The Best Individual NRL Rivalries of All Time
Rugby league is a team sport, but so often key individual match ups decide the outcome of a game. Personal rivalries develop over the years and eventually become a feature of each contest. There have been some incredible battles, but arguably none better than these ten.
10. Garry Jack vs. Gary Belcher
Two of the very best custodians of the modern era – and miles in front of their 1980s contemporaries – Jack and Belcher won three Dally M Fullback of the Year gongs apiece, preventing any other No.1 from claiming the honour from 1985-90. The pair toured together with the 1986 Kangaroos, but Golden Boot winner Jack kept Belcher out of the Test side. Balmain rock Jack won the first six head-to-head match-ups at club and Test level, but brilliant Canberra and Queensland star Belcher won nine of the remaining 10 showdowns. Belcher succeeded Jack as Australia’s first-choice fullback in 1989 before outpointing his long-time rival in that season’s epic grand final and going on the ’90 Kangaroo Tour as the only specialist fullback.
9. Andrew Johns vs. Brett Kimmorley
As Andrew Johns began to establish himself as a representative star and Newcastle’s linchpin during the mid-1990s, Brett Kimmorley was steering the Knights’ reserve grade side around of a weekend (including a premiership victory in 1995). Kimmorley made his first grade starting debut in 1995 in the absence of an injured Johns, but with no way past him for a regular spot, ‘Noddy’ joined hometown Super League club Hunter Mariners in 1997. Kimmorley represented Super League Australia in a breakthrough year and emerged as a genuine contender to Johns’ halfback throne as the game reunited the following season, the Melbourne star leading his club to a premiership and making his full Test debut with ‘Joey’ out injured for the 1999 Tri-Nations. Johns was forced to make his representative comeback via the bench during the 2000 Origin series as Kimmorley occupied the No.7 jersey throughout a 3-0 whitewash, and played at hooker during Australia’s World Cup campaign to accommodate the Storm playmaker. But Johns reconfirmed his status as the game’s top halfback – and player – in 2001 by captaining the Knights to another title and starring in Australia’s Ashes series triumph. The rivals engaged in many fine battles at club level, including arguably Kimmorley’s greatest-ever performance, scoring a Cronulla club record 28 points and a perfect 10 rating from Rugby League Week in a 64-14 demolition of Johns’ defending premiers in 2002. But Kimmorley’s subsequent representative appointments came only when Johns was unavailable (which, admittedly, was often – Kimmorley finished his career with 20 Test appearances) prior to the latter’s retirement in 2007. Johns was named halfback in the ARL’s Team of the Century in 2008, while Kimmorley became the first No.7 to play 300 first grade games during a fine late-career stint with the Bulldogs. The playmakers opposed each other 13 times, with Johns finishing 7-6 ahead in the win-loss count.
8. Wendell Sailor vs. Adam MacDougall
Premiership-winning wingers Sailor and MacDougall cultivated one of the game’s most testy rivalries after coming together at club and Origin level in 1998. Sledging and push-and-shoves were the norm for the outspoken stars, who were Australian teammates at the 2000 World Cup. Sailor won four of his five games against MacDougall as a Bronco, but MacDougall outpointed him with two tries on a losing side in 2000, before the pair clashed heatedly in the Knights’ record win in ’01. MacDougall’s Origin record against Sailor stood at 5-4-1, while one of the modern era’s most celebrated rivalries had another entertaining chapter added when Sailor made an NRL comeback with St George Illawarra in the late-2000s. Sailor scored two tries as Saints opened up a 14-6 halftime lead over Newcastle in a 2009 clash and celebrated enthusiastically in front of Knights centre MacDougall. But ‘Big Dell’ hobbled off with injury during the second half and MacDougall scored the try that ultimately proved the difference in Newcastle’s 24-18 win, earning ‘Mad Dog’ the rights to the last verbal jab post-match.
7. Arthur Halloway vs. Chris McKivat
Small in stature but giants of rugby league’s pioneering era, Chris McKivat and ‘Pony’ Halloway jousted for the game’s premier halfback mantle. Halloway made the jump from rugby union to play for Glebe in the inaugural 1908 premiership season and toured with the 1908-09 Kangaroos before joining Balmain, while McKivat was among the highest-profile defectors in the ‘Wallaby coup’ of 1909, switching from the amateur code to debut for Glebe in 1910. The brilliant duo teamed up in the halves for NSW during the 1910 interstate series – McKivat at five-eighth and Halloway in the No.7 – but McKivat was chosen as Australia’s halfback for the subsequent home Test series against England. McKivat skippered the 1911-12 Australasian Kangaroos and led the side to a historic Test series victory over England, with Halloway as his halfback deputy. Halloway joined Easts and was a linchpin in consecutive first-past-the-post premiership victories in 1912-13 – ahead of McKivat’s second-placed Glebe side in the former year. Halloway played all three home Tests against England in 1914, while McKivat retired at the end of the year. Returning to Balmain in 1915, Halloway won five more premierships (1915-17 and 1919-20) and toured New Zealand with the Australian side in 1919. Both men achieved spectacular results in the coaching sphere after their playing days finished – McKivat with the mighty Norths sides of the early-1920s, Halloway predominantly with Easts in the 1930s and 1940s – and the keen rivals were named in the ARL’s Greatest 100 Players in 2008.
6. Ian Walsh vs. Noel Kelly
Ipswich product Kelly and Eugowra legend Walsh wrestled for the Test hooker position at the close of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, becoming two of rugby league’s most revered rakes in the process. Kelly made his Test debut during the 1959 series against New Zealand, before both players won selection for the year-ending Kangaroo Tour. Walsh played all six Tests on tour. Kelly held the spot throughout the 1960 World Cup and headed to Sydney to join Wests the following season, but Walsh reclaimed the Australian No.12 jumper in 1961 before signing with St George in ’62. The illustrious pair went head-to-head in the 1962-63 grand finals, with Walsh enjoying the spoils of victory. After both were selected for the 1963-64 Kangaroo Tour, Walsh skippered Australia to a historic Ashes series victory in the absence of tour captain-coach Arthur Summons, while Kelly starred alongside him at prop. Walsh finished his Test career as skipper of a thrilling home Ashes series victory in 1966 (again with Kelly at prop) and captain-coached the Dragons to the last of their 11 straight premierships. He stepped down from rep football the following season and retired after Saints’ run came to end in the 1967 preliminary final, allowing Kelly to take over as Test rake in becoming the first hooker/prop to make three Kangaroo Tours. Kelly was a surprise choice as hooker in the ARL’s Team of the Century in 2008 – given that he played a significant portion of his career at prop – while Walsh was considered one of the unluckiest players to be overlooked.
5. Paul Harragon vs. Mark Carroll
The Newcastle-Manly rivalry was multi-faceted, but the magnitude and intensity of the individual competition between ‘Chief’ and ‘Spud’ almost overrode the club hostilities. Massive hits, fearless charges and brawling became part and parcel of matches between the sides from 1994-97, with the enforcers at the forefront. The most memorable regular season showdown came the following season in front of a bumper Marathon Stadium crowd. The twin towers traded verbal jousts and massive hits in a bruising duel that saw Harragon knocked unconscious after he launched himself at a charging Carroll, while the Newcastle skipper was later sent to the sin bin when his temper boiled over. The pair locked horns several times in the 1997 grand final, coming to blows during the first half, while Harragon’s aggressive approach earned multiple cautions. But Harragon took the spoils as captain of the Knights’ last-gasp victory – the last time the rivals squared off and the first time in eight matches Carroll had lost to Harragon as a Sea Eagle. The front-row stars were teammates for NSW in seven Origins, while Carroll ousted Harragon from the Australian Test side during the 1995 season.
4. Wally Lewis vs. Brett Kenny
Two of the finest five-eighths of all-time, Wally Lewis and Brett Kenny, faced off for the first time in the 1982 Origin decider, with Lewis scoring the winning try and claiming man of the match honours in leading Queensalnd to a 10-5 win. Lewis was named as vice-captain of the Kangaroo Tour squad at the end of the season, but he was deposed by Kenny as first-choice five-eighth. Kenny linked with Eels team-mate Peter Sterling in the halves, wearing the No.6 in five of the six Tests on tour (he started at centre in the first Test against France, with Lewis inside him at pivot). Lewis regained his spot the following season and assumed the national captaincy in 1984, while Kenny played the remaining 11 Tests of his international career in the centres with Lewis as skipper. Recognised as two of the world’s greatest players (Lewis won the inaugural Golden Boot in 1985, followed by Kenny in 1986), the brilliant rivals waged many great battles at interstate level. Kenny won eight of the 12 matches he started at five-eighth for NSW opposite Lewis (the Maroons maestro only lost 13 games in a 31-game Origin career), including the Blues’ initial series successes in 1985-86. Kenny and Lewis did not clash at club level until after the Broncos’ 1988 arrival into the premiership. ‘The King’ emerged victorious on each of three occasions they opposed each other at five-eighth – once for Brisbane in 1989 and in lowly Gold Coast’s upset wins over Parramatta in 1991 and 1992.
3. Mario Fenech vs. Ben Elias
Few rivalries in premiership history compare in intensity to that of dummy-half combatants Ben Elias and Mario Fenech. Brilliant Balmain playmaker and serial niggler Elias and fiery, ultra-competitive Souths rake Fenech genuinely did not care for each other. The pair routinely traded verbal barbs and regularly came to blows, most infamously as respective captains in the 1986 minor semi-final. Just after halftime of a spiteful encounter, Fenech was sent off for alleged gouging in a scrum and Balmain swept to a 36-11 victory and a preliminary final berth. Embarking on an off-season stint with Bradford Northern at the end of the year, Fenech faced the uncomfortable scenario of taking on the touring Kangaroos – with Elias at hooker. Fenech’s (Malta) and Elias’ (Lebanon) Mediterranean heritage added another facet to the fierce competition. Fenech exacted some revenge by skippering the Rabbitohs to a finals win over the Tigers in 1987, before displacing incumbent NSW hooker Elias for the 1989 Origin series. But a broken hand cost Fenech a certain Australian debut, while Elias helped navigate the Tigers past minor premiers Souths in the major semi later in the season. The on-field rivalry tapered off after Fenech joined Norths in 1991 and moved permanently to prop; Elias in the meantime was an Ashes hero with the 1990 Kangaroos and retired in 1994 with 19 Origin appearances, but the hostility remained. Reunited on The Footy Show more than a decade after the pair retired, the lingering animosity was clearly evident. Perennial fall-guy Fenech attempted to extend the olive branch, but the ever-antagonistic Elias made a sincere conciliation impossible.
2. Peter Sterling vs. Steve Mortimer
Canterbury legend Mortimer and Parramatta maestro Sterling were both named among the ARL’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008 – more than two decades after they staged a lengthy battle for the mantle of the game’s best halfback. Mortimer made his Test debut in the 1981 home series against France, but Sterling claimed the NSW jumper for the one-off Origin clash. ‘Turvey’ displaced ‘Sterlo’ for the 1982 interstate series and went away on the Kangaroo Tour as Australia’s first-choice halfback after featuring in two mid-season Test victories over the Kiwis. The mercurial Sterling usurped his position on tour, however, and Mortimer was consigned to playing with the midweek second-stringers while Sterling became an Ashes hero. Sterling returned as NSW’s No.7 for the first two matches of the 1983 series, before Mortimer ousted Sterling for the dead-rubber third Origin clash and was bestowed with the state captaincy. After skippering the Bulldogs to a 6-4 grand final victory over Sterling’s Eels, Mortimer retained the halfback spot and the captaincy for the start of the 1985 Origin series. His inspirational leadership was central to the Blues’ maiden series victory. Despite the pair’s contrasting styles – Mortimer was a tenacious competitor, brilliant cover defender and incisive runner, while Sterling was the cool-headed, consummate ball-on-a-string playmaker – and highly successful careers respectively, Mortimer’s career is often framed in the context of his rivalry with Sterling. The illustrious linchpins duelled once again in the 1986 grand final. Mortimer gallantly captained the Bulldogs in a dramatic 4-2 loss, while Sterling won the inaugural Clive Churchill Medal as man-of-the-match. Mortimer’s place among the finest halfbacks of all-time is unquestioned, and he boasts a 12-11 win-loss ratio over Sterling, but Sterling is generally regarded as the best No.7 of the era.
1. Allan Langer vs. Ricky Stuart
Respective halfbacks for two premiership giants, Langer and Stuart waged many classic battles at Origin level and grappled for the Test No.7 jumper for the first half of the 1990s. Ex-Wallaby Stuart made his first grade debut off the bench in the Raiders’ 36-16 thrashing of incumbent Queensland halfback Langer’s Broncos in 1988. Langer made his Test debut later in the season and the pair did not clash again until the 1990 Origin series as Stuart broke into the Blues’ side. Stuart helped NSW reclaim the Origin crown for the first time since 1986, while the Blues won four of the five series (1990-94) in which Stuart and Langer occupied the lead playmaking roles, although the match tally was just eight wins to six in favour of the Canberra maestro. Langer played 24 Tests to Stuart’s nine and kept his rival out of the Australian side for most of their careers, but he relinquished the spot to Stuart on consecutive Kangaroo Tours after first Test defeats at Wembley. Stuart went on to become an Ashes hero on both occasions, but was fated never to play a Test on home soil. Boasting contrasting styles – Langer was the instinctive game-breaker, while Stuart was the aggressive, scheming puppeteer – the combatants waged many memorable battles at club level. Stuart emerged victorious in his only two showdowns with Langer in finals football, while Langer holds a 5-4 advantage in regular season matches in which both players started in the No.7.