Australian Rugby League’s Best Wingers
Beginning extensively during the 1980s, the trend of representative selectors choosing the next-best centres or fullbacks on the wings for Australia and at Origin level has restricted the opportunities of rugby league’s genuine wingers to attain greatness in the position.
Meanwhile, many of the most skilful and dynamic wingers in the NRL have been moulded into top-line fullbacks – including the likes of Anthony Minichiello, Jarryd Hayne, Darius Boyd, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Brett Morris. Outstanding young wing talents Valentine Holmes and Alex Johnston appear headed down a similar path.
Consequently, this list of the top 10 wingers in Australian rugby league history is dominated by players of bygone eras, with Wendell Sailor the only inclusion to have featured in the NRL and Eric Grothe and Kerry Boustead the only others to feature during the limited-tackle era.
All-time greats that featured extensively on the wing at rep level but played most of their club career in other positions – including Brian Carlson, Michael O’Connor, Dale Shearer and Andrew Ettingshausen – were not considered.
10 – Kerry Boustead
Diminutive, elusive and speedy winger Kerry Boustead burst into the consciousness of the Rugby League public as an 18-year-old in 1978 and was regarded as arguably the best in his position for the next seven seasons. The Innisfail flyer starred on debut for Queensland and Australia in ’78 before playing all five Tests on the Kangaroo Tour at the end of the year. He moved to Sydney the following season, playing in losing Grand Finals for Easts (’80) and Manly (’83). Boustead finished with 15 tries in 25 Tests and was a key member of the ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour side in ’82, while he scored five tries in six matches as an early Queensland Origin star. Injuries plagued his career at Manly and later Norths, but he retired in 1990 with 70 tries in 178 first grade games.
9 – Johnny King
A prolific try-scorer and dazzling winger in general play, Johnny King played in the last seven of St George’s record run of 11 straight Grand final victories. He set a record unlikely to be repeated by scoring tries in six consecutive deciders, while he finished a glittering career with a club record 143 tries in 191 appearances. The competition’s top try-scorer in 1961 and ’65, King waited until 1966 to make his debut for Australia, but eventually racked up eight tries in 15 Tests and starred on the 1967-68 Kangaroo Tour. The popular King achieved double-figure try tallies in nine of his 12 first grade seasons, and was named as one Australia’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008.
8 – Wendell Sailor
The brash and flamboyant Wendell Sailor revolutionised the role of the winger – the first of the genuine ‘extra forward’ styler flankers that have become integral to modern rugby league, coupling outstanding finishing ability with an exceptionally high work-rate. Debuting for Brisbane in 1993, the Sarina-born flyer toured with the Kangaroos the following season and was regarded as the game’s top winger from 1995 until his rugby union switch at the end of 2001. ‘The Dell’ was tall, powerful at around the 100-kilo mark and legitimately fast, using those attributes to tally 110 tries in 189 games for the Broncos – including 18 in a season three times. The three-time premiership winner was a big-game player and an automatic representative selection for the bulk of his career, scoring 17 tries in 16 Tests for Australia and turning out in 14 Origins for Queensland. Following a 37-Test tenure for the Wallabies that ended in controversy, Sailor enjoyed a admirable post-script to his career via one and a half seasons under former Broncos coach Wayne Bennett at St George Illawarra, posting 17 tries in 33 games, finally retiring aged 35.
Read More: Wendell Sailor was named in our Team of the 1990s.
7 – Eddie Lumsden
St George powerhouse Eddie Lumsden played in nine Grand final victories during the club’s unprecedented reign, second only to Norm Provan. The ex-Manly winger’s stunning tally of 136 tries in 158 games for the Saints featured a record eight Grand final tries, including a hat-trick against the Sea Eagles in 1959. One of the most fearsome presences on the flank in premiership history, the giant flyer topped the competition’s try-scoring table in 1958 and ’62. He played 15 Tests for Australia and toured with the 1959-60 Kangaroos, while he crossed for 14 tries in 16 interstate appearances for NSW. The Kurri Kurri product was named in the Newcastle district and NSW Country Teams of the Century.
6 – Cec Blinkhorn
Overshadowed by club-mate Harold Horder during his career, Cec Blinkhorn was a brilliant winger in his own right, crossing for 86 tries in 108 games for North Sydney and South Sydney. He was a star of Norths’ 1921-22 premiership successes – scoring a then-club record 20 tries in the latter season – and enjoyed a brief but sparkling period in the representative spotlight. Blinkhorn scored a Kangaroo Tour record 39 tries in 29 games on the 1921-22 voyage, before playing the last of his four Tests for Australia against the touring England side in 1924. He also finished a stellar first grade career in ’24 with Souths, retiring after the club’s final loss to Balmain. Kept out of the North Sydney Team of the Century by Horder and Ken Irvine, Blinkhorn assuredly ranks in the top echelon of the club’s best-ever players.
Read More: Cec Blinkhorn flanked one of the greatest rugby league backlines of all time.
5 – Eric Grothe
An unstoppable force on the Parramatta flank, Eric Grothe combined size, raw power and explosive speed to become arguably the finest winger since Ken Irvine – and probably the most terrifying of all time to oppose. Grothe was a key member of the Eels’ four premiership-winning sides of the 1980s – scoring blockbusting tries in the 1982-83 Grand finals – and finished with 78 tries for the club in 152 games, although those figures would have been much higher but for a succession of knee injuries later in his career. He scored in each of his eight Test appearances (racking up a total of 10 Test tries) and was at his devastating best on the 1982 Kangaroo Tour, scoring 21 tries in 14 games and leaving British audiences gobsmacked. Grothe also represented NSW in nine Origins, scoring twice on debut. A unique player, Grothe’s opposition-scattering charges were a glowing feature of the defence-oriented early-1980s.
4 – Benny Wearing
Souths legend Benny Wearing’s constant snubbing by the Test selectors is one of the game’s great mysteries, but there is no doubt he was the greatest winger – and one of the best players – of the late-1920 and early-1930s. The ‘people’s champion’ scored a club record 144 tries in 172 games, and featured in seven premiership triumphs (1925-29 and 1931-32) with the Rabbitohs. He crossed for 10 tries in 13 interstate games for NSW, while he scored two tries in his only Test – a dead-rubber victory to give Australia its only win of the 1928 Ashes series – as he inexplicably overlooked for future international duty.
3 – Brian Bevan
Brian Bevan played only seven games for Eastern Suburbs, but became one of the most legendary figures in Rugby League history during two decades in English club football. Spindly, balding and frail-looking, Bevan’s looks were certainly deceptive as he carved out a legacy as the most prolific try-scorer the game has ever seen after joining Warrington in 1946. His speed, elusiveness, skill and cunning netted an astounding 834 tries at club and representative level, while he won two Challenge Cups and savoured two Championship triumphs with the Wire before finishing his career at Blackpool Borough. Bevan crossed 26 times in 16 appearances for Other Nationalities. ‘The Galloping Ghost’ was named in Australia’s Team of the Century in 2008 – the only player selected who did not represent Australia at Test level.
2 – Ken Irvine
Ken Irvine’s premiership record of 212 tries in 236 games for Norths and Manly, along with astonishing representative returns of 33 tries in 33 Tests and 29 tries in 25 games for NSW, mark the blisteringly quick winger as the most prolific accumulator of tries in Australian Rugby League history. North Sydney’s greatest-ever player, Irvine topped the competition’s tryscoring in 1959, ’65 and ’69-70 despite the Bears’ perennial also-ran status. He joined Manly as a 31-year-old and won Grand finals with the club in 1972-73, the final two seasons of one of the code’s most decorated careers. Irvine, a brilliantly balanced ball-runner who also dabbled with goalkicking, starred on three Kangaroo Tours, while he only scored less than 13 tries in a season once from 1959-73 – in an injury-wrecked ’68 campaign. Exceedingly popular on and off the field, ‘Mongo’ was named as a winger in Australia’s Team of the Century in 2008.
1 – Harold Horder
The ‘Wonder Winger’ of Australian Rugby League’s early years, Harold Horder’s strike-rate of 152 tries in just 136 first grade games from 1912-24 dwarfs all of the game’s great try-poachers. Horder succeeded Dally Messenger as the code’s premier superstar, featuring in two title triumphs each for Souths (1914 and ’18) and Norths (1921-22), including in 1921 as captain with the latter. World War I restricted his representative career, but he managed 11 tries in 13 Tests and an unbelievable 23 tries in just nine games for NSW, while he scored 35 tries in 25 games on the 1921-22 Kangaroo Tour. Lightning quick with mesmerising footwork and a deceptive swerve, Horder set an unattainable benchmark for wingers of future generations to follow. He was controversially overlooked to partner Ken Irvine in the Australia and NSW Teams of the Century in favour of Brian Bevan and Messenger respectively.