The Greatest NRL Hookers of All Time
Arguably no other position has changed as dramatically as the role of hooker, particularly since the idea of the scrum as a contest became defunct in the 1980s.
But toughness, durability, skill and a fierce will to win are traits shared by all of the great rakes, while the position has produced some of Australian rugby league’s truly iconic leaders.
Our top 10 features a 1908 pioneer, the current Kangaroos captain and stars from most decades in between. The hardest to leave out were 1970s and ’80s standouts Max Krilich, John Lang, George Peponis, Greg Conescu, Royce Simmons and Kerrod Walters.
10. Kevin Schubert
Something of a forgotten figure in the ‘greatest hooker ever’ conversation, Schubert held a mortgage on the Australian Test role from 1948-52, playing 19 Tests and touring Britain and France twice with the Kangaroos. The Wollongong product was lured to Sydney in 1950 by Manly, captaining the club to its maiden grand final in ’51 (a 42-14 loss to Souths) and playing 87 games in the maroon-and-white jumper; after a year off, he came out of retirement to play one last season for the Sea Eagles in 1956. An expert scrummager who was adorned with the ‘Prince of Hookers’ moniker, Schubert edged out Ken Kearney as hooker in the Team of the 1950s (selected in 2007) and was named in the Illawarra District Team of the Century in 2011.
9. Elwyn Walters
Tweed Heads product Walters won three premierships with the South Sydney (1967-68 and ’70) juggernaut and another two with the revered Eastern Suburbs combination (1974-75). A Kangaroo tourist in 1967-68 and 1973, the tenacious rake played 20 Tests for Australia between 1969 and ’74. Speed and flair was not his forte, but Walters was as tough as they come – a formidable ball-runner and rugged defender who thrived in the trenches. He retired in 1977 after 195 games for the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sea Eagles.
8. Ben Elias
The first of the real halfback-style hookers, ‘Bouncing Benny’ helped revolutionise the role of the rake during the 1980s with his brilliant attacking flair. Boasting pace of the mark, a superb kicking game and sleight of hand, Elias’ match-winning qualities were a precursor to the livewire No.9s that saturated the market in the 1990s and 2000s. A linchpin of the Balmain sides that reached the 1988-89 grand finals, the infamous stirrer was named Rugby League Week Player of the Year in 1988 and collected the Dally M Hooker of the Year honour three times. He enjoyed many more highlights on the representative stage, making his Test debut in 1985, featuring in the 1988 World Cup final win, and touring with the 1986 and 1990 Kangaroos – the latter as vice-captain and an Ashes hero after unseating Kerrod Walters from the Test spot. Elias also played 19 Origins for NSW, winning five of seven series.
7. Noel Kelly
“Fifteen send-offs and 16 broken noses” begins the chapter depicting Noel Kelly in Tony Adams’ book Hitmen. While the figures provided by ‘Ned’ Kelly may or may not be accurate, there is no doubt the legendary hooker/prop’s brutal style of play made them entirely possible. An Ipswich product, Kelly played over a century of games for Wests in the Sydney premiership and became part of a select band of players to tour Britain and France three times with the Kangaroos – in 1959-60, 1963-64 and 1967. Kelly was an irresistible blend of larrikin and firebrand – illustrated by his refusal to leave the field on a tour match in France despite being ordered off twice – and ranks as one of the era’s most irreverent and best-loved characters. Kelly was undoubtedly the most controversial selection in the Australian and Queensland Teams of the Century named in 2008, chosen at hooker in both sides despite playing much of his career at prop. But there’s little doubt the famed hard-man ranks among rugby league’s greatest forwards – and an outstanding hooker in his own right, playing 16 of his 28 Tests in the position.
6. Ken Kearney
Few individuals had as big an impact on St George’s record run of premierships as hooker Ken ‘Killer’ Kearney. The former Wallaby honed his craft in the professional code with English club Leeds, before joining the Dragons in 1952 and playing the first of 31 consecutive Test matches for Australia. He toured twice with the Kangaroos, including in 1956-57 as captain-coach. The ruthless rake captain-coached the Saints in 1954-55, before skippering the club to grand final success in ’56 (Norm Tipping was coach). He resumed in the captain-coach role in 1957 and led the club to five more premierships, although injury restricted him to the role of non-playing coach for the 1961 Grand Final, after which he retired as a player and coached Parramatta to its first finals series the following season. A giant of the code, Kearney was named as one of Australia’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008.
5. Danny Buderus
An Australian Schoolboys half, Buderus was a Mr. Fix-it for Newcastle in his 1998 rookie season – but it was a perfect match when he was pitched permanently into the No.9 jumper early in 1999. A tenacious tackler and ball-runner with great vision and a massive heart, the Taree product debuted for Australia and starred in the Knights’ premiership triumph in a breakout 2001 campaign. Buderus subsequently played a record 21 consecutive games for NSW (including a then-record 15 as captain), and went on to play 24 Tests before giving up the spot to great rival Cameron Smith late in 2006. One of only three players in the past 24 seasons to win the Dally M Medal playing for a team that missed the finals (in 2004), ‘Bedsy’ was three times named Hooker of the Year and collected the Rep Player of the Year gong in 2002. After three seasons at Leeds that concluded with a Super League grand final win, Buderus returned to the Knights and set a new club record of 257 first grade appearances before hanging up the boots in 2013. On top of his abundant on-field qualities, Buderus is one of rugby league’s genuine nice guys and an outstanding ambassador for the game.
4. Steve Walters
‘Boxhead’ is regarded as the prototype for the modern-day hooker: the skills of a half, quick out of dummy-half, with the robust running and stiff defence of a back-rower. Walters moved from Brisbane Norths to Canberra in 1986 and won premierships with the Raiders in 1989-90, but watched from the sideline as younger brother Kerrod became established as Queensland’s and Australia’s No.1 hooker. But Steve grasped his opportunity in 1991 and went unchallenged as the code’s top rake – regarded by many good judges as the greatest of all time – as he racked up 16 Test and 14 Origin appearances. The Super League interrupted his rep tenure and injuries curtailed the latter seasons of his career, but few will forget his influence in the first half of the 1990s, which included three Dally M Hooker of the Year gongs, the Rugby League Week Player of the Year award in 1993, and another grand final success in ’94. Retiring with 272 first grade games for the Raiders, Cowboys and Knights to his name, Walters was considered unlucky not to be named at hooker in Queensland’s Team of the Century in 2008.
3. Sid ‘Sandy’ Pearce
A giant of the pioneering era, Sid ‘Sandy’ Pearce was the greatest of the pre-World War II hookers and ranks as one of the most durable players in rugby league history. Pearce was one of the rugby union defectors that played against the New Zealand ‘All Golds’ in 1907, becoming a foundation Easts player in the inaugural premiership season and touring with the 1908-09 Kangaroos. He was a key component of the Tricolours’ 1911-13 premiership-winning dynasty and played all three Tests against the touring Lions in 1914 and 1920. Tough, uncompromising and an exceedingly popular character within the Rugby League fraternity, Pearce became the first Sydney player to amass 150 first grade appearances and toured with the 1921-22 Kangaroos at the age of 38, playing in the first two Tests against England before a broken leg ruled him out of the remainder of the tour. Pearce’s Test career-span has been matched only by Darren Lockyer in 110 seasons of Rugby League in Australia. ‘The Prince of Hookers’ passed away prematurely in 1930, while his son Sid ‘Joe’ Pearce was one of the finest forwards of the decade and represented Australia in 13 Tests – the first father-son combination in Australian Test history. He was named at hooker in the NSW Team of the Century in 2008.
2. Ian Walsh
Ian Walsh is a strong contender for the mantle of Australia’s greatest hooker of the code’s first 100 years, while his place among rugby league’s finest captains is even more assured. He was selected for the 1959-60 Kangaroo Tour from the central west NSW country town of Eugowra, playing all six Tests against Great Britain and France. Walsh was shrewdly lured to Sydney by six-time premiers St. George in 1962 and represented Australia against the touring Lions, before captaining his country to an historic Ashes series victory on the 1963-64 Kangaroo Tour in the absence of injured captain-coach Arthur Summons. He assumed the Dragons’ captain-coach role from retired great Norm Provan in 1966 and led the club to the last of its 11 straight premierships, just months after skippering Australia’s home series triumph over Great Britain in a stunning season of achievement for the rake. Walsh retired after the Saints’ run ended in the 1967 preliminary final. The man known as ‘Abdul’ was a tremendous all-round hooker – a voracious ball-winner when scrums were still a contest, a slick dummy-half and a tough defender. Walsh was named as hooker in the Team of the 1960s and the NSW Country Team of the Century, while he was one of the unluckiest omissions from the ARL Team of the Century – the hooker spot went instead to Noel Kelly, a hooker-prop and regular Test teammate of Walsh’s.
1. Cameron Smith
Cameron Smith is a contender for the title of the most dominant player of the NRL era and usurped Steve Walters and Danny Buderus as the greatest of the modern hookers many years ago. An effective and tireless defender, incredibly durable, a superb organiser from dummy-half and a wonderful kicker – both in general play and from the tee – Smith possesses the playmaking class of the game’s top halves, while ranking as one of the greatest leaders the game has known. The Logan Brothers junior debuted for Melbourne in 2002 and has collected a plethora of individual awards: he won the Dally M Medal in 2006, finished in the top-three in 2007-08 and 2016, and top-five in 2012-13; he was the 2007 Golden Boot recipient; and is a four-time winner of the Wally Lewis Medal as the player of the State of Origin series (2007, 2011, 2013 and 2016). Smith’s 40-and-counting Origin appearances may never be approached, while he is on course to break Darren Lockyer’s Test and first grade appearances records. The fact he became just the fifth player to bring up 2,000 points at first grade level this year is almost an afterthought, such is his all-round influence. The personification of consistency, Smith’s contribution to the dominance of Melbourne, Queensland and Australia over the past decade has been colossal, and Immortal status seems a fait accompli.