Australian Rugby League’s Best Players of the Decade (1980s)
The 1980s was a wonderful era for rugby league in Australia, producing some of the game’s greatest ever players. Here are the very best of the ’80s:
15. Michael Cronin
Parramatta Eels (1980 – 1986)
A key cog in Parramatta’s stellar backline, Cronin was a point-scoring machine, amassing 1,971 career points, 1,211 of which came in the 1980s.
Cronin still sits seventh on the list of all-time points scorers in Premiership history, and at international level he was just as prolific, averaging nine points per game in his Tests for Australia.
Like so many of the best players the game has seen, Cronin always seemed to have time, and was adept at carving through defensive gaps with his elusive running and ability to break the initial tackle.
He kicked goals in Parramatta’s grand final triumphs in 1981, ‘82, ‘83 and ‘86, and was named the Dally M Centre of the Year in 1980, ‘81 and ‘83.
Alongside another Eels legend and member of this list, Ray Price, Cronin enjoyed a dream end to his career, winning the 1986 grand final, kicking Parramatta’s only points in a 4-2 win over Canterbury.
14. Dale Shearer
Mackay (1984), Manly-Warringah Sea-Eagles (1985-89)
A graduate of the Mackay club in Queensland, Shearer was promptly snapped up by Manly in the NSWRL comp where he made an instant impact, scoring 45 tries across five seasons in the back end of the 1980s.
An electrifying player on the ball, Shearer spearheaded a Manly attack which saw them average 23 points across a 1987 season where they would win the Premiership with an 18-8 win over Canberra in the decider.
Versatile enough to play any of the backline positions, ‘Rowdy’ became a useful player for Queensland and Australia, scoring a double in the third Origin match of his career before enjoying a streak of six-straight games where he scored a try for the Maroons.
Shearer tasted victory in every one of his 10 Tests for Australia through the ‘80s, scoring four tries against France as part of the World Cup campaign in ‘86.
In retirement, he was rewarded with selection in the Indigenous Team of the Century.
13. Gene Miles
Wynnum-Manly Seagulls (1980-87), Brisbane Broncos (1988-89)
After starting his career as a powerful and free-running centre, Miles developed into a versatile player who was also counted as one of the finest back-rowers of his time.
A towering figure at 193cm tall, Miles used his frame to full advantage and was an expert in the art of offloading, while he was also skilful enough to act as a playmaker.
Miles won Brisbane titles with Wynnum-Manly in 1982, ‘84 and ‘86, before joining the Brisbane Broncos for their debut campaign in ‘88.
With the Broncos he became a key attacking weapon, using his potent combination of size and skill to cap off a talented line-up under Wayne Bennett.
Miles played in every game of Australia’s Ashes Series triumphs in ‘84 and ‘86, famously scoring a hat-trick in the opening match of the ‘86 series.
For Queensland, Miles played for the Maroons across seven seasons in the ‘80s, appearing 23 times and scoring nine tries, notably striking up a strong partnership with the likes of Wally Lewis and Allan Langer.
12. Greg Alexander
Penrith Panthers (1984-89)
Alexander burst onto the scene in 1984 and made an immediate impact for the Penrith Panthers, playing 23 games and scoring 10 tries on his way to being named as the Dally M Rookie of the Year.
Such was his ability on the field and comfort at first-grade level, only 12 months later Alexander was judged to be the best player running around in the NSWRL comp, picking up the 1985 Dally M Medal after a stellar season where he scored played every game and scored 192 points for the ‘Chocolate Soldiers’.
He would pick up further positional awards at rugby league’s biggest awards night in 1989.
‘Brandy’ mixed rugby league nous and athletic ability to become equally adept at setting up and scoring tries, he had the pace and change of direction to swerve in and around defenders and often popped up around his forwards to punish tired players one-on-one.
He was also one of the better kickers to come through the competition in the 1980s, with a strong long kicking game which often gave his side a leg up in territorial advantage.
Alexander probably under-achieved in terms of higher honours, running out for Australia in just six Test matches and registering an abysmal Origin record for NSW which reads six defeats in as many games.
11. Allan Langer
Ipswich Jets (1986-87), Brisbane Broncos (1988-89)
Simply a genius at the halfback position, this Ipswich product took the Brisbane and NSWRL competitions by storm in the 1980s and was one of the finest playmakers of the decade.
After dominating in the BRL, Langer was a somewhat surprise inclusion in Wayne Bennett’s Maroons side in ‘87, but silenced any doubters with a spectacular series which included winning the Man of the Match in the deciding game.
That led to a contract with the Broncos in the NSWRL competition the following year, with Langer going on to become one of the greatest players in the franchise’s history, winning the Dally M Halfback of the Year in ‘88.
While his best football was played in the ‘90s, Langer was an undoubted star through the ‘80s across two state competitions, while also winning the 1988 World Cup with the Kangaroos.
10. Garry Jack
Western Suburbs Magpies (1981), Balmain Tigers (1982-89)
An aggressive fullback who refused to take a backwards step against anyone, Garry Jack’s toughness was one of the qualities which set him apart from other custodians in the 1980s.
Quick off the mark and a reliable man under the high ball, Jack picked up Dally M Fullback of the Year gongs in 1985, ‘86 and ‘88, receiving his greatest individual honour in being named the best player in the world (Golden Boot) in ‘86.
While Balmain struggled at times earlier in the decade, by the late ‘80s the Tigers were a Premiership force, and led by Jack at the back of the field the team made consecutive grand finals in ‘88 and ‘89, losing on each occasion.
On the rep scene Jack was a consistent performer for NSW from 1984-89, despite the side struggling for several of those years, leading to him winning only seven of his 17 Origins.
In the Green and Gold he helped the Kangaroos to a 3-0 whitewash over Great Britain in the ‘84 and ‘86 Ashes Series and won the World Cup in 1988.
9. Brett Kenny
Parramatta Eels (1980-89)
While others on this list rose to fame off the back of pure desire and hard work, Brett Kenny was naturally talented and seemed to be able to read a game of rugby league a couple of plays in advance.
Kenny formed a potent halves combination with Peter Sterling in the Blue and Gold, and given the success they experienced through the 1980s, winning four Premierships between ‘81 and ‘86, they will likely go down as one of the finest halves combinations the game has ever seen.
An accurate ball player with an eye for defensive gaps and overlaps, Kenny also had a quick turn of pace and a dynamic step which meant he could stand up even the most reliable of defenders.
After helping NSW to a 2-1 series victory in the 1985 State of Origin series, Kenny picked up the Golden Boot award.
In the colours of Australia he lost only one of his 17 Tests, while playing alongside Parramatta teammates Ray Price, Eric Grothe and Sterling in the 1982 ‘Invincibles’.
Kenny won the 1985 Origin series with the Blues and was part of the squad which swept Queensland 3-0 a year later.
8. Steve Mortimer
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (1980-88)
A magician in the No.7 jersey, ‘Turvey’ led the Bulldogs through an era of dominance in the 1980s, forming a lethal halves partnership with another man on this list, Terry Lamb.
For every bit of brilliance Mortimer had on the ball, he matched it with desire in defence, where he was a noted cover defender who saved countless tries with last-ditch efforts.
Aggressive in nature, he was known to step over the line on a number of occasions, which saw become a familiar face at the judiciary in times when the style on the field was often brutal.
After helping Canterbury to their first Premiership in 38 years in 1980, saving what appeared to be certain tries on three occasions with brilliant tackles, he captained the side to further glory in both ‘84 and ‘85.
As a leader Mortimer had a commanding effect on his side at club level, while he also led NSW to a series win in 1985, scoring a try in the second match.
Given he played through a period full or brilliant halfbacks – Tommy Raudonikis, Kevin Hastings and Peter Sterling to name a few – Mortimer’s tally of matches for both state and country is impressive.
7. Wayne Pearce
Balmain Tigers (1980-89)
A player who led the way with his professionalism through the 1980s, Pearce wasn’t the most gifted footballer running around but made a habit of being better prepared and conditioned than any of the men he faced on a rugby league field.
Despite his Balmain side falling short of ultimate glory in each of his 11 seasons with the club, Pearce was consistently regarded as one of the competition’s premier forwards, a fact which saw him represent Australia across six separate seasons.
An athletic player whose fitness levels set him apart from the rest, and made him one of the safest options around on either side of the ball, it was in captaincy that ‘Junior’ truly excelled.
His leadership is widely credited for lifting Balmain from a string of mediocre results in the 1970s to being genuine title contenders in the 80s, while on the rep scene he captained the Blues to their first ever State of Origin clean-sweep in 1986, scoring tries in games two and three.
He would later skipper Balmain in back-to-back grand finals in ‘88 and ‘89, both of which the Tigers lost, but by that point Pearce’s standing as a legend of his era was confirmed.
In terms of individual honours, Pearce won the Rothmans Medal as the competition’s best-and-fairest player in 1985 and was the Dally M Lock of the Year in ‘87 and ‘88.
6. Mal Meninga
Souths Brisbane (1980-85), Canberra Raiders (1986-89)
A centre who came to prominence in the BRL and starred for the Kangaroos through the back half of the 1980s, Meninga was arguably the finest in his position through this era.
The only player from the ‘80s to be included in the Australian Team of the Century, after winning Brisbane titles with Souths in ‘81 and ‘85, Meninga travelled down to Canberra in a move which would see him take the competition by storm and become one of the greatest players of all time.
Meninga appeared in the first Origin match ever played in 1980, kicking seven goals as many attempts in a famous Queensland victory, and would go on to appear 17 times for his state through the ‘80s
While he was arguably at his best in terms of club football through the early ‘90s, Meninga stood out for Canberra thanks to his destructive carries, where he would revel in delivering pain to the man tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, him.
Meninga received the Golden Boot as the best player in the world in 1989.
For Australia, Meninga played through the year of ‘The Invincibles’ and helped them to further Ashes Series victories in ‘84 and ‘86.
5. Gavin Miller
Cronulla Sharks (1980-83, 1986-89), Eastern Suburbs Roosters (1984)
Unlike others on this list who dominated right through the era, Miller was a late bloomer who rose to prominence in the later part of the 1980s.
Arguably the most-skilful back-rower of his generation, Miller was renowned for extending attacking plays thanks to an uncanny knack of popping offloads away in situations where lesser players would have been forced to surrender in the tackle.
He also had the ability to ball-play at the line, with his footwork, passing skills and courage often enabling him to suck in multiple defenders before shifting play to either side.
After winning England’s Man of Steel Award in 1986 while playing for Hull KR, Miller went to a new level back home and was voted the best player running around in the Winfield Cup, claiming back-to-back Dally M Medals in ‘88 and ‘89.
In ‘88 his attacking prowess lifted Cronulla from an eighth-placed finish the year previous, to win the minor premiership and go within a game of the grand final.
While ‘89 wasn’t so successful for the club, with the Sharks finishing sixth, Miller claimed all three of the major individual Australian gongs on offer by winning the Dally M Medal, Rothmans Medal and Rugby League Week Player of the Year.
His perceived inability to perform on the biggest stage will always leave a shadow over his career, having played only five times for NSW, winning once and captaining the team to an ugly 3-0 series defeat to Queensland in ‘89.
4. Terry Lamb
Western Suburbs Magpies (1980-83), Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (1984-1989)
A noted support player who backed up better than any player in his era, Lamb made little efforts which meant he was around the ball to make plays others couldn’t.
Lamb also knew his way to the try-line, scoring 164 career four-pointers and topping the competition in tries scored in 1984 and ‘87.
Through an era where the Bulldogs were at times unstoppable, ‘Baa’ won Premierships in his first two seasons with the club in 1984 and ‘85, and would go on to win a further two in a stellar career which spanned 350 first-grade matches.
He was a seven-times voted the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year, winning the gong four times in the 1980s alone, while in 1983 he was voted the outright player of the competition despite his Western Suburbs side finishing dead last in the competition with five wins and 19 losses.
The Chester Hill Junior also finished in the top group of runners-up for the award in 1984, ‘86 and ‘87.
Lamb represented both Australia and NSW, playing eight Tests and seven Origins, and would have played more had he not turned down both state and country at times due to family reasons.
3. Ray Price
Parramatta Eels (1980-86)
How do you stop a player who simply refuses to give up in any area of the game on a rugby league field?
‘Mr Perpetual Motion’ was instrumental in Parramatta winning four Premierships between 1980-86, adding a ruthless edge at the lock forward position in an otherwise fairly lightweight forward pack.
A tireless defender, Price would so often take his body beyond its limits for the cause.
In the seven seasons Price played in the 1980s, he was named Dally M Lock of the Year five times and recognised as the Dally M Player of the Year in 1982 and Rugby league Week Player of the Year in 1985.
His final act as a first-grade rugby league player Price captained the Eels to victory in a rugged 4-2 result against the Bulldogs in the decider, a match where Price was hounded relentlessly by Bulldogs prop Peter Kelly but kept coming back for more.
Away from club footy Price logged eight appearances for NSW at State of Origin level, captaining the side in 1984 before retiring from representative duties. He also played 11 Tests for Australia through the ’80s, losing just once and appearing as part of ‘The Invincibles’ in ‘82.
To this day only four players have surpassed his mark of 258 games for the Eels.
2. Wally Lewis
Fortitude Valley (1980-83), Wynnum-Manly Seagulls (1984-87), Brisbane Broncos(1980-89)
An incredible talent who remains one of the finest five-eighths ever to play the game, Wally Lewis enjoyed success in the local Brisbane comp before making an immediate impact when he became a member of the inaugural Broncos side in 1988.
Playing in the NSWRL comp for the first time, Lewis was a revelation for Brisbane, scoring 15 tries in 19 appearances on his way to the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year gong.
By that point Lewis was already a veteran of the Kangaroos’ line-up, having made his Test debut in 1981 and enjoying a spectacular record of 29 wins from 33 matches through the ’80s, scoring 45 points.
In ‘84, having won the BRL title with Wynnum Manly and played a key role in Australia’s 3-0 sweep of Great Britain in the Ashes Series, Lewis was awarded the Golden Boot.
Supremely talented on the ball, where he could play before or through the line with pinpoint accuracy, Lewis was also a physical presence and enjoyed the confrontational nature of the game.
He was officially recognised as the greatest Australian five-eighth to play the game when he was named alongside Andrew Johns in the halves for the Team of the Century, Lewis is also one of eight Immortals.
1. Peter Sterling
Parramatta Eels (1980-89)
A back-to-back Dally M Medal winner in 1986 and ‘87, Sterling also helped Parramatta to four Premierships through the ’80s.
On the ball he was a tactician who understood the game at a higher level than most, allowing him to spot opportunities and gaps in even the best defensive lines he encountered.
Trusted by master coach Jack Gibson to be his on-field general, Sterling was a natural organiser and consistently managed to direct teams full of talent – and egos – around the park to be in the right place at the right time.
A competent defender as well, where courage was his major boast, Sterling became the first player ever to receive a 10 out of 10 rating by Rugby League Week, a feat which he would achieve twice in his career.
Sterling played 18 Tests for the Kangaroos and was part of ‘The Invincibles’ in 1982, the Australian team who went through 22 games unbeaten, while also representing NSW in the State of Origin arena on 13 occasions.
Through the ‘80s won four Dally M Halfback of the Year awards, three Rugby League Week Player of the Year awards, two Rothmans Medals, a Golden Boot and as mentioned earlier, two Dally M Medals as the best player in the game.