The Biggest Hitters of the NRL Era
In rugby league there are few better sights than watching someone the smash the living daylights out of a ball carrier.
While often without a tangible effect, big hits have been an integral part of the game since day dot, and even in a post-shoulder charge era where league is increasingly concerned with player safety, they haven’t gone away.
No metrics, no extra points for longevity or representative honours; this list is purely based on a player’s ability to dish out pain in tackles.
Honourable mentions go to Roy Asotasi – a man whose hits were so good they were even used as a metaphor in a rap song – former Maroons hardman Neville Costigan, Sydney Roosters enforcer Adrian Morley, and several others who forged reputations as players you didn’t want to run into on a rugby league field.
Here’s our salute to the NRL’s greatest hitmen.
10 – Manu Vatuvei
Clubs: New Zealand Warriors.
Rep honours: 28 Tests for New Zealand
Wingers aren’t meant to be able to do the things ‘The Beast’ did.
Following a tradition set by the ferocious Francis Meli in the early 2000s, Vatuvei made the Warriors’ left wing the most dangerous flank in rugby league when it came to the risk of getting ironed out while you had the ball. So often Vatuvei hit opposing numbers with devastating blind-side hits as they tried to shift the ball on, or in some cases if they were stupid enough to try and run over him. The Kiwi giant’s list of scalps includes James Roberts, Dylan Walker and Billy Slater, with the latter being a favourite target, and a Vatuvei hit being a leading contributor to Slater’s serious shoulder injury that saw him miss most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Shaped like a forward and possessing an insatiable hunger for contact, Vatuvei would hit you then flash the golden smile as a form of rubbing salt in the wound.
9 – David Kidwell
Clubs: Adelaide Rams, Parramatta Eels, Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm, South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Rep honours: 25 Tests for New Zealand
Before he became a decidedly average international rugby league coach, David Kidwell was a firebrand forward who made a habit of whacking blokes to the turf.
Driven by pure emotion, Kidwell loved nothing more than a huge tackle to ignite the crowd and his teammates. Many will remember the Kiwi back-rower for his huge shot on Willie Mason in the 2006 Tri-Nations series, which left Kidwell a national hero and Mason with a bad headache, impressive black eye and some time on the sideline. The aggressive back-rower had great technique with his shoulders and made it his personal mission to go after blokes.
A quality tackler who had little empathy for opposing runners.
8 – Sam Burgess
Club: South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Rep honours: 2 Tests for Great Britain, 21 Tests for England.
It takes a special kind of 18-year-old, on Test debut, to be able to launch himself at a rampaging Fuifui Moimoi and come out on top.
In the case of Sam Burgess, that spectacular 2007 shot on a man who at the time was among the world’s most-feared players, provided a realistic preview of what was to come in his own NRL career. The sheer mass Burgess carries onto a rugby league field means it’s always going to hurt when you run into him, but the 2014 Clive Churchill Medal winner also has aggression seeping out of almost every pore in his body.
A versatile marksman in defence, you know the big hit is coming with Sam, just just don’t know where or when he will strike.
7 – Tonie Carroll
Club: Brisbane Broncos.
Rep honours: 7 Tests for Australia, 5 Test for New Zealand, 18 Origins for Queensland
A lump of a lad with impeccable tackling technique, Carroll more often than not made you regret running the ball down his corridor of the field.
Carroll appeared to take it personally when people headed his way, and thrived off producing big hits in an era where they often served as motivation for teams. Bottom heavy as a player, ‘Tunza’ drove through the legs into the tackle, with often devastating consequences.
Also named by Rugby League Opinions as one of the best defenders of the NRL era recently, Carroll was a must on this list.
6 – Dylan Napa
Club: Sydney Roosters.
Rep honours: 3 Tests for Cook Islands, 3 Origins for Queensland
Crushing bones is basically a Napa family tradition, so it’s only right that Dylan has made it his mission to perfect the practice for both club and state.
The son of former abattoir slaughterman Stan – a talented league player himself who represented Auckland in 1977 when they beat Australia, Great Britain and France over the course of three weeks – at 1.94m and over 110kgs, Dylan is made for big shots. Napa tends to aim and make contact higher than most defenders, which while unorthodox and a step away from the coaching manual, means he can easily put someone on their backside when he gets power behind those hulking shoulders. A number of leading NRL forwards have felt his wrath already.
The fiery bloodnut constantly toes the line with his tackles, but is a joy to watch when he pulls off a screamer.
5 – Matt Rua
Club: Melbourne Storm.
Rep honours: 11 Tests for New Zealand
Once voted the most feared man in the game due to what he did to you off the ball, Matt Rua offered a throwback to a time when Kiwi forwards were brutal and had a thirst for inflicting pain.
Not a household name by any stretch, Rua ultimately fell short of his potential as a player, despite winning an NRL Premiership with Melbourne in 1999 and representing the Kiwis on 11 occasions. But the backrower could snap ball carriers in half with unmatched efficiency and unleash them over and over again in the space of an 80-minute game.
A host of the game’s finest defenders – including Nathan Hindmarsh – hold Rua in the highest regard for his defensive exploits and ability to pull off massive tackles.
4 – Wade Graham
Club: Penrith Panthers, Cronulla Sharks.
Rep honours: 6 Tests for Australia, 4 Origins for New South Wales
Forget about the obvious visual signs for a minute, because there is actual scientific proof that Wade Graham is among the biggest hitters to ever play the game.
Data obtained by the Daily Telegraph in 2017 showed that when Graham unleashes on an opposing player, he is generating more g-force than a race plane or Formula One car at full tilt. Originally a five-eighth, Graham has developed into one of the best edge forwards in the world and is a brutal tackler who regularly makes over 25 bone-crushing hits a game.
Back in 2017, a massive driving hit from Graham on Broncos forward Alex Glenn even drew Phil Gould – no stranger to the art of a big hit – to declare Graham had ‘lined him up from last week’.
3 – Steve Matai
Club: Manly Sea Eagles.
Rep honours: 10 Tests for New Zealand.
The guy who hit so hard, half the time he ended up injuring himself as well as the man carrying the ball.
As a centre, Matai’s impact via big hits was different to a forward’s, given he was often hammering the same guy over and over, gaining a significant psychological and physical advantage in the process. Matai’s tendency to shoot out of the line meant he was far from a textbook defender, and his missed tackle rate was regularly among the highest in his team. But when he launched the shoulder it was a thing of beauty. The Aucklander was a remorseless operator who didn’t mind hitting them late, or high, and at one stage possessed the NRL’s worst judiciary record after amassing a staggering 11 guilty convictions and missing 21 weeks over a six-year period.
Matai’s style eventually caught up with him, and the Kiwi was forced to retire in 2016 citing chronic neck pain.
2 – Sonny Bill Williams
Clubs: Canterbury Bulldogs, Sydney Roosters.
Rep honours: 12 Tests for New Zealand
There has never been a better exponent of the shoulder charge.
From the day he set foot in first-grade, ‘SBW’ made a name for himself off the back of his tackles, which would send the neck of the ball carrier flying violently backwards. Unlike some players who drive their body into and through the contact, Williams didn’t look like he was trying on most of his biggest hits, instead using pinpoint contact to generate maximum impact. While it wasn’t one of his best-looking tackles, Williams’ most important hit on a rugby league field came with a few minutes left on the clock while the Bulldogs were camped on their own line in the 2004 NRL Grand Final, knocking the ball free from the grasp of Anthony Minichiello and helping Canterbury hold on for a 16-13 win. His bellringer on Penrith prop Joel Clinton also remains one of the most recognisable tackles of the NRL era and has been viewed countless times online.
Since moving to union, Williams’ spectacular tackles have regularly got him in trouble with the judiciary.
1 – Nigel Plum
Clubs: Sydney Roosters, Canberra Raiders, Penrith Panthers.
Rep honours: Nil
His name might be Plum, but he hit like a peach and left his opponents bruised like one.
Versatile in the way in which he could smash a ball carrier, Plum had a great up and under technique that emptied lungs, but also the sheer power to hang out an arm and drop you high or low. Named the hardest hitter in the game by Big League Magazine in 2011, Plum appeared in 150 NRL games for three clubs. As it stands he has a catalogue of hits which make for incredible viewing, but there’s no telling how long his highlight reel of punishment would have been had he not worn distinctive white head gear, which note doubt became a sign for many players that it was time to change direction or hand the ball off.
Unfortunately, it was Plum’s love of heavy contact which contributed to his early retirement in 2015 due to repeat concussions.