The Best Utility Players in Australian Premiership History
The ‘utility’ tag has historically entailed ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ connotations – a solid player capable of occupying several positions, but none of them to an elite standard. But versatility has become an invaluable commodity in the modern era, and rugby league’s utility players have become a vital cog in many a grand final-winning squad or representative line-up.
Consequently, this list of the greatest utility players in premiership history is dominated by players from the NRL era – although a pre-war legend and one of the most tenacious competitors of the 1980s and ’90s are included in the top three.
Rather than naming rugby league’s best exponents that were capable of slotting into two or three positions, this top 10 rewards degree of versatility and the ability to not only fill in, but excel in the widest range of positions.
10 – Chris Flannery
Sunshine Coast product Chris Flannery played every position bar prop and hooker – most to a high standard – during seven seasons with the Sydney Roosters. Best suited to the backrow, Flannery featured predominantly at wing and fullback in 2001 before playing an outstanding ‘Mr Fix-it’ role during the Tricolours’ ’02 premiership season. Rarely featuring in the same position – or even in the pack or backline – two weeks in a row, Flannery played two finals matches in the No.1 before scoring a try off the bench in the grand final defeat of the Warriors. Used more as a backrower in subsequent campaigns, Flannery was an interchange again in the club’s 2003-04 grand final losses, while he regularly slotted in at five-eighth and centre. In 10 Origin appearances for Queensland, he came off the bench six times, started at lock three times and stood in at five-eighth for injured skipper Darren Lockyer in one match.
9 – Lance Hohaia
The ‘Huntly Hurricane’ was a 19-year-old rookie sensation for the Warriors at five-eighth in 2002, eventually coming off the bench in that season’s grand final before making his New Zealand Test debut in the No.6 at the end of the year. He played in the halves and at centre in subsequent seasons at club level, before a stint at hooker in 2005 that saw him earn a Test recall as a dummy-half after a three-year absence. Hohaia was outstanding after being pitched into the Warriors’ fullback role in 2008 when Wade McKinnon was struck down by injury, and eventually made the last 16 of his 26 Test appearances in that position – including the ’08 World Cup and ’10 Four Nations final triumphs over Australia. Regularly returning to centre or five-eighth when McKinnon was intermittently available, Hohaia fulfilled a valuable bench utility role during 2011 after Kevin Locke emerged, and started at hooker throughout the finals series, including the grand final loss to Manly – his last game for the club.
8 – John Plath
John Plath’s bench specialist role for Brisbane throughout the 1990s was a forerunner to likes of Berrigan, Wing and Gidley becoming such important members of representative sides in the 2000s. With no way past Allan Langer for a regular first grade spot, the halfback forged a permanent interchange spot and ultimately started 99 of his 149 games for the Broncos – including four grand final victories – on the bench. A niggly, tenacious competitor, Plath was the solution for any in-game contingency, while he made starts at halfback, five-eighth, centre, hooker and lock.
7 – Jason Croker
Canberra’s longest-serving player with 318 appearances, Jason Croker was also one of the club’s most valuable and versatile. He emerged as a teenaged winger in 1991, but he earned his NSW spurs two years later on the back of outstanding form at lock. Croker filled in extensively at five-eighth for the injured Laurie Daley during the Raiders’ ’94 premiership season, before featuring in the second-row in the grand final. The prolific try-scorer replaced retired great Mal Meninga at centre the following season but eventually returned to the backrow and gained selection in Australia’s 2000 World Cup squad after winning Dally M Lock of the Year honours. Croker played five matches at the tournament – four off the bench and one as a winger. The veteran spent the latter seasons of his career interchanging between lock, second-row, five-eighth and centre for the Raiders.
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6 – Luke Lewis
A potent try-scoring three-quarter who later became one of the NRL’s best backrowers via a stint in the halves, Luke Lewis’ utility journey ranks as one of Rugby league’s most remarkable. Lewis scored 18 tries as a robust, swift centre/winger in Penrith’s 2003 premiership triumph, winning Kangaroo Tour selection that year (although he controversially did not play any Tests) and making appearances at wing and centre for NSW in his debut Origin series in ’04. He fell off the rep radar in subsequent seasons, but his impressive efforts at halfback in 2008, and five-eighth and lock early in ’09 piqued the interest of Blues selectors again. Lewis also made his Test debut that season and was a Kangaroos and NSW regular in the second-row or on the bench for the ensuing six years, making 16 Test and 17 Origin appearances to the end of 2015. Dally M and RLIF Lock of the Year in 2010, Lewis maintained his reputation as one of the game’s top backrowers after joining Cronulla in 2013, while he remained an excellent backline option when required. In a 2011 Four Nations Test against England, Lewis started in the second-row but switched to the wing after an injury-enforced reshuffle and scored a try.
5 – Kurt Gidley
Simultaneously regarded as one of the NRL’s best fullbacks and halfbacks in the late-2000s, Newcastle stalwart Kurt Gidley became an interchange staple for NSW and Australia. Gidley filled in at fullback and centre early in his career, before becoming Andrew Johns’ halves partner – or a No.7 replacement during ‘Joey’s’ regular injury breaks – and then settling at fullback in 2007 after Jarrod Mullen emerged. He made his Origin and Test debuts as an interchange in ’07, used as injury cover and a dynamic dummy-half option; Gidley came off the bench in 11 of 12 appearances for Australia and seven of his 12 matches for the Blues. Gidley created history during the 2010 Origin series by becoming the first player to captain a side starting on the bench after being displaced from the fullback spot by Jarryd Hayne. A long-serving skipper for the Knights before a string of injury-interrupted seasons, Gidley switched regularly between fullback, halfback and hooker as the club’s injury- and form-related needs dictated, eventually departing for Super League at the end of 2015.
4 – Craig Wing
Craig Wing emerged as a teenage attacking livewire at Souths in the late-1990s, starring at five-eighth, halfback, lock, fullback and centre in two seasons before the Rabbitohs’ expulsion from the NRL. He joined the Sydney Roosters in 2000 and was a fullback, half or bench specialist for the next two seasons, before featuring in the No.7 in the Tricolours’ 2002 premiership triumph. Wing’s move to hooker – his best-known position – in 2003 was a rousing success, turning him into an automatic interchange selection in the NSW and Australian line-ups. He played 10 of his 16 Tests (2002-05) off the bench, while he made starts at five-eighth and hooker, and played all three Ashes Tests in ’03 at centre for the injury-hit Kangaroos. Wing came off the bench in all 12 of his Origin appearances (2003-06 and ’09). Returning to Souths in 2008, Wing played predominantly at five-eighth and lock before switching to Japanese rugby union.
3 – Des Hasler
After debuting for Penrith, Des Hasler became a tenacious halfback at Manly, breaking into the NSW and Australia sides in the No.7 in 1985. But his remarkable utility value saw him start nine of his 12 Tests and six of his 12 Origins on the bench. Hasler was Manly’s 1987 grand final-winning halfback, but moved to lock – while also filling in regularly at centre – to accommodate the rise of Geoff Toovey (he also played one game at fullback in ’88). He was named Dally M Lock of the Year in 1991, before returning to the halves for most of ’93. Following a year in England, the super-fit veteran returned to the Sea Eagles reinvented as a hooker and played two grand finals, including the ’96 victory over St George. Hasler finished his career with one season at Wests, flitting between lock, hooker, halfback and the bench. Fittingly, his biography was entitled The Utility Player.
2 – Shaun Berrigan
Brisbane stalwart Shaun Berrigan began his NRL career as a versatile centre/five-eighth, coming off the bench in the club’s 2000 grand final victory. As a five-eighth in 2002, he formed a halves partnership with Allan Langer in the Broncos and Queensland line-ups, before assuming the No.7 jumper in both sides the following season after Langer retired. Berrigan made his Test debut off the bench in 2004 but was transformed into a centre at club level and featured in that position throughout Australia’s Four Nations campaign. He scored 19 tries for Brisbane and represented the Maroons as a centre in 2005, but his switch to hooker late in ’06 was crucial to the Broncos’ premiership triumph, winning the Clive Churchill Medal wearing the No.9 in the grand final. Berrigan became the first-choice bench utility for Queensland and Australia, ultimately playing six of his 14 Tests and six of his 15 Origins as an interchange. After three seasons with Hull, Berrigan featured at centre, hooker, halfback and off the bench for the Warriors and Canberra.
1 – Jimmy Craig
One of the greatest of all pre-World War II players, Jimmy Craig was aptly dubbed ‘Mr Versatile’. In seven Test appearances from 1921-28, he made starts at centre, halfback and fullback, while in 20 interstate matches – 18 for Queensland and two for NSW – he featured at halfback, five-eighth, centre and fullback. In a brilliant 16-season club career at Balmain, University, Ipswich and Western Suburbs, Craig often played wing and lock, and even played at hooker for Wests in the days when packing down in the front-row was reserved solely for the fearless. A true Rugby league legend, Craig retired after captain-coaching Wests to their maiden premiership, playing halfback in the 1930 grand final.