Sydney Roosters, 2002-2005)
Just the right mix of crazy and consistent.
Morley had already smashed, bashed and harassed his way to being one of the game’s most-feared forwards by the time Cayless arrived at the Roosters in 2002, while Cayless himself was in his third year as an NRL player, having appeared 18 times for the Eels a year prior. While Morley alternated between prop and the back row through this period, when the pair combined in the engine room they formed a potent partnership, lending a hand in driving the Roosters to three-straight Grand Final appearances between 2002-04. While Morley was a brutal hitter on both sides of the footy, and one who reveled in confrontation, Cayless was super reliable, playing 83 games in four seasons at the Bondi club.
Both players earned Test honours during their time together, adding to a glut of internationals wearing Roosters colours in those years.
8 – Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa
(Sydney Roosters, 2013-2016)
A ferocious Kiwi duo who experienced Premiership joy in their first season as a combination.
After two unsuccessful attempts to become a regular first-grader in Australia, it proved third time lucky for Moa when he signed for the Bondi club following a stint in the UK with Hull FC. The nuggety prop’s quick play the ball became a key feature for the Roosters between 2013 and 2016, with his form such that he picked up nine Test caps for New Zealand along the way. Waerea-Hargreaves is all confrontation. The Roosters’ most aggressive forward since Adrian Morley, he has forged a career out of heavy contact on both sides of the ball, and tended to save his best performances for the best front-row opponents.
The pair also packed down together at Test level for the Kiwis at the 2013 World Cup in England.
7 – James Graham and Aiden Tolman
(Canterbury Bulldogs, 2012-2017)
It’s quite possible that no propping combination in the history of the game averaged more touches of the ball than Graham and Tolman did in their time together.
Under coach Des Hasler at the Bulldogs, the pair were asked to not only be dominant enforcers in the middle of the park, but also part-time playmakers, often featuring as the first receivers in cross-field movements. That aside, Graham and Tolman were one of the NRL’s best one-two punches through the early 2010s, with Graham’s rugged running style and Tolman’s ability to dent the line consistently, making them a nightmare prospect. Both players were also tireless workers, and combined to carry the ball for over 40kms and make over 10,000 tackles across six seasons.
Two very skillful and hard-working customers.
6 – Nathan Cayless and Michael Vella
(Parramatta Eels, 1998-2006)
The equal-longest serving combination on this list, and the only one where both players were one-club men.
Across nine seasons, Cayless and Vella clocked up 418 combined appearances for the blue and gold, and from 2000 onwards they were Parra’s first-choice starting prop combination. Standing at over 1.9 metres, Vella was taller than many opposing props at the time and possessed impressive strength, which meant when he hit the line it finished with dents in it. Cayless meanwhile was a rugged middle forward who felt most at home in the trenches. The Sydney-born Kiwi international was also a natural born leader, assuming captaincy of the Eels before his 22nd birthday, while he showed incredible durability to play 20 or more games in each of his last six season in the league.
Not the most eye-catching prop combination, but hugely effective nonetheless.
5 – Brent Kite and Jason King
(Manly Sea Eagles, 2005-2013)
Two battle-hardened bookends who helped make Manly one of the most-feared packs around for the back end of the 2000s.
King was old-school – uncompromising in his work, a lover of confrontation and in his element when covered in claret. He gave a hard edge to the Sea Eagles’ pack. Kite was no slouch in the department either, but was much more mobile, with pre-contact footwork and an ability to promote second-phase, which added a different dimension for Manly. With Kite and King on their books at the same time, Manly never missed the play-offs and appeared in four Grand Finals.
With two titles to their names, and a handful of rep honours, these two will go down as one of Manly’s finest front-row pairings ever.
4 – Steve Price and Ruben Wiki
(New Zealand Warriors, 2005-2008)
It was always going to be good news for Warriors fans when the club brought together two men who, at the time, were arguably the best Kiwi and Australian front-rowers running around.
In Price, they got the ultimate on-field leader, and a workaholic as well, best displayed by his incredible 2007 season in which the Queenslander averaged 195 metres per game on route to picking up the Dally M Prop of the Year. Wiki, on the other hand, oozed genuine fear factor, having forged a reputation as one of the most-stinging ball carriers in the competition.
On-field ability aside, these two put the fear of god into many opponents just by being named on the team list.
3 – Luke Bailey and Jason Ryles
(St George Illawarra Dragons, 2000-2006)
Two talented big men who were unfortunate to never experience Premiership success together, in a decade where the Dragons went agonisingly close to a title shot.
Both local Illawarra juniors, the pair debuted in the 2000 season, with Bailey’s absence in a Round 15 match being the catalyst for Ryles’ promotion to the NRL squad that year. A rangy build, Ryles was an intimidating picture in the middle of the park, and became a starting prop from 2001 onwards, earning Kangaroos and NSW Country honours that year, and his first State of Origin cap 12 months later. Bailey boasted an impressive work ethic, and as the years went on he adapted his game to add an offload, which made him arguably the premier forward in the NRL between 2005 and 2006, a time in which he won Dally M Prop of the Year and Rugby League Week Player of the Year honours.
Bailey and Ryles also teamed up together on numerous occasions for NSW between 2002-05.
2 – Matt Scott and James Tamou
(North Queensland Cowboys, 2009-2016)
Two freight trains who helped take the Cowboys from pretenders to contenders, culminating in the club’s maiden Premiership in 2015.
After his rookie year in 2009, Tamou hardly missed a game for North Queensland, appearing at least 19 times for the next seven seasons, while averaging over 130 metres per game in five of them. Standing at 195cm tall, Tamou gave the Cowboys’ a very different body shape to the stocky Scott, making it tough for defenders to get into a rhythm when tackling the North Queensland middles. While packing down next to Tamou, Scott never had a season where he averaged under 120 metres, and in 2011 officially became the world’s best prop, picking up Dally M and RLIF honours in the position.
They went on to play 10 Tests alongside each other in Green and Gold, winning the World Cup in 2013.
1 – Petero Civoniceva and Shane Webcke
(Brisbane Broncos, 1998-2006)
Two of rugby league’s greatest ever warhorses, and Brisbane got to enjoy them at the same time for nine-straight seasons.
Such was the pair’s dominance together, their names have become synonymous with the No.8 and No.10 jerseys in Brisbane, where they combined to help bring the Broncos four Premierships, the last of which was delivered in Webcke’s final game. Between them the pair finished with four Dally M Prop of the Year Awards, with Webcke having a mortgage on that gong between 2000-02. Both incredibly powerful men, they were relentless in their quest to break down opposing defensive lines, and can lay claim to helping develop some of Australia’s best post-war backline talents as a result.
Together Civoniceva and Webcke went on to become the first-choice front row partnership for both Australia and Queensland for most of the early 2000s, and there can be little doubt that this duo are the finest engine room combination ever to take the field in the NRL era.