For every great graduation fairy tale, on the other hand, there is a heartbreaking story.
Here is the team of the best players from the NRL era, which started in 1998 never to taste the rugby league’s ultimate prize.
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1. MATT BOWEN
The cowboys legend lost the 2005 grand final to the Tigers and sadly moved to Wigan just two years before North Queensland’s first Premier League triumph in 2015, the same year he retired.
Bowen scored 130 tries in his 270-game NRL career with the Cowboys, scored 24 tries in 45 games for Wigan, and played 10 Origins for the Maroons and one Test for Australia.
Who could forget Bowen’s irresistible combination with future Immortal Johnathan Thurston in nine jaw-dropping seasons and he will go down as one of the most electrifying players who will never win everything.
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2. MANU VATUVEI
The Giants Warriors’ winger was one of the most devastating players of his generation, but made his debut after the Warriors were defeated by the Roosters in 2002 and lost his only Grand Final to Manly in 2011.
Vatuvei scored a whopping 152 tries for the Warriors in just 226 games with an incredible hit rate and 23 tries in 30 tests for New Zealand and Tonga.
It may have had a small flaw under the high ball but it got it into full flight and there weren’t many tougher defensive duties in the game.
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3. ANDREW ETTINGSHAUSEN
That team’s older statesman, Ettingshausen, only played three seasons in the NRL era but lost the 1997 Super League grand final to the Broncos and the 1999 preliminary final to the Dragons, despite being a strong favorite.
The man they call ET made an astonishing 166 tries in 327 first class games, predominantly at the center, and scored 14 tries in 25 tests and seven tries in 27 origins for NSW.
Forget the NRL era, Ettingshausen will go down as one of the best players who have never experienced ultimate success in the rugby league.
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4. JARRYD HAYNE
Unfortunately, the off-field controversy has marred Jarryd Hayne’s legacy, but on the field there was no better talent than the two-time Dally M medalist in the NRL era.
Hayne scored 121 tries in 214 games for the Eels and Titans, 11 tries in 23 Origins for the Blues, and 16 tries in 21 Tests for Australia and Fiji.
Who could forget Hayne’s rapid form that led to the 2009 grand finale, but unfortunately the Eels ultimately lost to the storm despite the title being canceled due to salary cap breaches.
5. NATHAN BLACKLOCK
There aren’t too many careers in the rugby league that are as fleeting and spectacular as dragon legend Nathan Blacklock, who lost his only decider to the storm at halftime in 2009 despite a massive lead.
Blacklock scored 121 tries in an incredible clip from just 142 games despite only playing four full seasons with the Dragons, and he also scored two tries in two games for the Kangaroos.
The sight of Blacklock storming a Kimmorley chipkick board and running 60 yards against the Run of Play in 1999 set the game up for the Dragons, but they couldn’t go on.
6. TRENT BARRETT
There are few more talented players in the NRL era than current Bulldogs trainer and Panthers assistant Trent Barrett, who has had a few near misses with some strong Dragons teams.
Barrett played halfback in his only grand final in 1999 and fell against the fairytale Tigers in the 2005 preliminary final, despite being a strong favorite.
Barrett scored 82 tries in 235 games for Illawarra, St. George Illawarra, and Cronulla, while representing the Blues in 11 Origins and the Kangaroos in 15 Tests.
7. STACEY JONES
The former skipper, arguably the most talented Warriors player of all time, took the golden shoe on the way to lead his club to his only grand final in his tenure in 2002.
Jones scored 77 tries and 674 points for the Warriors in two stints with the club, and scored an additional 16 tries and 160 points in 46 tests for the Kiwis.
Against the Roosters in 2002, Jones scored one of the largest single attempts in Grand Final history, but ultimately failed to win the club’s first Premier League.
8. NATHAN CAYLESS
There aren’t too many great captains in the game’s history deserving a Premier League more than Nathan Cayless, who lost the 2001 and 2009 ruling with Eels.
Cayless scored 28 tries in 259 games to complete as a one-club player and was also captain of his country en route to completing 39 Tests for New Zealand.
Cayless’ Eels were hot favorites for the title in 2001 and 2005, going to the Knights and Cowboys and losing to the decider in 2009 after a brilliant run of form, despite finishing eighth that year.
9. KURT GIDLEY
Kurt Gidley, one of the great club members and captains of the modern age, fits this list out of place with Hooker, as he always puts crew first for club, state, and country.
Gidley played almost all of the backline for the Knights, Blues and Kangaroos, scoring 80 tries in 251 NRL games. He played 12 origins and 12 tests.
Gidley played one game in the victorious 2001 Knights season in his debut year and lost the 2014 preliminary final in his penultimate year, which was the closest thing to the big dance.
10. Luke Bailey
At best, there wasn’t much more reliable and tougher front rower than Luke Bailey, who made his debut for the Dragons a year after losing to the Storm in the 1999 Grand Final.
Bailey played 269 games in the engine room for the Dragons and the Titans while he represented the Blues in 15 Origins and Australia in four Tests.
The preliminary final defeat in 2005 against eventual champion Tigers will be considered Bailey’s best shot in a grand final and he joined the Titans as a star recruit for their first team in 2007.
11. NATHAN HINDMARSH
There is no one who deserves a Premier League more than Nathan Hindmarsh, and no one is reminded that he has not won one more often thanks to the Fox League Boys.
Hindmarsh had a brilliant career, scoring 60 tries in a record of 330 games for his beloved eels. He played 17 origins for NSW and 23 test games for the Kangaroos.
Like his longtime skipper Cayless, Hindmarsh will regret the missed opportunities in 2001 and 2005 after minor premierships and the 2009 storm decision that was removed from the record books.
12. SIMON MANNERING
So he carried himself out that there were few careers as important as those of Simon Mannering that were carried out with less fanfare.
The humble but tireless Warriors skipper scored 63 tries in 301 games for the club and made 45 tests for New Zealand and was his country’s captain.
Mannering and his 2011 team, however, fell one game short of Premier League success after beating the Sea Eagles in the playoff.
13. GREG BIRD
Greg Bird has gone from a controversial career start to one of the toughest, most dependable players in the game for club, state and country.
The Legend of the Sharks and Titans scored 52 tries in 235 games during his NRL career, scoring 18 origins for the blues and 17 tests for his country.
In his final season with the Sharks, Cronulla was tied with Melbourne and Manly but ultimately lost in his closest shot to fame in the pre-finals against Storm and, ironically, the Sharks won the competition in his final season at the NRL for the Titans in 2016.
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