As we move our way through June and approach the halfway point of the year, it also puts us that little bit closer to a brand new decade: the 2020s.
A stat popped up the other day, revealing: ‘As we near the year 2020, no man born in the 1990s has won a grand slam singles tennis tournament. Maran Cilic is the latest-born man to win one; he was born in 1988.’ You could be 30, and still have never won a major singles tournament (veteran trio Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 52 between them – and all of the last 10).
Clearly tennis is still ruled by players born in the 1980s. And football (soccer) has two of the all-time greats in 31-year-old Lionel Messi and 34-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo still flying the flag for that same decade.
So if the 1980s kids are still ruling non-contact sports like tennis and football, then what of the NRL, a sport that is far more taxing on the body with brutal collisions often likened to that of a car crash? There is no question that tennis and football players play a lot more matches and spend more minutes competing. But the more gladiatorial strains of rugby league impact the body far more in terms of wear and tear, potentially shortening the career span.
If you were born in 1989, you would only be turning 30 this year. Hardly over the hill in any aspect of life. However, in the NRL, that would make you one of only 66 players to appear this season that were born in the 1980s. That’s 66 out of 396 players to have taken the field in 2019 – a mere 16%.
To make you feel even older: We also have four players born in the 2000s that have taken the field this season – Tom Dearden (2001), Bronson Xerri, Dylan Brown and David Fifita (all 2000).
The 1980s produced some of the greatest players the game of rugby league has ever seen. Once in a lifetime players. Johnathan Thurston. Cameron Smith. Billy Slater. Greg Inglis. Cooper Cronk. All touted as future Immortals of the code.
At the end of last season, we saw a list of retiring players with more than 4,000 games’ worth of NRL experience between them, including an unprecedented eight triple-centurions. It signalled the end of an era.
The annual NRL Player’s Poll has recently been released, gauging player opinion on which of their peers they deem as the best. And it is the second-oldest player in the competition, just shy of his 36th birthday, that has unanimously been voted as the best player in the game. Polling 31 percent of the votes, Cameron Smith (born 1983) is clearly still performing at an elite level.
However, when it comes to the best player in each individual position, it is the 1990s kids that are now dominating in just about every position, apart from halfback and prop.
Halfbacks Cooper Cronk (1983), Mitchell Pearce and Daly Cherry-Evans (both 1989) are showing they have still got a few tricks still up their sleeves. And that an older and sometimes wiser head still reigns supreme in the playmaking department.
Props Jesse Bromwich, Andrew Fifita and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (all 1989) are still putting their bodies on the line week-in, week-out and proving how tough and durable they still are up against the up-and-coming forwards.
Interestingly, in comparison eight out of the 13 positions in the collated Team of the Year for 2018 were 1980s kids. Three of those players have since retired – Billy Slater (1983), Greg Inglis (1987) and Johnathan Thurston (1983).
But 2019 looks different. It appears to be a changing of the guard, and the year the 1990s kids fully taking over to lead us into a new decade. So, who are the new generation, the potential future greats of the game?
Has any 1990s-born player (who could be anywhere up to 29 years old by now) really taken their game to a level where they could be considered in the upper echelon of the rugby league annals? Of the current Immortals, all were playing representative football for Australia by the age of 23. Whilst not a prerequisite, it certainly shows that greatness stands out from an early age. So, if you haven’t made the grade by now, then maybe superstar status is out of reach.
Statistics show that the key metrics in 2019 are dominated by 1990s kids, with arguably the best British player to ever play in the NRL, Sam Burgess (1988), the only 1980s-born player to feature in the top five of a category on more than one occasion. The Souths enforcer is still putting up big numbers, especially for hit-ups and post-contact metres.
Most charts are dominated by names like Cody Walker (1990), Latrell Mitchell (1997), Kalyn Ponga (1998), Damien Cook (1991), David Klemmer (1993), James Tedesco (1993) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (1993) – the leading candidates to steer us into the 2020s.
How much longer will the 1980s brigade last in what is clearly a 1990s-born era of influence now?
After a record 19 straight NRL seasons, Cronulla Sharks stalwart Paul Gallen (1981) will hang up the boots this season, by which time he will be 38. He is already the first player since Cliff Lyons in 1999 to play beyond their 37th birthday. Gallen debuted in the NRL in June 2001 – a mere three months after this season’s youngest player to feature in the NRL, Brisbane halfback Tom Dearden, was born.
Putting this in perspective, by the end of this season Gallen’s career will have been longer than that of the soon-to-be-defunct iTunes’ existence.
But the other longest serving player, Cameron Smith (1983) has re-signed with the Melbourne Storm until the end of 2020. That will take him to 37 years of age and equal Gallen’s premiership record of 19 straight seasons, barring injury. Smith is also just four games away from becoming the first player ever to break the 400-game barrier.
State of Origin can often be where the men are separated from the boys. The best of the best Australian rugby league has to offer. The history underpinning years of hatred towards the rival state brings out an unrivalled tribalism.
Stand out in Origin and you will rise above your peers to the elite status. Widely regarded as the best level of rugby league you will see, and the game where many neutrals and bandwagon fans will tune in for their annual fix.
This year’s series opener marked the first time since game two of 2003 that didn’t feature one of the aforementioned Smith, Slater, Cronk, Thurston or Inglis. So, it is over to the next generation.
Queensland fielded three players born in the 1980s in their side: Will Chambers (1988), Daly Cherry-Evans (1989) and Matt Gillett (1988). New South Wales went into the game with just one: Josh Morris (1986). A whopping 21 (80%) of the players named for the series opener were born in the 1990s.
Queensland feature the first player born in the 2000s to appear in an Origin game, David Fifita (2000), the fourth-youngest player to appear in the NRL this season.
Theoretically the players participating in State of Origin this year and the players leading the way in the key metric areas are the players who should be heading into the prime of their careers, dominating into the next decade. The future of our game.
Class is something they already have. Experience is something they will gain. But longevity is something they will need to acquire if they want to attain Immortal status.