The Best Five-Eighths in Australian Rugby League History
Some of rugby league’s greatest exponents have worn the No.6 jumper, including a pair of Immortals, another modern legend that may well join those ranks one day, and others who were – at one time or another – regarded as the best player in the game.
Three players from the 1930s are included in this list of the top 10 Australian five-eighths of all time, along with the code’s foremost backline star of the 1960s and ‘70s, three pivots who were among the 1980s’ dominant figures, two giants of the 1990s, and arguably the No.1 player of the 2000s. Five of the top six captained Australia – all of whom are regarded among the finest leaders rugby league has ever produced.
There was no room for revered Test five-eighths Brian ‘Poppa’ Clay, Frank Stanmore, Wally O’Connell, Johnny Gleeson, Arthur Summons and Cliff Lyons. Johnathan Thurston, who has played 10 Tests, 14 Origins and 94 NRL games in the No.6, was considered as a halfback for the purposes of this list.
10. Terry Lamb
A star for a Wests side in decline before becoming a Canterbury legend, Terry Lamb built his game on peerless support play (which netted 164 tries in a then-record 350 first grade games), deft playmaking ability and an unyielding tenacity in everything he did on the football field. Dally M Player of the Year in ’83 for Wests and the Rothmans Medallist in ’84 for Canterbury, Lamb won seven Dally M Five-eighth of the Year gongs – a record for any position. He won Grand finals with the Bulldogs in 1984 and ’88, before assuming the captaincy in the early-1990s and leading the club to an unlikely premiership in 1995 in the twilight of his career. The presence of Wally Lewis and Brett Kenny limited Lamb’s rep opportunities, but his utility value saw him come off the bench in all eight of his Test appearances and achieve the unique feat of playing every game on the 1986 Kangaroo Tour (scoring a team-high 19 tries), while he also played eight Origins for NSW.
9. Ernie Norman
Overshadowed historically by 1930s rival Vic Hey, Ernie Norman played 12 Test matches (nine at five-eighth and three at centre) – debuting as a 19-year-old – and toured with the 1937-38 Kangaroos as the only specialist pivot after missing the trip four years earlier with injury. Norman’s legacy is closely intertwined with Eastern Suburbs’ brilliant 1935-37 premiership-winning combination, the key link in one of the most devastating backlines of all time. The stocky Norman was regarded as one of the great defenders, tremendously courageous, a slick ball-handler and a clever running pivot.
8. Eric Weissel
One of the two greatest NSW Country players to never play in the Sydney premiership (along with Newcastle’s Wally Prigg), Riverina legend Eric Weissel was widely described as the complete five-eighth. Weissel played 18 seasons with Riverina clubs and dominated the famed Maher Cup competition. His international career consisted of eight Tests against England in three hard-fought Ashes series; he earned an incredible plaudit from revered England halfback and captain Jonty Parkin, who proclaimed Weissel was the best player he ever saw. A fine goalkicker, Weissel top-scored with 127 points on the 1929-30 Kangaroo Tour, while his brilliant long run on an injured ankle to set up a try for halfback Hec Gee during the 1932 series has passed into Ashes folklore. Cootamundra-born Weissel also captained Country Firsts to upset wins over City Firsts in 1928 and ’30.
7. Brett Kenny
Brett Kenny’s breathtaking natural ability carried him to the loftiest of Rugby league’s heights. The Parramatta champion was fast, elusive and possessed extraordinary anticipation and wonderful hands. His 110 tries in 265 games for the Eels included doubles in three consecutive Grand finals (1981-83), while he also starred in the club’s last premiership success in 1986. Regularly used as a centre at rep level, Kenny still played five of his 17 Tests and 12 of his 17 Origins at five-eighth. He unseated Wally Lewis for the Australian No.6 on the 1982 Kangaroo Tour before starring on another trip to Britain and France in ’86, while his record directly opposing Lewis for NSW was eight wins and four losses.
6. Laurie Daley
Canberra icon Laurie Daley combined game-breaking flashes of individual brilliance and an intense competitive streak to become one of the 1990s’ dominant players. Predominantly a centre early in his career and often used there at rep level to accommodate Brad Fittler at five-eighth, Daley wore the No.6 in 12 of 21 Test appearances, 14 of 23 Origins and 173 of 244 games for the Raiders. Daley starred in three Grand final wins for Canberra and became one of the great representative captains. Fiercely determined and a strong defender, Daley was blessed with exquisite hands, while his devastating running game and playmaking instincts saw him anointed as the heir apparent to Wally Lewis as the game’s dominant five-eighth early in his career.
5. Brad Fittler
Schoolboy prodigy Brad Fittler developed into one of the modern era’s great leaders and dominant match-winners, and although he was a devastating centre and valuable at lock, his vision and ball-playing class were best suited to five-eighth. ‘Freddy’, whose top-line career ran from 1989-2004, played 202 of his 336 first grade games, 15 of his NSW record 31 Origins and 16 of his 38 Tests in the No.6 jumper, while he was named Five-eighth of the Year three times among six Dally M positional awards. A legend at Penrith and the Sydney Roosters, Fittler was the complete package: a powerful ball-runner with a superb all-round kicking game and majestic passing ability, he possessed a devastating step off either foot that left countless defenders grasping at air.
4. Vic Hey
One of the most influential figures in Australian Rugby league history, Vic Hey’s status as the game’s best-ever five-eighth went unchallenged until the emergence of Bob Fulton and Wally Lewis several decades later. He toured with the 1933-34 Kangaroos as a 20-year-old after just one season of first grade with Western Suburbs, and returned to spearhead the previous season’s wooden spooners’ drive to a premiership triumph in 1934. Hey played the last of his six Tests from Toowoomba, before a stellar tenure at Leeds and a stint as Parramatta’s foundation captain-coach. Stocky and powerful, Hey was a punishing defender and a dazzling ball-runner, while he possessed tremendous hands – the hallmark of all the great five-eighths.
3. Darren Lockyer
The incumbent Test captain and already established as one of the great fullbacks at the end of 2003, Darren Lockyer switched to his junior position of five-eighth for the benefit of his club Brisbane – but duly became one of the finest No.6s in history over the last eight seasons of a glorious career. The appearance record holder for first grade games (355), Origins (36) and Tests (59), Lockyer played 166 games for Brisbane, 20 for Queensland and 34 for Australia at five-eighth. But his greatness transcends mere numbers, idolised for his calm leadership, coolheaded match-winning ability and all-round class and silky skills. Lockyer famously captained the Broncos, Maroons and Kangaroos to glory in an amazing 2006 campaign – earning his second Golden Boot – but went on to lead Queensland to a further four Origin series wins and become the highest try-scorer in Test history.
2. Bob Fulton
A reserve in Australia’s Team of the Century, Wollongong product Bob Fulton was named at five-eighth in the NSW and NSW Country Teams of the Century. He was a dazzling attacking force in the centres at club and rep level, but his playmaking class, magnificent skill and devastating footwork were best utilised at pivot. The ultimate professional, ‘Bozo’ played in five Grand finals for Manly, and was the linchpin of the club’s premiership successes in 1972-73 and ’76 – the latter as captain – before joining Easts. He scored 147 tries in 263 first grade games, but was even more potent for state and country, crossing 14 times in 17 games for NSW and notching 25 tries in 35 Tests. A No.6 in 17 of his Test outings, Fulton was one of the brightest young talents of the late-1960s and arguably the player of the 1970s, captaining the 1978 Kangaroos in the twilight of his playing career before going on to become one of the great coaches.
1. Wally Lewis
Wally Lewis dominated the 1980s and is regarded by many as the greatest player the game has seen, reflected by his selection as five-eighth in Australia’s Team of the Century. Tenacious, abrasive, an inspirational leader and a master ball-player, ‘The King’ was the ultimate competitor and regularly carried teams on his back at club and rep level. Lewis owned the first decade of State of Origin, playing 31 matches (30 as captain) and winning eight man-of-the-match awards in leading the Maroons to victory in seven of the first 10 three-match series; his legacy continues to loom large over the code’s showpiece event. He captained Australia in 24 of his 34 Tests, encompassing the unbeaten 1986 Kangaroo Tour and World Cup success in ’88. Also a ’Roo tourist in ’82, Lewis was controversially prevented from leading the squad in 1990 by injury. Lewis’ NSWRL club career with Brisbane and Gold Coast provided more setbacks than highlights, but he won BRL premierships with Valleys in 1978 and Wynnum Manly in 1984 and ’86 – the latter as captain-coach. Boasting peerless vision and control, brilliant kicking and passing attributes, ferocious defence and the ability to bust a tackle, Wally Lewis was the complete No.6.