Rugby league in the 2010s started with the end of the Dragons’ long wait and ended with what looks like the start of a new era of Roosters brilliance, not so long after the last.
We saw legends come and go, four drought-breaking premierships and an already athletic game somehow reach a new level. All the while, the torch was passed from Queensland to New South Wales in the State of Origin arena.
But who was the best, the most dominant and the most exciting? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Team of the decade
Fans in the NRL aren’t always as rabid in their support as in some other leagues, but there’s one thing they do as well as anyone, and that’s hate.
NRL fans hate players and teams for a myriad of reasons, but chief among them is often greatness — if you’re great, chances are at some point, you’ll cop hate.
By this metric (and a few others we’ll get to) the team-of-the-decade debate in the NRL really is a race in two, because it’s between two of the most hated teams in the league — the Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm.
Two teams from the top end of town, one of which has a proven record of rorting the salary cap, the other the target of as many jokes about doing so as there are dollars on their payroll.
Of the 10 grand finals this decade, the Storm and/or Roosters played in all but three of them (in 2011, 2014 and 2015).
And as complete as Manly’s 2011 premiership was, as historic as South Sydney’s 2014 title was, and as exciting as the Cowboys’ 2015 win over the Broncos was — the decade belonged to the Storm and Roosters. So what we’re going to do is pick the best version of the Storm and the best version of the Roosters and have them duke it out.
Game of the decade
The 2015 grand final and the 2012 Origin decider have arguments, but for the right blend of carnage, excitement and actual stakes, we’re going all the way back to the 2010 qualifying final between the Roosters and Tigers.
The Tigers were up 15-2 when the Roosters scored their first try of the match after an hour. Todd Carney and Mitchell Pearce combined to get the scores back to 15-14 with six minutes left.
Already pretty exciting, but then the weird stuff started. As the match ticked into its final minute, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was taking a hit-up when Simon Dwyer crushed him with a (head-high) tackle that jolted the ball loose.
But the Tigers somehow lost the scrum with the feed and the Roosters had one last chance. They went all over the place before the ball somehow ended up in the hands of Braith Anasta, who potted a 35-metre equaliser to send the game to golden point.
Then, after a slew of failed field-goal attempts, it was the simple matter of a 65-metre intercept try by Shaun Kenny-Dowall IN THE 100TH MINUTE OF THE GAME that earned the Roosters the 19-15 win and a trip to the second week of the finals. A beautiful mess.
Not only did they win half of the premierships on offer, the Storm and Roosters also lay claim to the top six regular-season records of the decade, with Melbourne owning the top four and the Roosters at five and six.
Of those top six, only two ended in premierships: the Storm’s 20-4 season in 2017 and the Roosters’ 18-6 effort in 2013.
That Roosters squad was stacked with exceptional athletes with talent to burn. The Minichiello, Tupou, Jennings, Kenny-Dowall, Tuivasa-Sheck backline was lightning and had the perfect mix of youthful brilliance and veteran leadership. Meanwhile, in the forwards there was the unstoppable one-two punch of Sonny Bill Williams and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner had just arrived, Aidan Guerra was in his pomp. And they were all steered around the park by grand final specialist James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce, which (whatever you think of the latter’s representative career) is about as dynamic a pairing at club level as a team could ask for and an ideal on-field extension of coach of the year Trent Robinson.
That 2013 Bondi bunch is going to get the nod as the best of the Tricolours, but is 2017 top of the pops for the Victorians?
That was one of two 20-win seasons for the club since 2010 (the other coming in 2019), and that year’s premiership put a perfect cap on the “Big Three” era, but the grand final against an eighth-placed Cowboys side without Johnathan Thurston or Matt Scott was not the greatest test for the Storm. While that side was an incredibly complete unit, the Storm has almost too many teams to pick from.
The Storm’s 2017 premiership is absolutely in the conversation for the decade’s best. (AAP: David Moir)
So, which iteration of the Storm will battle the 2013 Roosters for all-decade supremacy?
Could it be the 20-win team from 2019? What about 19-win teams from 2016 and 2011? No, none of those.
The Storm’s entrant in the decade decider is a team that finished second in the regular season, with the 15th-best win-loss record of the decade but, crucially, a premiership. The 2012 premiership to be specific.
This was one of the most remarkable premierships in recent memory and a stunning encapsulation of the Storm’s infrastructure.
Two years after their world came crashing down around them in the form of the salary cap scandal, which saw them stripped of past accolades and forced to offload a number of players in the present (including Greg Inglis), the Storm retooled and edged the Bulldogs in the grand final.
It’s hard to say 2012 was peak Billy Slater, but he was one year removed from his Dally M Medal. (AAP: Renee McKay)
Still boasting the big three of Smith, Slater and Cronk, Craig Bellamy went about spit-shining some under-valued assets that became major role-players for the Storm. Sisa Waqa was a hidden gem, Jason Ryles was basically finished before he arrived in Victoria, Gareth Widdop was in his second full season with the team.
And yet they all combined to become more than the sum of their parts and take down a Bulldogs team that was riding high on Ben Barba brilliance and Des Hasler’s new system, utilising the brilliance of their ball-playing big men, led by James Graham.
Despite all this, the Roosters of 2013 were as good as it gets.
This arbitrary title surely means as much to the 2013 Roosters as the premiership did. (AAP: Paul Miller)
They were so good that when they won that grand final, the selection panel had to give the Clive Churchill Medal to someone on the losing team because the Roosters were too damn good from top to tail to pick anyone out.
Honourable mentions: The 2011 Sea Eagles team that perfectly combined the veterans from the 2000s with new kids Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, the drought-breaking 2014 South Sydney Rabbitohs led by Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess, Melbourne’s 2017 premiership side that gave us the big three’s swansong, and the 2018 Roosters that took down the Storm despite Cooper Cronk playing with clipped wings in the grand final.
Player of the decade
In case it wasn’t clear, things like this are always arbitrary processes but this time it’s such a clear race in two that it’s not even really controversial to say so.
You can try and advocate for someone other than Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith, but you will just come off looking silly.
In a sport where individual statistics can be made to say anything and often mean nothing, this pair’s brilliance can only really be judged by the impact they had on the games they played in, both tangible and intangible. Disclaimer: In case you didn’t realise, this is entirely subjective and saying JT is good at something, it in no way means Smith is not also very good at that something, and vice-versa. Please calm down, strawman version of a reader that I just invented.
Try of the decade
George Burgess’s effort in the 2014 grand final and Ben Barba’s 2012 Mackay special from his own in-goal (actually scored by Josh Morris) were tough to leave out, but this one is going to one of the decade’s (and the sport’s) greatest players, Greg Inglis.
Round eight of the 2014 season was relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the game between the Rabbitohs and Broncos did give us one of the most scintillating moments of GI’s career, when he went 89 metres (with the angle it was over 100) to score at Lang Park.
Inglis swooped on an Anthony Milford chip on his own 10-metre line before beating the tackle of Corey Parker. Then he brushed aside Ben Hunt and Andrew McCullough. He slapped away Martin Kennedy and swerved past Matt Gillett like he was standing still. He barely noticed Dale Copley’s attempt at a chasedown tackle.
Lachlan Maranta did bring him down five metres from the tryline, but Inglis was so unfazed that he calmly stood up, had a look at Kennedy, and popped over in a manner so casual that it belied what had happened over the previous 15 seconds.
Smith won two premierships in the decade to Thurston’s one and is still playing as the decade winds down, but the retired Thurston outpoints Smith in Dally M Medals (2-1), Clive Churchill Medals (1-0) and Golden Boot awards (3-1) in since 2010.
Even the most strident Smith shills would admit he benefited from better teammates, spending the majority of the 2010s alongside Cronk and Billy Slater (two of the other contenders for this crown). Meanwhile, Thurston’s best teammates in the decade were Matt Scott, Gavin Cooper, the tail end of Matty Bowen’s career, and a few years of peak Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan.
Obviously, both of them shared success at State Of Origin level and are probably the biggest reasons Queensland won 11 series in 12 years from 2006 to 2017. And it’s no coincidence that New South Wales’s recent dominance has coincided with their departure from the rep scene.
Undoubtedly, Thurston was the louder performer with a better highlight reel. From his dummy and go, to the prodigious curve on his conversions, all the way down to his jovial and vocal demeanour — it’s always been impossible to miss Thurston on the football field.
Smith, meanwhile, from his build to his playing style, is the embodiment of Cool-Hand Luke (even if that facade has been chiselled away somewhat in the past few years). The only thing that stands out is his longevity (18 seasons and counting, 40-plus Origins, 50-plus Tests) and his tackling numbers (he almost always leads the count). But it’s the way he can manipulate the defence with a tilt of his shoulder — or even a look — to an unprecedented level. It’s also part of what makes his genius so hard to quantify — he’s operating on a level that mere mortals struggle to fathom.
His impact on games will often go unnoticed, until he’s gone and you realise no-one else can do what he does. He just sees the game differently and, while Thurston may be the man you want to pull off a miracle, Smith’s captaincy, 80-minute gamesmanship and complete match control is what makes him a Melbourne, Queensland and Australian great, a guaranteed Immortal and this decade’s greatest player. Condolences to the King in the North.
And to the New South Welshmen disappointed with all the praise for Queenslanders in this category, come back in 2030 when James Tedesco gets the nod after winning 11 straight Dally M Medals.