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25 in 25: Who were best fullbacks of NRL era

The 25th season of the NRL is almost done and dusted to to commemorate the first quarter-century of this instalment of the premiership, The Roar will be looking back at the 25 best players and moments in 25 categories.

No.1 on the list is the players who have worn that jersey with distinction since 1998 – the fullbacks. 

In each of these articles recapping the elite performers and standout moments, we have separated the 25 into the top 10 (the best of the best), the next 10 who simply couldn’t miss the cut and the final five who just beat out a bunch of other worthy contenders.

The current crop of fullbacks in the NRL is arguably as strong as it has ever been with most clubs well stocked with a skilful attacking player who can also pull off extraordinary defensive efforts.

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Looking back over the past 25 years since the ARL and Super League signed their truce and the united competition kicked off, here are the top 25 fullbacks of the NRL era.

Each player has been judged on their collective efforts from 1998 onwards, not including their efforts prior to that season, or if they’re an active player, up until 2022, without speculating on how their career might play out over next season and beyond.

Billy Slater

(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

The best of the best – the top 10

1 Billy Slater
2 Darren Lockyer
3 Anthony Minichiello
4 James Tedesco
5 Jarryd Hayne
6 Tom Trbojevic
7 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
8 Brett Stewart
9 Darius Boyd 
10 Latrell Mitchell

Slater just edges out Lockyer for top spot, helped due to the fact that the Broncos legend spent the second half of his career in the five-eighth role. 

Both players should end up as Immortals and Lockyer’s switch to five-eighth in 2006 coincided with the rise of Slater to form half of an all-time great spine for the Maroons and Kangaroos.

Minichiello, as a Golden Boot winner, was truly magnificent in his prime at the Roosters before back injuries curtailed the latter stages of his career but he showed plenty of determination to return to his best and captain his club to the 2013 Grand Final win.

Tedesco is closing on Minichiello’s claims to being the club’s best fullback of all time after starring in their 2018 and ‘19 premiership triumphs. 

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 23: Darren Lockyer of the Maroons scores a try with team mates Justin Hodges (L) and Brent Tate (R) celebrating in the background during game one of the State of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues at Suncorp Stadium May 23, 2007 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Darren Lockyer. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Hayne, who has become a fallen star in many ways in recent years, was a supernova on the football field who possibly had the most natural talent of all these fullbacks, winning the Dally M Medal twice and enjoying one of the finest individual runs in recent memory to propel Parramatta from eighth spot to the 2009 Grand Final.

Trbojevic and Tuivasa-Sheck are also Dally M Medallists with the Manly star a chance of taking his career to greater heights next year when he makes a return from shoulder surgery.

RTS is far from a guarantee to make the All Blacks’ World Cup squad next year and it would not be a surprise to see the former Warriors skipper back in the NRL in the near future.

Stewart’s 163 tries over 14 seasons at Manly underline his brilliance but don’t tell the full story of a player who was brilliant all round and a key part of the 2008 and ’11 premiership trophies.

Despite Boyd’s longevity – 337 games over 15 seasons, including two premiership wins – and stellar representative record, he is not given due credit in some quarters for the impact he had, particularly in his prime at Brisbane and St George Illawarra.

Mitchell is a perhaps contentious choice as the final member of the top 10 given he’s won his two premierships at the Roosters in the centres and is still relatively early in his career as a full-time fullback at South Sydney but the quality outweighs the relatively low quantity.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The best of the rest – elite performers

11 Matt Bowen
12 Josh Dugan
13 Kurt Gidley
14 Ben Barba
15 David Peachey
16 Robbie O’Davis
17 Rhys Wesser 
18 Karmichael Hunt
19 Kalyn Ponga
20 Brett Hodgson

These 10 players were, for the most part, influential at club and representative level.

Bowen is perhaps unlucky to miss out on the top 10 – he was an integral part of the Cowboys’ rise to prominence during his 13 seasons but unfortunately for him, the 2005 Grand Final loss to the Wests Tigers was the closest he came to a premiership, retiring two years before the extra-time win over Brisbane.

Dugan peaked early in his career at Canberra and progressively went downhill at the Dragons and Sharks due to a variety of reasons, often self inflicted, but his size and speed made him a formidable fullback for a few seasons at least.

Josh Dugan of the Sharks.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Gidley’s versatility was a curse and a reward as it meant he was switched around at club level with Newcastle and used on the bench often in the representative arena but fullback was definitely his best position.

Barba is one of the NRL’s what might have been stories as off-field issues curtailed his career but when he was switched on, like he was in his Dally M Medal-winning season at Canterbury in 2012 and with the Sharks in their successful campaign four years later, he was electrifying. 

He never played rep footy and Sharks legend David Peachey only got to play one Origin for NSW but he was desperately unlucky not to enjoy higher honours more frequently for his dynamic efforts at club level in 257 matches.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 03:  Ben Barba of the Bulldogs makes a break on his way to scoring a try during the round one NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Centrebet Stadium on March 3, 2012 in Penrith, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

O’Davis was a two-time Knights premiership winner who would have played more at Origin level than his 12 games for the Maroons if not for the presence of Lockyer.

Wesser, the attacking X-factor at the back of Penrith’s 2003 title winners, is another who was blocked by Lockyer at rep level while Hunt suffered a similar fate due to Slater’s presence before he tried his hand at AFL and rugby.

Ponga is a frustrating figure for Knights fans because he hasn’t replicated his stellar Maroons form at club level as often as they’d like while Hodgson was the opposite – a wholehearted performer who always played above his weight, deservedly winning a title with the Wests Tigers in 2005.

The final five 

21 Tim Brasher
22 Brett Mullins 
23 Ryan Papenhuyzen
24 Luke Patten
25 Robbie Ross

Brasher and Mullins were past their best by the time the NRL rolled around but if their career started later, they’d be top 10 certainties for their efforts earlier in the 1990s.

Papenhuyzen is on an upward trajectory and thoroughly earned his Clive Churchill Medal for his match-winning 2020 Grand Final display for the Storm but injuries have prevented him from hitting the heights in the past couple of seasons. 

Patten was an under-rated part of Canterbury’s success early in the century, particularly the 2004 Grand Final victory, but despite being ultra reliable at club level, was never given a chance at Origin level.

Ross is another fullback who in some ways has been overlooked but in the early years of the NRL at Melbourne, in their 1999 Grand Final win, and for NSW, his all-round game was a crucial plank in the success of those teams.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 08: Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm is checked for a possible injury during the round nine NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and the St George Illawarra Dragons at AAMI Park, on May 08, 2022, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Just missed the cut

Current players Clint Gutherson and Dylan Edwards are certainly heading towards the feats of those ranked in the top 25.

Clinton Schifcofske was a skilful operator, particularly during his stint at Canberra, while Julian O’Neill falls into the category of cautionary tales who let off-field issues stagnate their career.

Canterbury fan favourite Rod Silva was past his best by the time the NRL era kicked off while the likes of journeyman Michael Gordon and Cowboys premiership winner Lachlan Coote also had outstanding careers and were unlucky not to make the final cut.

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