Australian Rugby League’s Team of the Decade (1980s)
Ahhh, the 1980s – mullets, moustaches, tobacco sponsorship, Rex Mossop, the birth of State of Origin, Tina Turner, and Jim Comans rubbing out enforcers for 12 months.
And some of the greatest players of all time.
Such is the quality of the line-up, no room could be found for the likes of Gary Belcher, Kerry Boustead, Dale Shearer, Gene Miles, Terry Lamb, Steve Mortimer, Bob Lindner, Noel Cleal, Greg Dowling and Royce Simmons.
Fullback – Garry Jack
Garry Jack v Gary Belcher was one of the great individual rivalries of the modern era, but the Balmain champion is generally regarded as the king of the No.1s as far as the 1980s are concerned.
Tough, courageous and super-safe in defence, Jack is arguably the last of the great ‘last-line’ fullbacks. But he was no slouch in attack, emphasised by his tally of 11 tries in 21 Tests – an Australian record for a fullback until Darren Lockyer came along.
The Wollongong product debuted for Western Suburbs in 1981 but joined Balmain the following season and became a permanent fixture at the back for the burgeoning Tigers. He broke into the Origin and Test arenas in 1984, helping NSW to their first series successes in 1985-86 and claiming the Golden Boot after a starring role on the ‘Unbeatables’ Kangaroo Tour of ’86.
The blonde-haired custodian was Dally M Fullback of the Year in 1985-86 and ’88, won a World Cup final in 1988 – his last international appearance – and played a key role in the Tigers’ drive to the 1988-89 grand finals.
A poor Origin series in 1989, which ended his 17-game tenure for the Blues, saw him usurped by Belcher in the Australian side, but ‘Jimmy’ Jack’s status as one of the decade’s greats remains undimmed.
Wing – Eric Grothe
Arguably the most damaging winger in rugby league history, there’s no telling what the ‘Guru’ could have achieved if knee injuries hadn’t ruined the latter years of his highlight-stacked career.
The Parramatta junior debuted for the Eels in 1979 and made his State of Origin debut two years later, before featuring in the blue-and-golds’ maiden grand final triumph. Grothe truly took the rugby league world by storm in 1982, scoring 16 tries in 18 games as the Eels swept to another premiership, and scoring 21 tries in just 14 appearances on the ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour.
A menacing physical presence on the flank and one of the fastest players in the game, Grothe’s international career was all too brief – his last game for Australia was during the 1984 Ashes series – but it was eventful, finishing with 10 tries in just eight Tests. Injury saw him withdraw from the ’86 Kangaroo Tour squad.
He managed only 14 games or less each season from 1985 to ’89, but he added two more premiership medals to his collection in 1983 and ’86. Grothe’s unforgettable, barnstorming solo try in an SCG semi-final against Canterbury in 1983, as well as several length-of-the-field efforts, rank among the most enduring memories of the decade.
Centre – Mal Meninga
Centre colossus Meninga had already represented Queensland as a teenager by the time the 1980s rolled around, and he was a superstar of the decade from start to finish.
The Brisbane Souths powerhouse kicked seven goals in the Maroons’ euphoric upset in the inaugural State of Origin match in 1980 and had racked up 18 Origin appearances by the end of the decade – despite missing the 1987-88 series due to a succession of broken arm setbacks.
A Test debut against New Zealand followed in 1982, before he scored 48 points in Australia’s Ashes series cleansweep as one of the shining stars of the undefeated Kangaroo Tour. Virtually an automatic pick for the green-and-golds when available (though Brett Kenny and Gene Miles forced him to the bench and second-row for the 1986 Kangaroo Tour Tests), ‘Big Mal’ had played 22 Tests when the 1980s came to a close.
Meninga spearheaded the Magpies’ drive to a shock BRL premiership win in 1985 before linking with Canberra, inspiring the young club to its maiden grand final in 1987 and captaining the Raiders to a stunning title triumph two years later.
Meninga’s performances for Canberra, Queensland and Australia in 1989, in the wake of four broken arms in the previous two years, saw him win the Golden Boot award. He went on to become one of the most decorated skippers of all time over the ensuing five seasons and was named as a centre in the Australian Team of the Century in 2008.
Centre – Brett Kenny
As he was for most of his Test career, brilliant Parramatta five-eighth Kenny is shunted to the centres in this line-up by Wally Lewis. But ‘Bert’s’ versatility and instinctive attacking genius saw him regarded as one of the finest to play in the centres for Australia.
He was regularly used as a centre by the Eels, though he wore the No.6 in the club’s 1981-83 and ’86 grand final victories – famously scoring two tries in each of the first three. A breath-taking ball-runner with peerless anticipation, Kenny became rugby league’s ‘intercept king’ and a prolific try-poacher, crossing for 92 tries in 188 first-grade games during the 1980s.
Kenny made his Origin and Test debuts in 1982, keeping Lewis out of the Australian line-up on that year’s Kangaroo Tour by securing the five-eighth spot. But he was used exclusively as a centre at Test level from the 1984 Ashes series until his last international appearance in 1987, including another ’Roo Tour trip in ’86.
But he featured at five-eighth in 12 of his 17 Origins for NSW, earning an 8-4 win-loss record opposite Queensland talisman Lewis and starring in the Blues’ breakthrough 1985-86 series wins. Kenny won the 1985 Golden Boot.
Wing – Michael O’Connor
A centre for all but a few games of his first-grade career, dual international Michael O’Connor snares a wing spot ahead of the likes of Kerry Boustead and Dale Shearer on the strength of his sizzling efforts on the flank at rep level.
The 13-Test Wallaby switched codes with St George in 1983 and quick found his feet, which frequently left defenders clutching at air as O’Connor established himself as one of the premiership’s most brilliant attacking players.
O’Connor scored a record 18 points on Origin debut in 1985 and was a vital component with the boot and in general play as the Blues won series in ’85-86. He earned his Test stripes against New Zealand in 1986 before top-scoring on the end-of-year Kangaroo Tour with 190 points in just 14 games, including an Ashes record 22 points (three tries, five goals) in the first Test against Great Britain.
By the end of the 1980s O’Connor had amassed 198 points in 17 Tests – 13 of those as a winger – and set a world record with 30 points in a match against Papua New Guinea.
A grand finalist with the Dragons in 1985, O’Connor was lured to Manly in ’87 and helped the club to premiership glory that year, scoring 14 points in the grand final defeat of Canberra. He scored a career-high 17 tries and 198 points – second in the premiership in both departments – in 1988, the year of his third straight Dally M Centre of the Year gong.
Five-eighth – Wally Lewis
The brilliant, abrasive ‘King’ Wally was a perpetual lightning rod for controversy, but his status as the player of the 1980s is virtually undisputed.
Lock in Queensland’s boilover victory in the inaugural State of Origin match in 1980, the gifted Valleys playmaker assumed the five-eighth spot and captaincy the following season and missed just one Origin match during the decade. He won seven man-of-the-match awards and led the Maroons to six wins in the first eight three-match series.
Lewis debuted for Australia aged 21 in 1981, and although Brett Kenny kept him out of the Test side on the 1982 Kangaroo Tour, he became skipper of the national side in 1984 and led his country in 24 consecutive Tests. The undefeated 1986 Kangaroo Tour and a World Cup final triumph in 1988 were the crowning achievements of his tenure as captain.
An all-conquering 1984 season – captaining Brisbane to victory in the Panasonic Cup, leading Wynnum-Manly to a BRL premiership, skippering Queensland to Origin success and Australia to an Ashes whitewash – saw Lewis collect the first-ever Golden Boot.
Another BRL premiership followed with Wynnum-Manly in 1986, this time as captain-coach, before he became the fledgling Brisbane Broncos’ foundation skipper. Lewis’ time at the club was overshadowed by his shock sacking as skipper at the end of 1989 and a failure to lead the Broncos to the immediate success many predicted, but he nevertheless claimed the Dally M Five-eighth of the Year award in 1988 after scoring 15 tries for the newcomers.
Lewis was a prickly thorn in the side of opponents, referees, administrators, media and fans (those south of the border, at least), but the game has never produced a more influential, charismatic and captivating match-winner. Unsurprisingly, he was named at five-eighth in the Australian Team of the Century in 2008.
Halfback – Peter Sterling
If Lewis was the No.1 player of the 1980s, Peter Sterling ran a close second – with daylight third.
The Parramatta maestro won every honour the game had to offer, most of them several times over. He guided the Eels to four grand final wins in 1981-83 and ’86, claiming the inaugural Clive Churchill Medal after the latter. A four-time Dally M Halfback of the Year, he won the Dally M Medal in 1986-87, the Rothmans Medal in ’87 (and again in 1990), and the Golden Boot in ’87.
A master tactician with a flawless kicking and passing game, ‘Sterlo’ wasn’t physically gifted but nobody was quicker between the ears, while he was also a gutsy defender and a supreme competitor.
Sterling won four man-of-the-match awards in 13 Origins for NSW from 1981-88 – despite battling great rival Steve Mortimer for the No.7 jumper during the early years of his career – and was integral to the first-ever Origin cleansweep in ’86.
He played 18 Tests for Australia, playing in every Test on consecutive undefeated Kangaroo Tours in 1982 and ’86 to cement his standing as the equal of any halfback to have played the game.
Lock – Ray Price
Well-established as one of the game’s top forwards by the end of the 1970s, former Wallaby Price became an all-time rugby league great thanks to his non-stop efforts for Parramatta, NSW and Australia during the ’80s.
Price’s nickname, ‘Mr Perpetual Motion’, summed him up – one of the most relentless, courageous, determined players to lace a boot. He won four grand finals with the Eels in 1981-83 and ’86, the latter as captain in his last game before retiring, and won five straight Dally M Lock of the Year awards in his last five seasons.
He also won the Dally M and Rugby League Week Player of the Year awards in 1982 and 1985 respectively.
Already an automatic Test selection at the turn of the decade, Price played another 11 Tests – encompassing the 1982 Kangaroo Tour – before quitting representative football in 1984. He also captained NSW in three of his eight Origin appearances.
Second-row – Wayne Pearce
Price’s heir apparent in the NSW and Australian No.13 jumpers, Balmain’s Wayne Pearce epitomised the changing face of the rugby league star during the 1980s – ultra-fit, dedicated, professional and marketable.
But ‘Junior’ still possessed the old-world values of toughness, dogged determination and leading from the front. Perhaps only Price pushed through the pain barrier as often and fervently as Pearce, who played 19 Tests for Australia and 15 Origins for NSW from 1982-88.
He broke into both rep teams as a second-rower, with Price entrenched at lock, and was a breakout star on the ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour in 1982, impressing as a tireless defender and willing ball-runner who could hit a hole.
Pearce was still only 22 when he took over the Balmain captaincy in 1983, while he created history as the captain of the first Origin team to win a series 3-0 in 1986. The Rothmans Medal winner in 1985 and Dally M Lock of the Year in 1987-88, Pearce skippered his beloved Tigers to agonising back-to-back grand final defeats in 1988-89.
Second-row – Paul Vautin
Ousting the likes of Manly teammate Noel Cleal and Queensland comrade Bob Lindner for the other second-row spot is redheaded terrier ‘Fatty’ Vautin. Much like Price and Pearce, Vautin’s success did not come courtesy of overwhelming athletic gifts, but through sheer hard work and determination, and an unbreakable will to win.
Vautin was a magnificent defender, but also an underrated, skilful player in attack. The Brisbane Wests product linked with Manly in 1979 and debuted for Queensland and Australia in 1982. Though he was fated never to make a Kangaroo Tour – he was a controversial omission in ’82 and was injured for most of ’86 – he racked up 13 Tests and was vice-captain on the 1989 tour of New Zealand.
But it was in the Origin arena he is best remembered, making 22 wholehearted appearances for the Maroons (he missed just four games between 1982 and ’89) as a key part of their overwhelming success.
Part of losing grand final sides in 1982-83, Vautin assumed the Sea Eagles’ captaincy in 1985 and collected the Dally M Captain of the Year award on his way to leading the club to grand final glory in ’87. He was also Dally M Second-rower, Rep Player and Players’ Player of the Year in 1983.
An inglorious exit from Manly in 1989 and subsequent disappointing stint at Easts tainted his legacy somewhat, but Vautin deserves recognition as a true great of the eighties.
Prop – Steve Roach
There will only ever be one ‘Artie’ Beetson, a 1970s icon – but ‘Blocker’ Roach did a fair job of living up to his mantle as the game’s most dynamic prop of the 1980s. A genuine enforcer capable of busting the defensive line and putting away his supports, Roach became a cornerstone of the Balmain pack and an irresistible pick for NSW’s and Australia’s selectors.
The Wollongong junior debuted for the Tigers in 1982 and was in the NSW Origin line-up just two years later, then cracked the Australian team in 1985 after helping the Blues to a maiden series win. Injuries curtailed his 1986 Kangaroo Tour trip and wrecked his 1987 season.
Despite missing the Tigers incredible charge to the 1988 grand final through suspension – run-ins with authority were a common thread throughout his career – he was chosen in Australia’s World Cup final squad later that year.
In 1989, despite being overlooked for Jack Gibson’s Blues squad, he starred on the green-and-golds’ tour of New Zealand and won a third Dally M Prop of the Year gong, though the year was soured when he was replaced late in the Tigers’ devastating extra-time grand final loss to Canberra.
Roach was named as one of Australia’s 100 Greatest Players and at prop in NSW Country’s Team of the Century during the 2008 Centenary celebrations.
Hooker – Ben Elias
‘Balmain Benny’ helped revolutionise the hooker position during the 1980s with his livewire running from dummy-half, halfback-esque vision and skill-set, and superb kicking game – qualities that got him the nod in this composite team ahead of more traditional rakes like Royce Simmons and Greg Conescu.
The local junior debuted for the Tigers in 1982 and exploded during the ’85 season, breaking into the NSW side for their historic Origin series win and earning an Australian Test call-up against New Zealand.
Elias toured with the 1986 Kangaroos but was consigned to the second-string side by Simmons. However, he featured in Australia’s World Cup final-winning team at the end of a stellar 1988 season that included his second Dally M Hooker of the Year award, second place in the Dally M Medal, victory in the Rugby League Week Player of the Year award and a string of sizzling displays in the Tigers’ tightrope-walk through the playoffs to the grand final.
He helped Balmain to another grand final the following season after missing the representative schedule, before enhancing his legacy with several highlights for NSW and Australia during the first half of the 1990s.
Prop – Craig Young
Peter Tunks, Peter Kelly, Ian Roberts and Greg Dowling were all front-row guns during the 1980s, but ‘Albert’s’ consistently dominant performances during the first half of the decade clinched his place in this line-up.
Already a Test team staple and premiership-winning captain by the end of the 1970s – at the tender age of 23 – Young played another 11 Tests from 1980-84, including a prominent role on the 1982 ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour. He also appeared in five of the first nine Origin matches for NSW.
A fearsome ball-runner with granite-like defence and outstanding work ethic on both sides of the ball, Young was named Dally M Prop of the Year on his way to captaining St George to the 1985 grand final, a one-point loss to Canterbury’s ‘Dogs of War’.
Young also skippered the Dragons to Panasonic Cup success in 1988, his final season before hanging up the boots.