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The best Wests Tigers players who never played representative football


As for previous articles in this series, I will attempt to put together a quality team for each NRL club made up solely of players since 1980 who never went beyond club level. The criteria for selection is:

– No representing at senior level: internationals, State of Origin, Prime Ministers XIII, City vs Country or All Stars.
– Current players are excluded.
– Players are only eligible for the club they played the most first grade games for.
– For players who straddle the 1970s and 1980s, 30 games after since 1980 is generally the cut-off to qualify.

Note: This team includes any players from the two legacy teams, Balmain and Wests, who played since 1980. As a result there are plenty of players to choose from, as both teams have boasted plenty of good but not necessarily rep-quality players.

Four players who played over 100 games for the club missed out, including one who reach 161 career games. No other club had more than two such unlucky players.

Fullback: Andrew Leeds (114 matches) – 1993-1999. 46 wins 65 losses. 36 tries 363 goals 5 FG. 1 final 1 loss

Former rugby union international Andrew “Jumper” Leeds did not quite find the same representative recognition in the 13-a-side code.

After representing the Wallabies 14 times including at the 1987 World Cup, Leeds joined Parramatta for three seasons and then Penrith before landing at Wests in 1993.

Leeds spent the next seven seasons at the club, scoring over 100 points for four seasons running and often being the best player at the club. He finished his NRL career on 177 matches and 875 points.

After retiring Leeds played a few games for Leicester in England in rugby union before returning to off-field roles with Wests and Penrith as a physiotherapist. He is also a keen amateur beekeeper.

Leeds’ rugby union debut for the Wallabies was in the deciding Test of their 1986 tour of New Zealand. The 21-year-old scored a try on debut from fullback as the Wallabies convincingly won the Bledisloe Cup on Kiwi soil for just the second time in their history. Leeds remained undefeated at Eden Park.

I doubt many Wallabies can claim that!

Wing: John Davidson (171) – 1980-1988. 93 wins 76 losses. 60 tries 22 goals. 6 finals 2 wins

Balmain stalwart John Davidson is one of the few to have played over 200 first grade games without any representative recognition, reaching 210 career appearances. Davidson played for Balmain for most of the 1980s, at one point playing more than 20 matches for six consecutive seasons.

Davidson appeared in four finals series for the club without ever reaching a grand final. In 1988, he scored a try in the club’s playoff victory over Penrith to reach the finals, but missed their unlikely run to the grand final.

After leaving the Tigers, Davidson spent two final seasons at Cronulla before retiring. He is a member of the Balmain Tigers Hall of Fame.

Wing: Daniel Fitzhenry (137) – 2002-2010. 63 wins 74 losses. 44 tries. 5 finals 4 wins

Daniel Fitzhenry was an important part of the West Tigers’ 2005 premiership, scoring four tries in the finals series, including one in the grand final win over North Queensland. He also scored a try in the Tigers’ World Club Challenge loss the following year.

Fitzhenry played six seasons for the Tigers before spending two years in England with Hull Kingston Rovers, and then returning for a swansong at Wests in 2010. The versatile player covered every position in the backline at some point, and even hooker over the course of his career. In 2020 he was made a life member of the club.

After retiring Fitzhenry played and coached in country football, winning a premiership with South City in Group 9. He was still running around in the Newcastle competition as late as 2019 as well as representing Newcastle in touch football.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Centre: Wayne Smith (161) – 1976-1984. 76 wins 80 losses. 48 tries 3 goals. 7 finals 1 win

Wayne Smith was a side-stepping centre and fullback for the Magpies from the mid-1970s through to the 1980s. He played four finals for the club in the midst of their “Fibros” period, reaching preliminary finals in 1978 and 1980. He played the fifth-most games for the club in its history and was inducted into the Wests Hall of Fame in 2012.

After leaving the Magpies, Smith played a couple of seasons with Cronulla in the mid-1980s. In retirement Smith spent many years as a school teacher in the Sutherland area.

Centre: Wayne Wigham (150) – 1976-1985. 59 wins 85 losses. 62 tries. 3 finals 1 win

Wayne Wigham was a mainstay of the Balmain Tigers for eight seasons, around the same time that Wayne Smith was playing for the Magpies. During a fairly low-key era for the Tigers, Wigham scored more than 50 tries for the club and played in their 1977 and 1983 finals sides.

He was the club’s top try-scorer in 1980 and 1982. In 1980 his 16 tries in 21 matches was good enough to share the top try-scorer title for the competition alongside John Ribot.

After leaving Balmain, Wigham played a season each for North Sydney and Western Suburbs.

After suffering from depression for much of his life, in retirement Wigham has worked for the Black Dog Institute and tours around speaking about men’s mental health.

Five-eighth: Gary Bridge (104) – 1982-1986. 60 wins 44 losses. 32 tries. 6 finals 2 wins

Gary Bridge from Taree (aka “The Parrot”) played five seasons for Balmain in the early 1980s. He topped the club’s try-scoring list 1983 and played in finals series for the club, including a preliminary final in 1986 as they entered a very strong period.

He also captained the club in their 1985 finals campaign. He managed to play for both City and Country seconds without ever getting a first-team rep jersey.

After leaving the Tigers, Bridge played three seasons at Easts but a combination of injuries and form limited him to 18 first grade games. He also spent a season in England with Oldham in 1986-87.

After retiring, Bridge remained very active in country football, runs the Taree Bulls and is a member of the Group 3 Hall of Fame.

Halfback: Michael Neil (145) – 1983-1994. 68 wins 72 losses. 24 tries. 8 finals 5 wins

Mick Neil is an unsung hero of Balmain’s last great period where they made back-to-back grand finals in 1988 and 1989. If he had been a yard and a half quicker he would be a premiership winner, having been famously ankle tapped by Mal Meninga to fall just short of the line in 1989.

Neil played for both Wests and Balmain, for four and six seasons respectively, plus a couple for Illawarra towards the end of his career. The two grand final years were also Neil’s best, playing over 23 games each season as the first-choice half or five-eighth.

Neil’s two seasons at Illawarra helped transform the club and they reached a preliminary final in 1992. He also had a brief off-season stint with Salford in England in 1993-94.

Lock: Jason Lidden (108) – 1988-1993. 44 wins 60 losses. 9 tries 1 goal. 2 finals 2 losses

Utility Jason Lidden played six seasons for Wests as a lock, five-eighth or centre across the late 1980s and early 1990s. He played finals for the club in 1991 and 1992.

After leaving Wests, Lidden played two seasons for Penrith and another for Canterbury, before heading to England for a final-season payday with Castleford, where they reached the semi finals before bowing out to St Helens.

In retirement Lidden captained and coached the Junee Diesels in country football, where he had started as a junior. He was named in the centres for the Magpies Team of the 1980s.

Second row: Kevin Hardwick (148) – 1982-1990. 90 wins 56 losses. 9 tries 1 goal. 13 finals 7 wins

The Wild Man, Kevin Hardwick was a tough defensive forward for Balmain during the 1980s. He appeared from the bench in the Tigers’ consecutive grand finals in 1988 and 1989 and also played finals with the club in 1983, 1985 and 1986.

He is a little infamous as one of the replacements brought on by coach Warren Ryan late in the 1989 grand final, replacing stars Steve Roach and Paul Sironen.

Hardwick was a pretty decent footballer, but his hair transcended the game, with one of the best mullet and moustache combinations to ever grace the competition (winning a poll on nrl.com in 2020).

His is maybe only matched by teammate Kerry Hemsley, who appears in the front row here. Hardwick sometimes added that cherry on top by tying it back with an electrical tape head band.

Second row: Mark O’Neill (223) – 1994-2005. 85 wins 134 losses. 21 tries. 4 finals 4 wins

2005 grand final winner Mark O’Neill played 12 seasons across the Balmain and Wests Tigers eras. After his debut in 2004 he played at least 15 games per season to become one of the longer-serving players in this series.

O’Neill’s only finals series was a big one – club captain as the Tigers came out of nowhere to win the premiership in 2005. Despite losing the captaincy to Scott Prince after a stint on the sidelines due to injury, O’Neill started in each game during the finals and scored a try in the club’s semi-final win over Brisbane.

After leaving the Tigers, O’Neill signed off with a season each for Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers in England. O’Neill has turned to administration in retirement, being football manager for the Tigers and Parramatta. He has also served on the NRL’s Match Review Committee.

O’Neill might also be most famous for being on the receiving end of a vicious king hit from Melbourne’s Danny Williams who was suspended for 18 matches.

Prop: Todd Payten (151) – 2004-2011. 83 wins 68 losses. 9 tries. 5 finals 4 wins

We have a winner, ladies and gentlemen. With a whopping 259 career games across 16 seasons, Payten holds the record for most appearances without ever getting a call-up for any representative team (since 1980, but I’d reasonably comfortable in saying that no old timer will match him).

The current North Queensland supercoach had a number of successful seasons at Canberra (starting at just 17 years old and playing nearly 100 games, appearing in four finals series) before joining the Tigers by way of The Roosters (where he played in their 2003 World Club Challenge win but was injured before their grand final appearance).

He went on to play eight seasons as a leader at the Tigers, highlighted by the famous 2005 grand final, coming off the bench and scoring a try. He was still around five years later, playing second row in the 2010 finals.

At one point in 2004, Payten was being paid by three clubs, with his Wests Tigers contract being topped up by both Canberra and the Roosters.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Prop: Kerry Hemsley (139) – 1980-1988. 71 wins 68 losses. 3 tries. 9 finals 5 wins

Another great moustache and mullet combination, Balmain 1980s hardman Kerry Hemsley. The Junee junior played nine seasons for the Tigers, with their 1988 grand final loss to Canterbury among his nine finals appearances for the club.

Hemsley was at the end of his career by then and only reclaimed his first grade spot for the finals after Steve Roach was suspended.

Hemsley represented the Riverina against a touring Great Britain side in 1979 was named The Daily Telegraph’s player of the year in 1983. In amongst his Tigers career he also found time to play off seasons in France (with Le Pontet) and England (with Wigan).

For Wigan Hemsley played from October 1983 to January 1984 before joining the Tigers, but was then given permission to fly back in May to appear in the Challenge Cup final. Wigan lost to Widnes, with Hemsley scoring a rare try. He only crossed three times in his NSWRL career.

While in England he also played against a touring Queensland representative team, who spanked the England champions by 40-2. But that side did include such names as Wally Lewis (playing the centres!), Gene Miles and Greg Dowling.

After leaving the Tigers, Hemsley played on in bush footy for nearly a decade, winning a Group 10 premiership with the Blayney Bears. He is a life member of the Tigers. And if you like a 1980s reference, Hemsley once described himself as “bigger than Texas and meaner than J.R”.

Hooker: Neil Whittaker (120) – 1979-1985. 57 wins 61 losses. 11 tries. 1 final 1 loss

Before he was the NRL boss and more recently president of the North Sydney Men of League, Neil Whittaker was a durable hooker and club captain for Balmain during the early 1980s.

Whittaker held down the hooking position at the Tigers from his debut in 1979 until the arrival of Ben Elias in the mid-1980s.

After serving as chairman of Balmain, Whittaker became a key player in ending the Super League war coming in to lead the ARL in 1997 and then took the CEO position of the newly-formed NRL the following year.

After leading the NRL through merger and rationalisation back to 14 clubs, Whittaker left the spotlight behind and moved into other senior business roles. He is also responsible for introducing Krispy Kreme doughnuts into Australia.

Bench

Scott Gale (115) – 1983-1988. 65 wins 48 losses. 40 tries. 8 finals 3 wins

Scott Gale played off the bench in Balmain’s 1988 grand final, ending six seasons and four finals series for the club. His greatest year may have been 1986 when Gale scored a try in each final as the Tigers reached the preliminary final.

He also topped the club’s try-scoring list in 1987. He won the Panasonic Cup with the Tigers in 1985 and 1987. It was neck and neck between Gale and Gary Bridge for the five-eighth slot here.

Gale was something of a journeyman, also spending time with Wests, Easts, Norths and Canberra in a career spanning a decade. He also appeared from the bench in Canberra’s 1991 grand final loss to Penrith, where he is part of history as it was Gale’s short dropout that led to a famous Royce Simmons match-sealing try.

After a cameo for Hull FC in 1987-88, Gale finished off his career with a full season there in 1992-93 and then played in the Riverina.

Tragically Gale passed away at just 39 years old from motor neurone disease. His sister Tarsha was the first NSW women’s captain.

Steve Edmed (136) – 1988-1995. 57 wins 75 losses. 5 tries. 7 finals 5 wins

Front rower Steve Edmed arrived at just the right time, debuting in 1998 and playing in both the Tigers’ losing grand finals in 1988 (from the bench) and 1989 as the starting front rower).

Edmed’s other claim to fame was receiving a huge three-year contract during the Super League war to join North Queensland in 1996. To be fair, Edmed gave some value as he won the club’s player of the year that season, playing 21 games.

Prior to this Edmed had needed to work full-time while playing for the Tigers. Afterwards he had enough cash to buy a house outright and set himself up in a building business.

After more than 150 career NRL appearances, Edmed spent a final season playing the English Super League for Sheffield Eagles.

Like many front rowers, Edmed was not a noted try scorer and once went a tick under four years without troubling the scorebook.

Blake Ayshford (104) – 2009-2013. 51 wins 53 losses. 33 tries. 5 finals 2 wins

Blake Ayshford forged an 11-year career in the NRL. He was a first-choice centre for the Tigers for five seasons from 2009 after being their player of the year in under 20s. Ayshford scored on debut in 2009 and was named their Rookie of the Year. He played finals for the club in 2010 and 2011.

After leaving the Tigers Ayshford played for Cronulla and the Warriors, retiring after more than 270 first grade games.

I nearly picked Trevor Cogger just for his 161 games of persistence, but a career winning percentage of under 22 per cent was too horrible to ignore, so instead we have…

Greg Cox (95) – 1976-1984. 47 wins 43 losses. 11 tries 228 goals. 3 finals 1 win

Cox debuted in first grade for Balmain in 1976. He played two seasons at the club as their first-choice halfback and goal-kicker, scoring 284 points and helping the club reach finals in 1977. Cox then spent three seasons at Cronulla, playing in their 1979 finals series, before moving to Wests.

Cox played over 50 matches and scored over 200 points for the Magpies, reinventing himself as a lock and then a fullback over the years, before returning to the halves. He played a semi-final for the club in 1982.

He sang “I Can See Clearly Now” on the 1981 ‘Footy Favourites’ LP, which also included performances from Eric Grothe, Steve Gearin and the beautifully named Joe Squadrito.





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