October 2021

Darren Lockyer: Never Say Die

Darren Lockyer was the king of the clutch moments throughout his career. But where does he sit in the pantheon of NRL greats?

There are perhaps two enduring moments of Darren Lockyer’s career. 

The first being him swooping upon an errant NSW pass in game three of the 2006 State of Origin series. It won Queensland the match, the shield and started the most dominant Origin period in history.

The second is of Lockyer laying on the ground, clutching the left side of his face as his eye slowly bruises and his check swells, only for him to stand, wave away the trainer and in extra time, sink the St George Illawarra Dragons with a field goal.

It’s a moment that wouldn’t happen in today’s day and age. He’d be removed from the field for a head injury assessment. And while playing through what could be a concussion isn’t something to write home about, playing with a fractured cheekbone is.

That’s what Darren Lockyer was about. Determination and the will to win.

He did it at every level. For Brisbane. For Queensland. For Australia.


But his career seems to sit in the background these days. Not entirely ignored or forgotten, but certainly not as revered as his contemporary, Andrew Johns.

While Johns has his deserved Immortal title, Lockyer is still waiting. 

What Lockyer did is unlikely to be done again. He dominated in two positions. First as a fullback, then at five-eighth.

Plenty of talented players have attempted to make the switch since; Greg Inglis, Jarryd Hayne and in today’s game it seems Kalyn Ponga will eventually try to move from the number one into the number six.

While the likes of Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes have made the move from fullback into the halves, neither were considered the best in the world at the back when they made the switch, and neither have so far become the best in the world since.

The Broncos legend became, in effect, the prototype of today’s modern fullback. Combining speed and elusiveness with a slick ball playing ability.

Much is written about how Billy Slater changed the role, but if it weren’t for Lockyer, perhaps Slater would never have added the ball playing string to his bow.

After all, it was Lockyer’s ball playing ability which made him dangerous from fullback. There were plenty of great runners of the ball in the position during the 1990s and 2000s.

Brett Mullins, David Peachey, Brett Hodgson, Anthony Minichiello and Tim Brasher were all exciting fullbacks. Fast, agile and hard to pin down, they were the usual fullback, often supporting through the middle of the field, chasing kicks and finishing off back line movements.

Lockyer had all of that, but he could also collect the ball at second receiver, drift across field and put a centre or winger into a gap as he skipped outside opponents and caused panic among defenders.

The Beginning

These days we are a long way from the dominance the Brisbane Broncos enjoyed. In the 1990s they were your Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters. A well run, professional organisation bubbling with talent that always had questions of legality swirling around it.

It’s been 15 years since the Broncos last won a premiership, and they have only qualified for the grand final once in that time. A fair distance from the once sky high expectations of the club.

Under master coach Wayne Bennett the club had won the 1992 and 1993 premierships. The last side to win two premierships in a row until the Roosters of 2018 and 2019.

1995 was when a skinny, blonde haired, blue eyed teenager made his debut for the Broncos. Against a struggling Parramatta Eels side, the powerhouse Broncos won 60-14 and Lockyer came off the bench, nabbing a try assist to Steve Renouf.

The Broncos team he debuted in consisted of the likes of the aforementioned Renouf, Wendell Sailor, Allan Langer and Glenn Lazarus.

Few would have suspected the debutant would one day eclipse all of them in the pantheon of rugby league greats.

But despite such a future ahead of him, he first had to entrench himself in a very competitive side.

He spent 1995 and 1996 mostly on the bench or used as a utility between fullback, five-eighth, wing and centre.

In 1997, at the height of the Super League war when the competition was split in two, Bennett decided to make Lockyer his full time number one, replacing Broncos legend Willie Carne, a player the now 20 year old had looked up to.

It was an inspired decision by Bennett which brought out the best in Lockyer.

Now settled in the side, he began to seriously demonstrate his talent.

1997 would see him net his first representative jerseys for both Queensland and Australia. While they may have been Super League affected, meaning he was up against a narrow field, he still relegated Canberra legend Brett Mullins to the bench.

With the competition reuniting in 1998, the question was whether or not Brisbane could maintain their dominance in the newly formed NRL, given the Super League competition the Broncos won was considered the weaker of the two.

Brisbane may have had to compete against Canberra and the Bulldogs, both of which were 1990s heavyweights, the Raiders on the way down as their legends retired, while the Bulldogs were forced to shed Jason Smith, Jarrod McCracken, Jim Dymock and Dean Pay to the Eels as they had signed with the ARL.

The other teams the Broncos were up against included perhaps Cronulla’s strongest side until their 2016 premiership win, a middling Panthers outfit, and a bevy of expansion sides that provided little opposition.

The Hunter Mariners, Auckland Warriors, Western Reds, Adelaide Rams and North Queensland Cowboys all struggled, none made the finals and none finished with a positive points differential.

With the competition back together, how would the Broncos and their new wunderkind perform?

Lockyer’s 1998 season was his and one of Brisbane’s best on record. Despite the club having a rocky period and slipping to sixth in round 14, it launched a 12 game unbeaten run to take the minor premiership.

Running much of that dominance was the fullback who took out his first Dally M Fullback of the Year Award, crossing for 19 tries and scoring a total of 272 points for the season.

Brisbane would go on to win the 1998 premiership despite losing in the first week of the finals to the Eels – defeating the Bulldogs on grand final day.

It was in his early years that Lockyer was being schooled in the art of winning.

While Allan Langer pulled the strings at halfback, the side was led upfront by Glenn Lazarus. The intimidating prop, nicknamed The Brick with Eyes, was a serial winner, capturing premierships at every club he played for.

He was there through Lockyer’s first three seasons, while the super competitive Gorden Tallis arrived in 1997.

And it was Tallis who captured the Clive Churchill Medal as best on ground in the 1998 grand final.

What better players to learn how to win than from two of the most formidable players in that era?

A New Millennium

As the 2000s rolled in, Brisbane continued their dominance of the newly formed NRL. They may have been bundled out in week one of the finals in 1999, but 2000 would see them reclaim their mantle.

The Broncos won the premiership in 2000 and Lockyer took out the Clive Churchill Medal in the grand final, signalling his shift into the upper elechon of great fullbacks.

In many ways it was the tipping point of Lockyer’s career.

Following the grand final he was the first choice during Australia’s 2000 World Cup win.

He followed that up with a stunning 2001 season that saw him once again collect the Dally M Fullback of the Year and his first Representative Player of the Year Awards alongside his first Ron McAuliffe Medal for best Queensland player in State of Origin.

From 2001 to 2003 Lockyer was undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, and he was crowned as such with the 2003 Golden Boot.

While the Dally M Award eluded him thanks to seasons such as Andrew Johns and Preston Campbell, there is no doubting Lockyer’s impact on his side.

He had transformed from the young player, being led by legends to become a legend himself, and he was barely halfway through his career.

At the end of 2002, following a brief jaunt to England and return to Brisbane, halfback Allan Langer retired.

Bennett looked to the combination of Shaun Berrigan and Ben Ikin to fill the roles at the base of the scrum in 2003.

Repeated knee injuries to Ben Ikin, who had been recruited as a five-eighth, had limited his appearances across 2001-2003.

Brisbane qualified for the finals, but they did so on one leg in 2003, losing seven consecutive matches at the end of the season to drop from first to eighth.

They were then bundled out of the finals by eventual premiers Penrith.

In the representative arena though, Lockyer showed his value. On Australia’s end of season tour and with Andrew Johns injured, Lockyer took control of the side both as captain and talisman.

The Kangaroos won all three matches in their Ashes series with Great Britain, with Lockyer scintillating in all three games as he rallied his side to victories at the death.

A New Position

At the end of 2003, Wayne Bennett decided the side needed a shake up. Despite still having a strong squad with multiple State of Origin and international players, Bennett felt he needed something more from his halves.

Ben Ikin’s knees were not what they once were and he would manage just nine games in 2004 before retiring. Shaun Berrigan was shifted into the centres while the likes of Neville Costigan, Barry Berrigan, Michael Ryan and Casey McGuire dipped in and out of the hooking position.

With a young, dynamite fullback waiting in the wings called Karmichael Hunt, Bennett decided to gamble and put Lockyer into five-eighth from round one.

The new position suited Lockyer down to the ground. Using his speed and evasiveness, he could isolate defenders on the edge and either position his outside players to put them into gaps, or burn the opposition himself.

There was no settling in period at five-eighth for the former Broncos custodian. In 2004 he took out the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year and RLIF Back of the Year awards.

That type of instant switch was unexpected and the way he took to his new role has yet to be replicated.

Incredibly talented players such as Jarryd Hayne and Greg Inglis were both tried in the position throughout their careers, but both made much better fullbacks than five-eighths.

Recently Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga has been touted as a future five-eighth, but he’s yet to move there, or show he has the complete skillset to be in the position full time.

Lockyer’s shift not only saw him handle the ball more, but his general play kicking became exemplary.

With his low drop punt modelled after that used by AFL players, he could clear defensive lines but ensure he’d always hit the ground, forcing opposing fullbacks to pick up a bouncing ball.

While he was always a good ball player, his passing game took on a different look. Whereas at fullback he was often on the end of backline moves, now he was starting them, looking to pass teammates into space or open up gaps around the middle of the field.

In the Origin arena he quickly developed a deadly combination with the young Billy Slater whose sixth sense for positional play complimented Lockyer’s deft touches with the ball in hand.

Legendary Status Cast In Stone

While Lockyer’s seasons in 2004 and 2005 were strong, Brisbane didn’t taste their usual success and with club legend Shane Webcke coming to the end of his career, the Broncos wanted to send their warhorse off on the right note.

2006 would be a season that would come to define Darren Lockyer and his impact on not just his club, but his state and country.

Much has been written about Wayne Bennett’s decision to shift Shaun Berrigan from the halves into hooker in 2006. He was forced to after Shaun’s brother Barry and back up hooker Michael Ennis went down with injuries.

But shifting a creative player like Berrigan into the hooking role opened up more attacking opportunities for the Broncos, and with the extra space, Lockyer could cause havoc.

Brisbane cruised through most of the regular season, never dropping below fifth position after round five. Even with a rocky period around the Origin series where the side lost five on the trot they still managed to bounce into the finals in the top four.

It was in Origin though, that Lockyer was most relied upon.

New South Wales had won three series in the row with Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns playing starring roles, and the Blues threatened to win four straight for the first time in Origin history.

The Maroons were well and truly staring down an embarrassing place in history after replacement halfback Brett Finch sunk Queensland with a late field goal in game one.

Queensland was a relatively inexperienced side at the time, they switched through three fullbacks during the series and the forward pack was constantly being rotated.

Lockyer was one of the few Maroons players to have previously tasted an Origin series win. In fact, he was the only player in the spine to have won a series. Only game three fullback Clinton Schifcofske had raised the shield, and he’d done it as part of a drawn series in 2002.

Partnering Lockyer in the halves was Johnathan Thurston who was in his second series and at hooker was Cameron Smith who, despite being in his fourth series, was yet to raise the shield.

In game two Lockyer showed his side how to win, orchestrating a 30-6 demolition job with the series on the line to square the ledger and go to a decider. He was handed the man of the match award for his performance.

It was made all the better by the fact there was rumour he was going to be dropped in favour of Thurston and Scott Prince.

Mal Meninga even told Lockyer he wanted to pick him at fullback.

But he remained in the halves and come game three, he would kick off a period of unexpected dominance for Queensland.

With the Maroons trailing 14-10 and five minutes on the clock, it looked like the Blues would play out an historic fourth series win.

That was until an errant pass from dummy half by New South Wales fullback Brett Hodgson saw Lockyer swoop in and score under the posts to hand Queensland a 16-14 victory.

By the end of the series the Broncos captain had netted the Wally Lewis Medal and Ron McAuliffe Medal.

He backed that performance up by then guiding Brisbane to the 2006 premiership in a 15-8 win over the Melbourne Storm.

Lockyer set up both of the Broncos’ tries and kicked the match sealing field goal.

His efforts across 2006 landed him the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year and Dally M Representative Player of the Year awards.

But he wasn’t finished. He then led the Kangaroos to the Tri-Nations title at the end of the year.

In the final against New Zealand, the match went to extra time at 12-12. The match headed into the second period and Johnathan Thurston finally sliced the Kiwis open 35 metres from his own line with his trademark show and go.

Looming up on Thurston’s inside wasn’t fullback Karmichael Hunt, but Lockyer who took the pass and dived over to seal a memorable victory.

A week before that match he’d been awarded the Golden Boot.


Lockyer’s value to Brisbane was underscored in 2007 when he tore his ACL in round 18. The Broncos dropped from fifth to eighth and were bundled out of the finals 40-0 by Melbourne.

Through the preceding 18 weeks though, he had done enough to net his third Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year gong.

In 2008 he again showed why he was Brisbane’s leader. Still dealing with the after-effects of his knee injury, he was in and out of the side, missing six of Brisbane’s opening 11 matches.

His return in round 12 against the Eels was a perfect demonstration of his competitiveness.

With the siren going and the scores locked at 26-26, most players would be prepared for golden point. Lockyer wasn’t quite in position to shoot for a field goal around halfway, but perhaps a bomb that would give his chasers a chance to win the luck of the draw was on the cards.

That was until Brendan Oake charged out of the line. Lockyer stepped around the Eels defender, presenting himself with a scrambling Parramatta defence, he then steadied and launched a perfectly weighted chip for winger Denan Kemp to collect and score the match winner in the corner.

Lockyer’s career was full of moments like that, and his final act on the football field for the Broncos was a match winner.

After teammate Gerard Beale fractured Lockyer’s cheekbone and Brisbane heading into extra time against the now Wayne Bennett coached Dragons, Lockyer launched a match-winning field goal from 30 metres out to sink his former mentor.

He retired at the end of the 2011 season while still representing Queensland and Australia.

It’s hard to imagine where Brisbane and Queensland would be without Lockyer. His exploits helped to win premierships and without him, there’s every chance the Maroons don’t win the 2006 decider.

And who is to say if Queensland develop that never say die attitude that sees them win eight consecutive series if Lockyer isn’t there at the start?

His career spanned multiple generations, beginning in a competition still featuring Terry Lamb, and concluding the same year Daly Cherry-Evans debuted.

He made his State of Origin debut alongside now Broncos coach Kevin Walters, and retired in the same side as Johnathan Thurston.

Lockyer’s career ended with him holding the appearances record in Australian rugby league, for the Broncos, Queensland and Australia.

And while Cameron Smith his total appearances, Lockyer still holds the record for Australia and for most games as Australian captain, while he sits second to Wally Lewis for most games as Queensland captain.

His durability is also remarkable considering his knee injury in 2007, which tends to spell the beginning of the end for some players.

He was playing a full season of first grade, Origin and Australian matches up until his retirement, which was rare prior to the NRL and is virtually unheard of in the modern game. 

Even Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, the only players to play more NRL matches than Lockyer, gave their representative duties away before the retirements.

The ultimate question is where does Lockyer stand in the pantheon of greats? In 2008 he was named at fullback for the NRL’s team of the century – the only current player to be named in the side.

But post-retirement the lights have seemingly dimmed on his career. He has a statue next to Wally Lewis but isn’t an immortal.

His contemporary, Andrew Johns was virtually rushed through to be named the eighth immortal, while Lockyer missed out.

With the next Immortals announcement to come in 2022, perhaps Lockyer will receive the recognition he deserves.


1 comment

  1. His kicking was exceptionally good. The modern kickers could learn how to drop punt so that the ball hits the ground and makes the fullback or winger work to get the ball, in particular slippery night games. Only Adam Reynolds and Nathan Cleary regularly kick long and low to get position, while most others resort to a bomb. His ability to hold the ball in both hands and not transmit his intention drove defensive systems crazy. Loved watching Lockyer.
    Hope he gets his voice fixed and takes over Sterlo’s role on CH9 commentary

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