Greatest rugby league backlines

Australian Rugby League’s Greatest Backlines

Watching a truly great backline is one of the great joys of rugby league. There have been many incredible backlines throughout the game’s history, but arguably none better than these combinations.

10. Manly Sea-Eagles Backline (2011)

Fullback: Brett Stewart
Winger: Michael Robertson
Centre: Jamie Lyon
Centre: Steve Matai
Winger: Will Hopoate
Five-eighth: Kieran Foran
Halfback: Daly Cherry-Evans

In a toss-up with Manly’s crack 2013 backline combination, the Sea Eagles’ 2011 version got the nod for a spot in the top 10 due to the comparative strengths of wingers Michael Robertson and Will Hopoate compared to erratic ’13 duo David Williams and Jorge Taufua – the only backline changes between the club’s two grand final sides. The back-three of Robertson, the 19-year-old Hopoate (who made a sensational debut for NSW) and electric fullback Brett Stewart scored 40 tries between them as Manly surged to the 2011 title, while Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai affirmed their status as the best centre pairing in the NRL. Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was named Dally M Rookie of the Year and earned a Four Nations call-up for Australia, while equally brilliant five-eighth Kieran Foran – who finished eighth in the Dally M Medal count – cemented his place in the New Zealand Test side.

9. Melbourne Storm Backline (2007)

Fullback: Billy Slater
Winger: Anthony Quinn
Centre: Israel Folau
Centre: Matt King
Winger: Steve Turner
Five-eighth: Greg Inglis
Halfback: Cooper Cronk

The best backline assembled by superpowers Melbourne was arguably the combination that provided the strike-power in the Storm’s 2007 premiership charge. The Storm’s first-choice backline scored 93 tries, led by Dally M Rookie of the Year Israel Folau with 21, just one ahead of centre Matt King. Greg Inglis was controversially shifted to five-eighth by coach Craig Bellamy, but justified the move with a two-try, Clive Churchill Medal-winning performance in the grand final thrashing of Manly. Inglis was joined in the Kangaroos side at the end of the year by Test debutants Folau and Cronk, while Billy Slater belatedly earned his first Test guernsey the following season and wingers Steve Turner and Anthony Quinn broke into the NSW team in ’08.

Read our fantasy match up between Melbourne Storm’s 2007 side and the Wigan Warriors of 1991

8. Canberra Raiders Backline (1994)

Fullback: Brett Mullins
Winger: Ken Nagas
Centre: Mal Meninga
Centre: Ruben Wiki
Winger: Noa Nadruku
Five-eighth: Laurie Daley
Halfback: Ricky Stuart

Renowned for their unstoppable attacking arsenal as they surged to premierships in 1989-90, the Raiders’ 1994 backline was on another plane. Brett Mullins exploded, becoming the game’s hottest property with 22 tries – an all-time record for a fullback – before taking ownership of the Test No.1 jumper. Ken Nagas debut for NSW, scored 11 tries in 18 games, and was desperately unlucky not to play for Australia, while Fijian sensation Noa Nadruku scored 12 tries in just 15 games. Captain Mal Meninga, at the age of 34, was still a formidable presence in the centres, scoring 13 tries and creating many more; he was partnered by tyro Ruben Wiki, who scored 15 tries and debuted for New Zealand. Laurie Daley (one of rugby league’s greatest five-eighths) missed 11 games through injury and rep duty, but captained the Blues to a series triumph and was vital to the Raiders’ success, while Ricky Stuart was at his puppet-master peak – the halfback was arguably 1994’s dominant player. The backline was responsible for five of Canberra’s tries in the 36-12 grand final defeat of Canterbury, before Meninga, Daley, Stuart and Mullins combined to help Australia win the Ashes in Britain on the ’94 Kangaroo Tour.

Two Players from the 1994 Raiders’ backline featured in our Team of the 1990s

7. Manly Sea-Eagles Backline (1996)

Fullback: Matthew Ridge
Winger: John Hopoate
Centre: Craig Innes
Centre: Terry Hill
Winger: Danny Moore
Five-eighth: Cliff Lyons
Halfback: Geoff Toovey

The Sea Eagles’ 1996 premiership-winning backline provided a marvellous blend of brilliance and toughness; experience and youthful exuberance. Former All Black Craig Innes emerged as arguably the best centre in the game after joining the club, starring alongside Australian Test centre Terry Hill. Tempestuous winger John Hopoate was at the peak of his considerable powers, while ’95 World Cup teammate Danny Moore scored a career-high 13 tries. Courageous halfback and skipper Geoff Toovey – Manly’s Clive Churchill medallist – was the perfect foil for master ball-playing five-eighth Cliff Lyons, who started the grand final off the bench, with lock Nik Kosef the run-on pivot. But fullback Matthew Ridge was viewed by many as the Sea Eagles’ key player; a Super League signing, Ridge sat out the early rounds of the season ahead of a proposed move to Auckland, but eventually returned to the northern beaches and played a starring role in Manly’s emphatic title triumph.

6. Balmain Tigers Backline (1915)

Fullback: Lyall Wall
Winger: Jimmy Craig
Centre: Charles Fraser
Centre: Bill Kelly
Winger: Jack Robinson
Five-eighth: Albert Johnston
Halfback: Arthur Halloway

Balmain won five premierships in six seasons from 1915 to 1920, and was armed with one of the great backlines as the ‘Watersiders’ secured the club’s maiden title. Jimmy Craig and Charles ‘Chook’ Fraser played at wing and centre respectively, but are renowned as two of most versatile players ever to lace a boot – as well as being among the brightest superstars of Australian rugby league’s formative seasons. Captain-coach Bill Kelly, a New Zealand and Australian Test representative, partnered Fraser in the centres, while Jack ‘Junker’ Robinson top-scored with 10 tries in 14 games on the other flank. Five-eighth Albert ‘Ricketty’ Johnston debuted for Australia with Robinson following the post-World War I embargo on Test football. One of the best fullbacks of the 1910s, Lyall Wall later played for NSW. In the No.7 jumper was the revered Arthur ‘Pony’ Halloway, a Test veteran and one of the great pioneering players. The 1915 ‘Watersiders’ were the first team to go through a season unbeaten, winning 12 and drawing two of their 14 games.

5. Parramatta Eels Backline (1983)

Fullback: Paul Taylor / David Liddiard
Winger: Neil Hunt
Centre: Michael Cronin
Centre: Steve Ella
Winger: Eric Grothe
Five-eighth: Brett Kenny
Halfback: Peter Sterling

Two-time premiers Parramatta chalked up another remarkable achievement in 1983 when the club had six players chosen in the NSW backline for the second Origin clash. Easts fullback Marty Gurr was the only non-Eel in the Blues’ backs contingent. Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Eric Grothe and Michael Cronin are regarded amongst the best-ever players in their respective positions, while Steve Ella – who combined with that illustrious foursome in Parramatta’s four grand final triumphs – was recognised as one of the 1980s’ finest talents. All five starred on the previous year’s ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour. Winger Neil Hunt scored a career-high 20 tries in ’83, but missed the grand final win over Manly through injury; he was replaced by Dally M Rookie of the Year David Liddiard, who also spent much of the season at fullback deputising for injured regular No.1, the versatile Paul Taylor. Kenny (who finished second in the competition with 21), Hunt, Ella, Grothe and Liddiard racked up 82 tries between them as the Eels became the most recent side to win a hat-trick of premierships.

Read our fantasy match up between the Parramatta Eels of 1982 and the 1975 Eastern Suburbs Roosters

4. North Sydney Bears Backline (1921-22)

Fullback: Ted Taplin / Norm Proctor
Winger: Harold Horder
Centre: Frank Rule
Centre: Herman Peters
Winger: Cec Blinkhorn
Five-eighth: Dallas Hodgins
Halfback: Duncan Thompson

Few line-ups in premiership history are as fabled as the 1921-22 North Sydney side – the long-suffering club’s only premiership-winning outfit. Duncan Thompson, widely regarded as Australia’s greatest pre-war halfback, was the linchpin of a backline containing extraordinary talent, headlined by wing pairing Harold Horder and Cec Blinkhorn (two of the greatest wingers of all time), and centre duo Herman Peters and Frank Rule. Thompson, Horder, Blinkhorn and Peters toured Britain with the Kangaroos after helping Norths to their maiden title in the shortened 1921 season, while Rule declined to tour for personal reasons. In 17 games in 1922, Blinkhorn scored a club record 20 tries, while the revered Horder notched 17 and Peters crossed 10 times. The three-quarter line scored all of Norths’ points in the 35-3 defeat of Glebe in the premiership decider: Rule, Blinkhorn and Horder each scored two tries, Peters bagged one, and Horder kicked seven goals.

3. Brisbane Broncos Backline (1998)

Fullback: Darren Lockyer
Winger: Wendell Sailor
Centre: Steve Renouf
Centre: Darren Smith
Winger: Michael Hancock
Five-eighth: Kevin Walters
Halfback: Allan Langer

The 1998 Broncos backline shades the combination that won back-to-back grand finals in 1992-93, which featured Julian O’Neill at fullback, Chris Johns in the centres alongside Renouf, and Willie Carne on the wing partnering Hancock. Darren Lockyer signalled his ascent to greatness with 19 tries and 272 points in the No.1 jumper; Darren Smith led the NRL with 23 tries and Renouf was equal-third with 20; Wendell Sailor crossed for a career-high 18 touchdowns; veteran Hancock posted 10 tries; Kevin Walters enjoyed arguably his best-ever season at club and rep level; and Allan Langer became the first player in history to captain sides to premiership, Origin series and Test series success in the same season. Brisbane’s red-hot backline scored 104 tries between them (Walters was the only player not to rack up a double-figure tally), while Lockyer, Sailor, Smith, Renouf, Walters and Langer teamed up for Australia against New Zealand at the end of the season.

Three Players from the 1998 Broncos’ backline featured in our Team of the 1990s

2. Eastern Suburbs Roosters Backline (1935)

Fullback: Jack Beaton
Winger: Rod O’Loan
Centre: Dave Brown
Centre: Ross McKinnon
Winger: Fred Tottey
Five-eighth: Ernie Norman
Halfback: Viv Thicknesse

Easts won the first of three straight premierships in 1935, largely thanks to their phenomenal backline – headlined by legendary centre and captain Dave Brown. Dubbed the ‘Bradman of League’, Brown scored a then-premiership record 244 points in just 15 games, while he posted 38 tries for the year (including two six-try hauls) and 45 points in a match against Canterbury, extraordinary marks that have not been neared in almost 80 years since. But Brown enjoyed outstanding support, with centre partner Ross McKinnon joining him in the Australian Test side that year. Also wearing the green-and-gold against New Zealand were Tricolours halves Ernie Norman and Viv Thicknesse. Brilliant young fullback Jack Beaton – equally talented at centre – went on to play 10 Tests. Wing duo Rod O’Loan (27 tries, including seven in a match against University) and Fred Tottey (19 tries) benefitted handsomely from the incredible array of talent assembled inside them. The seven players scored 107 tries between them in 1935. Brown, Beaton, Norman and Thicknesse were named in the ARL’s 100 Greatest Players in 2008.

Read More: All-Time Greatest Sydney Roosters Team

1. St George Dragons Backline (1964)

Fullback: Graeme Langlands
Winger: Johnny King
Centre: Reg Gasnier
Centre: Billy Smith
Winger: Eddie Lumsden
Five-eighth: Brian Clay
Halfback: George Evans

Any of St George’s grand final backlines during the club’s unprecedented 11-season reign from 1956-66 would have been worthy of inclusion in this list, but none were as stacked with all-time greats as the one that helped the Dragons to an 11-6 defeat of Balmain in the 1964 decider. Future Rugby League Immortals and Team of the Century selections Reg Gasnier and Graeme Langlands were accompanied by four other players included in the ARL’s 100 Greatest in 2008: incomparable wing pairing Eddie Lumsden and Johnny King, five-eighth enforcer Brian ‘Poppa’ Clay and the tenacious Billy Smith. The only non-international in the side was halfback George Evans, who was good enough to play four straight grand finals for the dominant Saints, keeping future all-time great No.7 Smith in the centres for several seasons. With the exception of Evans, the entire backline was selected in our greatest ever St George team.

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