The Greatest Rugby League Players of All Time: Wally Lewis

When people talk about the best rugby league players of all time, the name Wally Lewis frequently tops the list. Lewis has been bestowed every honour a rugby league player could receive and it’s not hard to see why. ‘The King’ was the complete package – strong, skillful, tough, competitive and shrewd.

Having spent the majority of his club career playing in the slightly less-prestigious Brisbane Rugby League (where he made five grand final appearances and won three titles), Lewis is best remembered for his remarkable exploits at representative level. Brash and fiercely competitive, yet composed and patient, Lewis became a Queensland hero by tormenting the New South Wales side relentlessly throughout the 1980s. The brilliant five-eighth held dominion over the State of Origin arena like no-one else, captaining the maroons on 30 occasions and taking out man-of-the-match honours a record eight times, leading to his knighting as ‘The Emperor of Lang Park’.

At international level, Lewis was also revered, captaining the Australian Rugby League Team from 1984 to 1989 and leading the 1986 Kangaroos – arguably, one of the finest rugby league teams ever assembled – through a flawless (20 wins from 20 matches) 8-week tour of Great Britain and France.

Like many of the greatest players, Lewis was not just supremely talented; he was an innovator, who revolutionised his position. While his rivals and predecessors tended to be lighter and more agile, Lewis brought a powerful running game and brutal defence to the pivot role, changing the conception of the five-eighth forever. But, perhaps more significantly, beyond his physical presence lay an incredible arsenal of silky attacking weapons. Lewis was a pioneer, renown for his long, radar-like, spiralling passes – the likes of which rugby league had never seen – and an astute kicking game, the equal of any halfback. These skills, combined with his extraordinary vision, allowed him to expertly disassemble defensive lines in completely new ways – and left every child in Queensland wanting to play rugby league like ‘King Wally’.

Wally Lewis’s Awards & Achievements:

  • Five-eighth in Australian Rugby League’s Team of the Century
  • Five-eighth in Queensland Rugby League’s Team of the Century
  • Inaugural Golden Boot Winner, 1984
  • A record 8 State of Origin Man-of-the-Match Awards
  • Inducted into Australian Rugby League’s Hall of Fame
  • Inducted as the Sixth Rugby League ‘Immortal’
  • Harry Sunderland Medallist, 1988
  • Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year, 1988

Is Wally Lewis Australian Rugby League’s Greatest Five-Eighth?

Wally Lewis’s Greatest Moments

State of Origin 1989 – Game II: Wally Lewis Steers Injury-Ravaged Queensland to Victory

State of Origin is one of sport’s most arduous battlegrounds at the best of times. In game two of the 1989 series, Queensland lost their halfback Allan Langer to a broken leg, centre Mal Meninga to a cracked eye socket, and second rower Paul Vautin to a serious elbow injury, all inside the first forty minutes of play. The carnage only worsened after the break when winger Michael Hancock damaged his shoulder and Bob Lindner, who had bravely battled on with a fractured ankle, eventually succumbed to injury. It was the worst injury crisis in State of Origin history, but man-of-the-match Wally Lewis maintained his composure, steered the Maroons around the park, and devastated New South Wales with a stunning individual try to secure a memorable series victory for Queensland.

State of Origin 1991 – Game II: Wally Lewis takes on Mark Geyer

Given Lewis’s break-taking abilities as a rugby league player, it might seem strange to highlight a moment where no actual football was played. However, Lewis’s bravery in confronting New South Wales enforcer Mark Geyer – the most aggressive and  fearsome forward of the generation – perfectly encapsulated his attitude and aura. Geyer had spent the opening half of the 1991 Origin match unleashing a series of cheap shots against the Maroons, culminating in an ugly hit on hooker Steve Walters just before half-time. Lewis, giving away a foot in height, showed no fear in confronting and challenging the towering Geyer, who – normally impossible to keep out of a fight – appeared stunned and backed down from the prospective clash.

Quotes About Wally Lewis

“Lewis has to be [the greatest rugby league player I’ve called] because he’s the only bloke who dominated the game at the highest level, in State of Origin, over a long period.”

Ray Warren
Australian Sports Broadcaster & Rugby League Commentator

“Certainly he’s the best I’ve ever seen in the rugby codes, and my memory goes back to Raper and Gasnier (Rugby League Immortals, John Raper and Reg Gasnier), Catchpole and Hawthorne.”

Peter Meares
Australian Sports Journalist

“Lewis is the greatest player at representative level I’ve seen – and I’ve seen some great players; I was there when Gas and Chook (Rugby League Immortals, John Raper and Reg Gasnier) were at the end of their careers.”

Arthur Beetson
Queensland Rugby League Legend and Rugby League Immortal

“[There have been many] great players, but I haven’t seen anyone step past or ahead of Wally Lewis.”

Steve Mortimer
New South Wales State of Origin Legend

“I rate him as the best footballer I ever laid eyes on.”

Bill Harrigan
Former NRL Referee

“Wally is the greatest footballer I’ve seen, and all those great players knew that Wally was the greatest.”

George Lovejoy
Queensland Rugby League Announcer

“I still think Wally is the greatest I’ve ever seen and then below him I’d put JT [Johnathan Thurston] and Cameron Smith together.”

Andrew Johns
Rugby League Immortal

“It’s very hard to judge players from different eras, but, even taking that into account, Wally is the best Origin player there’s ever been.”

Paul Vautin
Queensland Rugby League Legend

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    • John Stewart on Facebook

      Yeah but i disagree with a couple firstly brasher at fullback !! Really ? Mullins was twice the fullback and langer for me wasn’t as good as stuart, close but Stuart’s all round kicking game has him edging Langer in my opinion.

    • Rugby League Opinions on Facebook

      John Stewart Yeah, it’s always difficult with those selections. Mullins was unstoppable for a couple of years in the middle of the decade, but Brasher was there in most of the big rep matches. Langer vs Stuart is a flip of the coin, but again, Langer probably walked away with the slightly better resume at the end of the 90s.

      Both could’ve easily gone the other way!

    • Peter Clune

      You cant rate any of the 89_94 raiders team unless u watch them in action without stuart. Hopeless is one word . they couldnt win without stuart .ie. 92-93 teams once stuart was out. Especially mullins and clyde. With stuart those stars were untouchable. Another case in point is when langer was matched to daley in the first test of every test series. They were all impotent. Stuart came into the team and they won.
      In saying this . lewis was the man to step up no matter what happened to his team around him. . my only regret was a grand final raiders versus broncos never happened.

  1. Mark Melville on Facebook

    Very hard to pick the top 5 …. langer , Clyde johns , lazo , cam smith prob be mine at a guess …. each position plays such a different role its hard to compare .

    Mullins prob the best individual player I have seen , slater prob not far behind

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