Feast yer eyes ..
25 in 25: Best centre of NRL era - Inglis, Gasnier, Hodges, Cooper, Manu, Morris, Lyon?Story by Paul Suttor • 4h ago
We are in the home stretch with only four to go. We have already gone through the best fullbacks, wingers, five-eighths, locks, second-rowers, players to never make Origin, coaches, captains, halfbacks, front-rowers, goal-kickers, recruits, heaviest hitters, rookies, Kiwis, Kangaroos, British imports, fights, Origin reps and Grand Final moments of the era.
Now it’s time to have a look at the best players who have been strike weapons out wide in the centres.
The players who could score and set up tries while also denying their opposition attacking raids with reliable defence on the edge.
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.
The top 10 – the best of the best1 Greg Inglis
2 Justin Hodges
3 Mark Gasnier
4 Josh Morris
5 Jamie Lyon
6 Latrell Mitchell
7 Matt Cooper
8 Joey Manu
9 Brent Tate
10 Will Chambers
Inglis only played 93 of his 267 NRL matches at centre after starting out also filling in at wing and five-eighth before becoming a force at fullback. But undoubtedly he has been the pre-eminent centre at every level in the past 25 years, including 26 times apiece for Queensland and Australia.
Hodges was GI’s ally many times in the representative arena and was a force for 16 seasons in 251 NRL games, winning a premiership early in his career at the Roosters and one at the Broncos, going perilously close to leading them to another in his final game as captain in 2015.
Mark Gasnier is tackled by Justin Hodges in 2006 at Wollongong. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Gasnier, one of only five players to win Dally M Centre of the Year more than once in the NRL era, seemed born to play centre. Must be in the genes. With his fast footwork and acceleration out wide, he made fools of opposing numbers and served up plenty of tries for his wingmen before retiring early at 30 in 2011, a year after scoring a try in St George Illawarra’s Grand Final win.
Morris will go down as one of the best players to never win a premiership, going close a couple of times with Canterbury, but nonetheless, he will be remembered as one of the best defensive centres of his generation while also a prolific tryscorer who touched down 158 times in his 325 matches.
Lyon is the only player in history who has been named Dally M Centre of the Year four times, not a bad achievement when the trio who did if three times were legends Mick Cronin, Michael O’Connor and Steve Ella. A prodigious talent early in his career in 70 games at the Eels, he was a more rounded player in his second crack at the NRL with Manly, winning two titles and growing into a leadership role, finishing with 122 tries and 1550 points in his 294-game career.
Mitchell has split his career between centre and fullback and only late in 2022 did he bring up more games in the No.1 jersey. As a centre in his first few seasons at the Roosters, he was dynamic in attack with a top-quality game-breaking ability as evidenced by his line break to set up the winning try in the 2019 Grand Final, the second of his two premierships at the club before joining Souths.
Cooper, like Morris, was seen as a defensive specialist but you don’t score 124 tries in 243 games if you can’t attack at an elite level. One of the integral parts of St George Illawarra’s 2010 premiership, he also shone in the representative arena for NSW and Australia for the majority of his career.
Manu is rising up the standings with every passing season. The undisputed best centre in the world right now, the only question for the dual premiership-winning Rooster is how long will he stay in the role after excelling at fullback for the Kiwis and at five-eighth at club level when given more of a hands-on role.
Tate was another superb all-round player who, because he displayed such a non-stop work ethic, has been under-rated for the skill and raw speed he possessed in scoring 81 times in his 229-game NRL career as well as another 20 occasions combined for the Maroons and Kangaroos.
Chambers was an intimidator and a niggler out wide for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia and although his tactics were sometimes questionable, for the most part they worked as he racked up two premiership rings, 224 matches and 20 representative jerseys for Queensland and Australia.
Best of the rest – elite performers11 Steve Matai
12 Willie Tonga
13 Dane Gagai
14 Nigel Vagana
15 Michael Jennings
16 Matt Gidley
17 Ryan Girdler
18 Justin Olam
19 Darren Smith
20 Stephen Crichton
Matai is arguably the best defensive centre out of all these players, he certainly hit the hardest and had the most fearsome reputation. His Brookvale bell-ringers got fans on their feet over the course of a 12-season career which included being a key plank of Manly’s 2008 and ‘11 premierships.
Steve Matai. (Photo: Tony Feder/Getty Images)
On his day, Tonga was one of the best centres in the NRL era, mainly during the middle stages of his career when he won a title with Canterbury in 2004 and his three-season stint with the Cowboys.
Gagai is a hard player to judge in comparison to his peers. He’s played 189 games at centre in his NRL career during stints at Brisbane, Newcastle and Souths but has been criticised for his form at club level while he has consistently produced much more impressive performances for Queensland and Australia at rep time.
Vagana had an extremely high peak during his three-season stretch at the Bulldogs when he scored 61 tries in 76 matches but was nowhere near as dominant prior to that with the Warriors or in later stints with the Sharks and Souths.
Jennings had pace off the mark that few players in league history have enjoyed and it led to 154 tries, including the 2013 Grand Final win with the Roosters, and he was still proving a handful late in his career before a drug ban brought it to an abrupt end in 2020 just two games shy of 300.
Gidley was all class with the ball in his hands with a deceptive ability to get outside his defender and either hare into the gap or set up his winger with his patented flick out the back. His club highlight was the 2001 Grand Final win with the Knights but he also represented NSW 11 times and Australia in 17 Tests.
Girdler came into his own in the second half of his career firstly at representative level with NSW and then with Penrith as they rallied to win the 2003 premiership after years in the doldrums. An intercept king, he tallied 109 tries in his 1690 career points and with 60 points from five Tests and 96 in 10 Origins for the Blues, he was an attacking machine at all levels.
Justin Olam. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
Olam is another modern-day centre who is the best of the current crop of defensive centres. A key member of Melbourne’s 2020 premiership win, he is a national hero in his PNG homeland and still just 87 games into his NRL career, he has the chance to become a Storm legend.
Smith was one of those players who was relentless in a 290-game career which kicked off in 1990 and didn’t end until the 2005 finals series. The former Bulldog won two premierships with the Broncos and while he was not in the league of long-time centre partner Steve Renouf for attacking punch, he still managed 115 tries.
Crichton’s silky attacking skills and match-turning plays, such as his crucial intercept in the 2021 decider against Souths, have been one of the driving forces behind Penrith’s recent back-to-back premierships.
The final five21 Terry Hill
22 James Roberts
23 Paul Bowman
24 Justin O’Neill
25 Jarrod Croker
Hill was a throwback to a previous era and his in-your-face style would intimidate plenty of opponents throughout his five-team 246-game career, highlighted by the 1996 premiership win at Manly, which lasted 15 seasons until 2005.
Roberts was perhaps the quickest of this bunch but unfortunately injuries curtailed the latter stages of his career after he became an Origin player during the peak of his powers during a four-year stay at Brisbane.