The greatest rugby league team of all-time? It’s hard to argue

St George Illawarra have announced their team of the century, arguably the greatest club combination in the history of rugby league.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the players are drawn from the 1956-66 era when the Dragons won 11 successive premierships.

However, the red and whites have had great players in every era since the club’s foundation year of 1921.

This was the premise behind the process of choosing the centenary team, as well as selecting the club’s top 100 players.

Six eras were identified, each with a separate team and coach chosen, except for the 1956 to 1966 period where a composite team had already been selected. This era produced four players who became Immortals – Reg Gasnier, John Raper, Graeme Langlands and Norm Provan – all mandatory inclusions in the team.

Nine played over two eras and all but one – Steve Morris – made the ultimate team. (“Slippery” played half at the beginning of his career and wing for the rest, meaning he had competition from Billy Smith as No.7 and the Johnny King/Eddie Lumsden duo on the flanks).

No current player made the team which was finalised at the beginning of 2021, but the announcement was delayed because of COVID-19.

Ben Hunt’s recent form, particularly his play in last week’s deciding State of Origin match, would have attracted the eyes of the selectors but he had Smith and Bob Bugden ahead of him.

Ditto Ben Hornby, captain of the Dragons’ last premiership team and holder of the record for most games played for the club.

The position of second row produced the most debate.

Apart from Rod Reddy and Provan who made the starting team, Harry Bath and Neville Smith were chosen on the bench.

Both Bath and Smith, apart from being great players and coaches, made unique contributions to the club.

Bath brought clever ball-playing skills, developed during his time in England, while Smith was captain coach of the club’s first premiership team.

He joined the club in 1939, taking the team from last to equal second and led the Dragons to the 1941 title, defeating Easts 31-14. One newspaper declared : “He meant more to St George than two ordinary men.” It was widely agreed that if an Australian team had been selected in 1940, Smith would have been captain, following his success with NSW and the Dragons.

A player’s representative career while with the Dragons was a factor in selection.

Kevin Ryan, who played both second row and prop, will be seen as a contentious omission. He played in seven winning grand final teams and was a fierce defender. He made one Kangaroo tour, playing in two Tests but injury and unavailability limited his representative career.

Centre was another position with a plethora of talent available. Reg Gasnier was an automatic selection, with his nephew, Mark, making for both a family and local junior connection in the historic team.

Another centre, Doug McRitchie, was chosen on the bench.

McRitchie toured with the 1948 Kangaroos, played in the 1949 premiership team and was credited with creating the overlap for Ron Roberts to score a try against Great Britain to win Australia the 1950 Ashes. His club career was limited through war service, playing only seven games in three years.

St George Illawarra’s current chair, Craig Young, a dual premiership winner and long-serving captain, was chosen as one of the two front-rowers.

With great mentors from which to choose – Smith, Ken Kearney, Provan, Ian Walsh, Bath and Wayne Bennett from the last era team – the selectors went back to the club’s early days to choose the coach of the red and white’s best.

Frank Burge is an Immortal as a player, being regarded as the greatest forward ever, averaging better than a try a game during his career, mostly with Glebe.

St George hired him as captain coach in 1927, after the Dragons had come last the previous season. He took the club to the final and top four in each of the next three seasons as non-playing coach. He lost the job in 1931 when the club preferred a playing coach but he returned in 1937, taking the Dragons from second last to equal second. Without him, St George would drop to win the wooden spoon in 1938.

He is credited with establishing the tradition of excellence at St George.

Following the selection of the era teams by separate panels, their representatives met to discuss the final team. It was ultimately chosen by a three-person committee, consisting of myself, a former Dragons coach, as chair; John Riley who was Reg Gasnier’s centre partner and a Kangaroo and Geoff Armstrong, a respected historian, and author of two volumes on the club’s history, entitled Spirit of the Red V.

The 100 greatest Dragons

Luke Bailey, David Barnhill, Trent Barrett, Wayne Bartrim, Harry Bath, Barry Beath, Michael Beattie, Nathan Blacklock, Darius Boyd, Tony Branson, Nathan Brown, Kevin Brown, Bob Bugden, Peter Carroll, George Carstairs, Brian Clay, Matt Cooper, Mark Coyne, Ben Creagh, Steve Edge, George Evans, Frank Facer, Percy Fairall, Robert Finch, Tyson Frizell, Mark Gasnier, Reg Gasnier, Fred Gardner, Noel Goldthorpe, Ted Goodwin, Scott Gourley, Brian Graham, Bill Hardman, Gordon Hart, Johnny Hawke, Phil Hawthorne, Jack Holland, Ben Hornby, Pat Jarvis, Brian Johnson, Brian Johnston, Snowy Justice, Mick Kadwell, Ken Kearney, Aub Kelly, Len Kelly, Johnny King, Ross Kite, Graeme Langlands, Ernie Lapham, Merv Lees, Jack Lindwall, Eddie Lumsden, Alby McAndrew, Brad Mackay, Matt McCoy, Doug McRitchie, Ken Maddison, Frank Meighan, Brett Morris, Steve Morris, Noel Mulligan, Anthony Mundine, Jack Munn, Walter Mussing, Jason Nightingale, Michael O’Connor, Bryan Orrock, Noel Pidding, Monty Porter, Norm Provan, Graham Quinn, Johnny Raper, Elton Rasmussen, Rod Reddy, Johnny Riley, Ron Roberts, Kevin Ryan, Jason Ryles, Tommy Ryan, Frank Saunders, Beau Scott, Billy Smith, Bruce Starkey, Robert Stone, Gorden Tallis, Lance Thompson, Arnold Traynor, Neville Smith, Shaun Timmins, Clarrie Tye, Ricky Walford, Ian Walsh, Jack Wedgwood, Michael Weyman, Billy Wilson, John Wittenberg, Graeme Wynn, Craig Young, Dean Young.

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