Sport loves a cult hero. It’s Merv Hughes with his iconic moustache and warm-ups, John Aloisi and his shirt off celebration in 2005 and it’s Marcos Baghdatis on his famous Australian Open run of 2006.
But rugby league perhaps loves its cult heroes more than any other competition.
Cult heroes may be club legends, they may be talented players, but above all else a cult hero is often a player whose playing style or attitude on the park was something that fans wanted to see.
In no particular order, here are some of the finest cult heroes the NRL has seen.
If you think we’ve missed someone, please let us know in the comments.
Club/s: North Sydney Bears, Northern Eagles, Canterbury Bulldogs, Sydney Roosters, Hull F.C.
Mark O’Meley was one of the most damaging and aggressive props of the early 2000s. Unfortunately for him, his bald head and tough demeanour led to him being compared to the biggest movie series of the 2000s – Shrek. “The Ogre” was a fan favourite of the Canterbury faithful and it was a big deal when he switched allegiances to the Sydney Roosters in 2008. A sign of O’Meley’s quality though was playing 10 games for NSW in a period of Origin dominance and featuring 15 times for Australia at the same time the likes of Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva had a mortgage on the starting positions.
Club/s: Canterbury Bulldogs, Sydney Roosters, North Queensland Cowboys, Hull Kingston Rovers, Newcastle Knights, Manly Sea Eagles, Catalan Dragons
O’Meley’s front row partner, Mason immediately became a cult figure out Belmore way with his mop of curly hair. A fearsome prop who established himself in the NRL from the start, he followed The Ogre across to the Roosters in 2008 before bouncing around at the Cowboys and then to England before landing at the Knights. Mason once again achieved cult status through his mic’d up game against the Dragons, sledging his opponents and complaining he was getting cold on the sideline.
Club/s: Parramatta Eels, Leigh Centurions, Toronto Wolfpack, Workington Town, Rochdale Hornets
Has there been a better example of a cult figure in the NRL? An Eels legend in his own right having played more than 200 games across a 10 year career for the club, the Tongan wrecking ball quickly became a crowd favourite in 2005 with his fearless charges. Known for his lack of self-preservation, the “FUUUUIIIII” chant could be heard around Parramatta Stadium every time he lined up for one of his trademark runs. He is also still playing, having signed on with the Rochdale Hornets for the 2021 English Championship season.
Club/s: Manly Sea Eagles
“The Wolfman” was a fan favourite at Brookvale during the club’s successful period under Des Hasler in the late 2000s and early 2010s. His shaggy hair and beard led to the popular nickname being coined, but he wasn’t just a nickname. He finished 2013 as the NRL’s joint top try scorer with 19, and did that a year after returning from a broken neck. His career unfortunately petered out in 2014 after being suspended for betting on matches and he finished the 2015 season in NSW Cup before retiring.
Club/s: Newcastle Knights, Manly Sea Eagles, Huddersfield Giants
At his peak, he was one of the NRL’s greatest and most entertaining wingers, scoring 110 tries in 164 games for Newcastle, setting the club record in the process. Aku netted Australian and NSW honours, while also turning out for his native Fiji 18 times. The crowd was always on their feet whenever the flying Fijian got the ball and he quickly became one of Newcastle’s favourite sons. He finished his NRL career at Manly in 2018 before heading to Huddersfield for two seasons. At the end of 2020 he announced his retirement.
Club/s: Parramatta Eels
Semi had it all – pace, footwork, strength and a nickname: “Semi-trailer”. If this list was looking further back in history, it would be including a man who many say Semi reminded them of – Eric “Guru” Grothe Senior. Radradra was plucked from relative obscurity in 2011 and made his debut in 2013. He quickly set about establishing himself as the best winger in the game, winning the 2014 and 2015 Dally M Winger of the Year awards and setting a club record of 24 tries in a single season. The blockbusting winger scored tries at an incredible rate, managing 82 four-pointers from just 94 matches for the Eels. He provided edge of your seat action, scoring a raft of tries from distance, often beating multiple defenders on his way to the try-line. The Semi-trailer is still plying his trade, although he’s busy terrorising defences in English Rugby Union.
Club/s: St George Illawarra Dragons, Parramatta Eels, Wigan Warriors, Sydney Roosters
The portly hooker was quickly given the nickname “Piggy” not long after his first grade debut for the Dragons. He further enhanced his cult status with his famous salute when lining up to kick for goal. Riddell also made a name for himself for his try scoring celebrations, famously leaping the fence to clap one of his own four-pointers for St George. He also performed a memorable dance after scoring for the Eels later in his career. For a player who carried some extra size around the middle, he was a mobile player, often switching to the backrow late in games. He was also known for his ability to find the try line, scoring 49 times in 250 games.
Club/s: Sydney Roosters, Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm, St George Illawarra Dragons
Gorgeous George carried a physique more commonly seen in local A-Grade oppositions. However his skills and footwork close to the line ensured he was a constant selection for Des Hasler’s side in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The large prop was a fan favourite at Brookvale across eight seasons before heading to the Storm and the Dragons where he saw limited game time and retired in 2015.
Club/s: Sydney Roosters, Parramatta Eels, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Castleford Tigers
Widders was the ultimate super sub. A highly skillful backrower, he was also at home playing five-eighth. During his stint at the Eels he developed a deadly dummy, right foot step that carved opponents up and led to then-Dragons coach Nathan Brown saying, “You know it’s coming, you just can’t stop it”. After retiring following stints at Souths and Castleford, he became heavily involved in coaching in Indigenous communities including the Indigenous Women’s All Stars. He currently works for the NRL as an Indigenous Pathways Manager.