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Who are the rugby league cult heroes?

The commentary around the departure of Andrew Fifita from the Sharks, together with the feedback from Cronulla fans to his inclusion in my recent article about salary cap burglars, made me realise that I had Fifita pegged all wrong.

What he brings to the Sharks and what he means to the club’s fans can’t just be measured in dollars or game statistics, and many (most?) Sharks fans would be pleased to see him stay on regardless of the hole he puts in their salary cap.

They value him far more for what he means to the club’s culture and identity, and the way Cronulla play the game, than his output on the field. He is their No.1 cult hero, and he’s going to be hard to replace.

When you look deeper, it’s not hard to see why, as his influence in the 2016 grand final that delivered Cronulla’s first premiership was as telling as the decision to rob him of the Clive Churchill Medal was pathetic. Without Andrew Fifita that day, the porch light would well and truly still be on in the Shire.

They’ll always love him for it, and the fact that he doesn’t give a toss what people outside the club think of him just adds to his status.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

So, what does it take to be a rugby league cult hero, who are they, and does every club have them?

A cult hero can emerge from the rest of the playing group for a variety of reasons.

It could be for their unlikely appearance, like the corpulent George Rose who became a cult hero wherever he played. Rose looked more like the guy you were playing park footy with than an NRL first grader, and heaven help anyone who got between him and the all-you-can-eat buffet.

But everyone just loved big George, regardless of his on-field limitations. Mark Tookey was another player who was a cult hero with his various clubs, and he was clearly a disciple of the Gorgeous George diet plan.

It could also be for the kamikaze way they played the game. Who can forget the Bulldogs tearaway Geoff Robinson from the 1970s and 1980s, who took on the opposition at every opportunity without fear or any thought of self-preservation?

In more recent times the devastating charges of Fuifui Moimoi from Parramatta, and Taniela Tuiaka from the Tigers, were worth the price of admission alone, and always brought the crowd to their feet. Canterbury’s pair of Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley also fit this category, and avid St George fans will recall the tearaway winger Denis Kinchella from the 1980’s, and his death-defying kick returns.

Perhaps it’s for the way they delight their fans by just effortlessly keep scoring try after try. Semi Radrada was a cult hero during his time with the Eels, and has passed the baton to his fellow Fijian wrecking ball and left wing replacement in Maika Sivo.

Maika Sivo gives the thumbs up

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Looking across town, Souths’ Alex Johnston has well and truly reached cult hero status as he continues to race up the all-time try scoring list, and who can forget the deeds of Akuila Uate during his time at Newcastle. In comparing these four wingers, Johnson is a technician who is always in the right place to grab a four-pointer, while the other three added a touch of theatre and brutality to their on-field feats.

Quite often it’s just for the controversy they surround themselves with, and the way they play the game on the edge, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Tommy Raudonikis had an opinion on most things, treated his opponents with disdain, and cared not a jot for the consequences.

Wally Lewis wore the “King Wally” crown with ease, revelling in his cult hero status, while Cameron Smith made a career out of being loved by his team mates, referees and Storm and Queensland fans, and hated by just about everyone else.

Cult heroes are born and not made, and you just never know when the next one will emerge. Some clubs can comfortably carry more than one at a time while not every club has one. Take a quick look through the recent history of the game and the cult heroes of some are obvious and still celebrated to this day.

Parramatta had the freakish Brett Kenny, the laid-back country publican in Mick Cronin, and the seemingly indestructible Ray Price, all who enjoyed cult hero status at the same time.

Souths had Eric Simms, one of the first great indigenous players, who made kicking goals and field goals look ridiculously easy, and the tough George Piggins, who happily left more blood and skin on the field than the rest of the team put together.

Newcastle had their no-frills club heart and soul in Billy Peden, while Darren Albert thrilled the crowd with his effortless speed.

Wests had John Donnelly, who looked like he swapped every second training session for a night at the pub, while Balmain had the lightning-fast winger Larry Corowa, who brought the crowd to their feet every time he touched the ball, back in the days when it was okay to refer to him as the “black flash”, and also Kerry Hemsley who looked like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy.

So, who are the great cult heroes of your club, both past and present? How do they rate against some of the players mentioned here?

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