Have you ever played a game of rugby league wearing headgear? I can imagine that it is certainly a strange feeling at first, and not unlike batting in a cricket helmet for the first time. I tried wearing headgear once but discarded it at halftime after it became uncomfortably soaking wet in the rain and was ruining my hair.
There’s always been an “old school” feel about headgear, and while players who wear it are obviously just taking sensible measures to protect themselves from unnecessary cuts and bruises, some may have other reasons. Rugby league immortal and Eastern Suburbs point scoring machine Dave Brown may have just wanted to cover his prematurely balding head; Johnathan Thurston was clearly trying to stop opponents tackling him by his ears; Panthers’ winger Brian To’o apparently does it just to annoy fellow headgear wearer Stephen Crichton; and perhaps Manly backrower Jamie Buhrer was unsuccessfully channelling Sea Eagle’s try-scoring weapon, Steve Menzies?
Here is a fun exercise for the New Year – as you contemplate those unrealistic resolutions you made a week or so ago – a team made up of my favourite players to wear headgear. So, here’s the team:
1. Preston Campbell OAM – If Campbell was a fish he would not be legal size, but has there ever been a more elusive player in the game? Campbell won the Dally M Medal in 2001 and a premiership with the Panthers two years later, and his broken-field running was something to see – unless of course, you were playing against him.
2. Brian To’o – To’o makes the side even though he often ditches the headgear well before full-time. He is the prototype of the modern-day winger and uses his power, speed and determination to keep scoring tries while being one of the best ball returners in the business.
3. Steve Renouf – Renouf seemed to cop more than his fair share of injuries in his stellar career, but despite that, he won four titles with the Broncos, played 13 games for QLD and scored 13 tries in his 12 test matches for Australia. He was a beautiful mover who had the acceleration and footwork to shred any defence, and if he got into the clear, there was no catching him.
4. Jarrod Croker – Not that you would wish this on anyone, but if Croker had been born a Queenslander, he probably would have played a dozen Origins. He played over 300 games across 15 seasons for the Raiders and amassed 2,374 points along the way. He was never the best centre in the game, but a gutsy and consistent performer all the way and led by example.
5. Matt Sing – Sing was smaller than most halfbacks, but that did not stop him from scoring nearly 190 tries in his top-class career, playing 24 games for the Maroons and 14 tests for Australia. If a try was on, this little speedster was going to score it.
6. Jamie Soward – Soward always looked more like an Uber driver than a first-grade footballer to me, but coach Wayne Bennett got the best out of his running game and tactical kicking, helping him to a premiership with the Dragons in 2010 and even three origin games for NSW in 2011.
7. Johnathan Thurston – Thurston is probably the most famous headgear wearer in the NRL era and the Cowboys’ superstar went through hundreds of them, as he made a habit of giving them away to his devoted fans. I presume they were tax deductible.
8. Mark “Spud” Carroll – Carroll was a big brute who just loved the physical contact, particularly if he was playing against either Paul Harragon or anyone in Queensland jersey. Just point Carroll at the brick wall and watch him try to run through it.
9. Alan Tongue – I have resisted the temptation to use any “tongue” jokes here so let’s get on with it. There was nothing flashy about Alan Tongue, just 100% effort every time he took the field for the Raiders, and there were few more effective defenders in the game.
10. Peter Kelly – Kelly must be in the team as he is the only player I have seen who had his headgear knocked off by a punch. Admittedly, it was Les Davidson who threw the punch so better to lose the headgear than his head. Kelly was a tough hombre in his day and could be considered very unlucky never to have been selected for Australia.
11. “Rambo” Ronnie Gibbs – Gibbs was a fearless player, in both attack and defence, and he would not only put most of today’s precious overpaid forwards to shame on the field but also send many of them to the emergency ward.
12. Nigel Plum – If there’s one player you don’t want to see running out for the opposition it is our Nigel. What a weapon! Plum was one of the most destructive defenders the game has seen, and he seemed to enjoy terrorising the opposition.
13. Steve Menzies – Menzies is almost more popular on the northern peninsula than Manly Beach, and with good reason, as he just piled on the tries, crossing for a phenomenal 253 four-pointers in his incredible 520-game career.
That is my team – who were/are your favourite “head-geared heroes”?