Rugby league turns to a new generation of statesmen

Greg Inglis retired this week and will be followed by Paul Gallen at season’s end. Although Cooper Cronk, Darius Boyd and Cameron Smith are still playing club footy, they have retired from rep football. Last season we also farewelled Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater along with a few other 300-gamers like Simon Mannering, Luke Lewis and Sam Thaiday.

That’s a fair slice of experience and knowledge there. Those players are seen as the game’s statesmen.

So who is stepping up into that space to lead the next generation? Who is setting the example, the standards that we want surrounding our game?

There are a host of fine rugby league players at every club, but I’m going to single out a few I believe will be our new statesmen. And they are in no order of merit.

From the Cowboys I feel Michael Morgan is one. He’s earned respect amongst his peers. He’s already enjoying a celebrated rep career, to show his value as a player, and is in a influential position on the field.

He’s just a great ambassador for our game; he’s a NRL State of Mind ambassador. He’s had to endure a lot of things in his life like losing his good mate Alex Elisala in late 2013 to suicide.

From things like that, Michael is making a real difference in our game already and in the community. He is captain of his club and at just 27 years old, he hasn’t reached his full potential as a player.

Michael has mixed with the statesman-like figures like those above and learned off them. He will continue to grow and develop as a leader.

From the Broncos I’ve already stated that I think Matt Gillett is one of the best leaders at that club. He can easily lead rep sides as well as he’s been a mainstay of Australia and Queensland sides in the past.

Just because he hasn’t got the ‘c’ beside his name at Brisbane doesn’t mean his contribution is devalued in any way. He’s a good fella and has got a sense of fun, which I believe is an asset. He never takes himself too seriously – he’s very humble – but what a competitor.

When you talk about role models, or statesmen, it’s their competitiveness on the field and their determination off it not to let the game down. I think that’s an important trait to have.

At the Titans there’s another of that type of player in captain Ryan James.

He’s possibly the ultimate club man. The things he does away from the game are just as impressive as his work rate on it. He is still developing as a player and a leader. But the path he’s set himself is a pretty impressive one.

He has a view to the future. Rugby league is a stepping stone for later in life. He is into his second university degree and does a lot of community and charity work. He’s also a proud Indigenous person.

Ryan reminds me a lot of Jarrod Croker in being a great clubman, with the empathy he has for people in his community off the field and his teammates. And ‘Toots’ like Ryan are probably a bit unlucky in the sense they’ve not been regulars in rep footy teams.

They definitely have the ability - so to be a statesman in our game, do you have to be a rep player? Certainly within your own community you don’t need a rep jumper to have impact. Perhaps globally you have a higher profile if you are a rep player.

Another player who’s already a leader is current NSW and Australian captain Boyd Cordner. He has led his club to a premiership and he’s someone other players want in their footy team.

Roosters captain Boyd Cordner.
Roosters captain Boyd Cordner. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Boyd has earned the right to be a leader in the highest order, he leads by example, when he talks everybody listens and he is an extraordinary talent. I have seen him around the players at representative level and the influence he has on them… statesmanlike aplenty.

Fellow Rooster Luke Keary is another. I have a high opinion of him. He stands up for his team-mates and takes on responsibility and is always accountable for what he does.

Luke is always looking to improve and all the while has this cheeky, fun nature about him. I firmly believe he’ll be a rep player this year for NSW as he is getting better all the time.

He already had a premiership, with South Sydney, before he went to the Roosters. So he had strong leaders around him like Inglis, Sam Burgess and John Sutton. Now he’s on that path himself – soaking in more from the likes of Cronk and Boyd Cordner around him at the Roosters.

I’ve been impressed with another Rabbitoh in Cody Walker.  He’s starting to have a real influence on those around him by the way he is carrying himself in the game.

He is a really good story in perseverance and maintaining faith in his own ability. Wayne Bennett said this week Cody was one of the most gifted players he’s ever coached. That says an awful lot.

Cody captained the Indigenous All Stars side this year which is a huge rap, and he handled it really well. He had a voice and expressed that opinion with maturity, when it came to his comments on the national anthem.

Then there are the Trbojevic brothers at Manly.

Tom and Jake are just very decent, humble human beings. They care about what they do, and seen them generously look after people, are very unselfish the way they go about their lives and always have a smile on their face. And they are damn good players.

Another hard-working type is Newcastle’s David Klemmer. You can see his heart of gold behind that rugged rugby league exterior.

He and his good mate Aaron Woods at the Sharks are two players with really good natures – it’s never too much trouble to go and visit someone in hospital, or give up hours of their free time to help. They are very likeable and great players in their own right.

David and Aaron love the game and will do everything they possibly can to put it in its best light. That’s what you want from your statesmen.

I also know there are plenty of others around the clubs that never get this recognition but importantly look after the game in their own unassuming way.