Top Squad 25: The toughest 25 men to ever play rugby league

BY CURTIS WOODWARD

@woodward_curtis

Let us make it clear that there is a difference between ‘tough’ or ‘gutsy’ and those that we class as enforcers or intimidators.

In our first of the Top Squad 25 series, we list the 25 toughest men to lace a boot.

1. GEOFF TOOVEY

There has not been a tougher man in the sport of rugby league than little Geoff Toovey. Starting out as a tiny 168 centimetre blonde halfback from Belrose, Toovey moved into the forwards and copped the brunt of many opponents. He took it all and kept coming back for more.

2. TOMMY RAUDONIKIS

Before Toovey there was Raudonikis. A fearless warrior, Raudonikis was a leader of men in a rough old era of rugby league. Standing just a little taller than Toovey, Tommy dragged his teammates kicking and screaming into battle. A true winner.

3. JOHNATHAN THURSTON

Not only one of the most skillful players to grace the footy field, Thurston was truly tough. For years, Thurston took cheap shots from desperate defensive lines and they still couldn’t stop him. The Queensland legend would always drag himself back to his feet and get on with the next play.

4. LES DAVIDSON

Let’s just say Les Davidson will end up on some other upcoming lists but you can’t deny his toughness. Yes he could fight and he could maim, but you can’t doubt his guts. A tough son of a bitch.

5. IAN ROBERTS

A similar type player to Davidson. Not many stood their ground better than Ian Roberts. The former Australian forward took plenty of knocks in his time and pays for it today after admitting he has brain damage.

6. JAMES GRAHAM

This bloke should have got a start in Game of Thrones. Canterbury really let him go? A leader of men and an inspiration to those that play alongside him. A real character of rugby league.

7. MARK GRAHAM

The first Kiwi on our list and not soon enough. Graham once told Rugby League Week: “I grew up in Otahahu and it was one tough town – it was where the movie Once Were Warriors was set. The gangs there would stick a knife in you if you looked at them the wrong way. When I came to Australia I got a big laugh out of what you call ’gangs’… trust me, they are nothing compared to Kiwi-land.”

8. SHANE WEBCKE

If you were making the prototype prop, you’d take Shane Webcke’s heart and determination. His last run of a game would be as good as his first. Oh and he also helped Brisbane get through to a grand final after playing the preliminary final in 2000 with a badly broken arm.

9. NOEL KELLY

Our second Magpie on the list and with good reason. Noel ‘Ned’ Kelly was as tough as a $2 steak. Kelly gave out plenty of punishment himself but he took more.

10. JOHN O’NEILL

The big prop played in the same era as Kelly and in that time, you had to know how to defend yourself. And the best form of defense was hurting your opponent first. In saying that, there were several examples where O’Neill refused to come from the field despite the bones in his shin clearly visible to teammates. Manly supremo Ken Arthurson said once that O’Neill was a man of “great character and great courage”. O’Neill would join Manly from Souths and make them a premiership team.

11. TERRY RANDALL

Another tough bugger from the Sea Eagles. From eraofthebiff.com: “His brutal but fair tackling always had the opposition on the lookout for his approaching kamikaze frame. He was an integral part of the engine room that took Manly to their first and second premiership in ’72 and ’73 respectively. Also played in the winning ’76 and ’78 Manly sides.”

12. JOHN SATTLER

Ask many opponents from John Sattler’s era and they will tell you South Sydney loved dishing out punishment – legal or otherwise. But nobody can deny John Sattler’s efforts in the 1970 grand final after copping a broken jaw in the opening minutes of the game. The Rabbitohs leader played through the pain, amassing 30 touches and helping steer Souths to their third title in four seasons.

13: ALLAN LANGER

At just 165 centimetres, Allan Langer played in a land of giants and the magical little halfback took full advantage. He knew that he would get bashed around but he’d always get his revenge in the end.

14: MARK BROADHURST

Heaven knows how many times Mark Broadhurst’s name has been brought up over a schooner in a beer garden over the years. “Remember that tough Kiwi bugger? What was his name?” … From Canterbury in New Zealand, Broadhurst is most infamously known for his part in the 1981 preliminary final brawl between Manly and Newtown. After the fight it was revealed that Broadhurst had a depressed fracture and broke his eye socket in three different places.

15: KEVIN RYAN

Nicknamed ‘Kandos’ after a country town that produced cement, Kevin Ryan was a truly tough man. The Dragons forward hated “gang tackling” and enjoyed nothing more than going on one-man defensive missions to destroy his opponents.

16: SAM BURGESS

In years to come, Sam Burgess might find himself higher on a list like this. A fearless leader that thrived on confrontation, Burgess found his best form in the most heated of battles. And just like fellow Souths legend John Sattler, Burgess will long be remembered for his feats in the 2014 grand final where he smashed his face in the first tackle of the game after a head clash with James Graham. He’d play on and Souths would win the premiership. He also won the Clive Churchill Medal.

17: STEVE MATAI

Everyone remembers Steve Matai’s bone-crunching hits but do we remember the pain Matai went through on-field? How many times did we see the Manly centre play through the pain? A great Sea Eagles club man and grossly underrated.

18: TREVOR GILLMEISTER

‘The Axe’ will always be a Queensland legend and for great reason. Despite his lack of size (he was only 178 centimetres tall) Gillmeister hammered the Blues for years in the State of Origin arena. Before Game III of 1995, Gillmeister was on a drip in hospital. The doctor told him if he played he could die. Well…he played. And Queensland won.

19: RAY PRICE

The great Ray Price always has an opinion and why wouldn’t he? Price is only Parramatta’s most inspirational leader. A dual-international, Price didn’t have the size of some of his competitors in rugby league but he made up for it with a sheer will to win.

20: MARTIN LANG

The big front rower played first grade for a decade and not once, ever, did he take a backward step. Martin Lang only knew one way and that was hard and straight. He took plenty of punishment in his career but had the total respect of his opponents, won a premiership and a represented his state.

21: GAVIN MILLER

Miller is one of the best-playing forwards to ever play the game. The Sharks legend won back-to-back Dally M’s because he carried the ball so far into the line taking countless late and high shots off the ball. He gave up his body to make his teammates better.

22: MARIO FENECH

Mario might also make an upcoming ‘Crazy 25’ but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t tough. Some would say the former Rabbitohs captain was mad but you have to be tough to be that mad.

23: COOPER CRONK

The Storm and Roosters hero falls into the same bracket as the other little men on this list. A diminutive playmaker, Cronk will go down in folklore for his amazing performance in the 2018 grand final. Just being on the field was a mighty effort. Seriously.. the guy had a “15cm fracture through the width of his scapula” – compared to that of a car crash victim!

24: BILLY WILSON

A fierce member of the imperious Dragons between 1956 and 1966, Wilson was dubbed ‘Captain Blood’ by teammates for the amount of claret he spilled for his club. Instead of retiring at 36, Wilson took up a deal with the battling Bears and was named as captain of Australia and NSW in his first season at North Sydney. He played with the Bears until he was 40.

25: DALLAS JOHNSON

He wasn’t the biggest, quickest or smartest but Dallas Johnson was loved by every teammate he played with. “As much as he will hate reading this, in the sheer toughness stakes Dallas Johnson is in a league of his own and the Melbourne Storm owes so much of who we are today to him and the legacy he left us over the course of his 157 appearances” – Craig Bellamy in The Australian, 2013.

@woodward_curtis

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