The expression ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ holds a bittersweet resonance for a number of NRL players. Having been a part of a club that manages the rare feat of winning a premiership, the harsh reality for many squad members is that only 17 players will have their names etched into history.
With the likes of Andrew Johns, Greg Inglis and Steve Menzies having their names immortalised in Grand Final folklore, there are a host of unsung heroes who paved the way for the superstars of the game to create moments that have become part of the rugby league DNA. While previous players may have claimed a premiership earlier in their careers, their efforts during a season have at times been just as valuable as the ones produced on the biggest stage of the year.
While they may not have pulled on a jersey on Grand Final day, these ten players made big impacts in contributing to their team’s ultimate success.
Bronson Harrison (Wests Tigers – 2005)
Playing in 19 matches for the joint venture during their maiden premiership season, the interchange forward appeared set to enjoy the spoils of an unexpected premiership, however the recovery of experienced campaigner Todd Payten saw Harrison ultimately miss out. Debuting for New Zealand in the ensuing weeks following the Tigers’ 30-16 triumph, the 19-year-old went on to establish a strong reputation at Canberra and St. George Illawarra in subsequent seasons.
Darren Albert (Newcastle Knights – 2001)
Afforded legendary status for his last-gasp play in the 1997 decider, the Newcastle speedster was on track to join an elite group of Knights players in featuring in both of the club’s premierships. Struck down with a broken ankle in the qualifying final win over the Roosters, Albert’s time at the club ended on undesired terms. Going on to achieve iconic status as one of St. Helen’s greatest ever players, the lightning-fast winger returned to the NRL with Cronulla in 2006 for a final season before hanging up the boots.
Jamahl Lolesi (Canterbury Bulldogs – 2004)
While the story of Steve Price’s injury served as a warm up for what Johnathan Thurston would go on to do at the Cowboys, Lolesi’s contributions to the Bulldogs in 2004 remain valuable nonetheless. Scoring 13 tries in 20 matches during the premiership season, coach Steve Folkes opted for Ben Harris and Matt Utai in his backline heading towards the final. Despite missing out on the Grand Final 17, the 23-year-old outside back was rewarded with New Zealand selection following his strong season.
Joseph Paulo (Cronulla Sharks – 2016)
Deemed surplus to requirements by Parramatta following five years at the Eels, the versatile back-rower featured in 20 matches during the Sharks inaugural premiership victory in 2016. Used largely off the bench, a knee injury sustained in the final game of the regular season saw Paulo on the sidelines when the Harold Hold porch light finally went out for Cronulla.
Luke Priddis (St. George Illawarra Dragons – 2010)
Having previously claimed titles with Brisbane and Penrith, the veteran hooker looked set to finish up his time in the NRL as a reserve grader. Given an opportunity to step up after New Zealand hooker Nathan Fien broke his leg in the first game of the season, the 33-year-old featured in 20 matches for the Dragons in 2010, bringing up 300 career matches in the process. With Fien recovering in the run towards September, Priddis was left to sail off into the sunset having helped the joint venture achieve a piece of history.
Tame Tupou (Brisbane Broncos – 2006)
Scoring 13 tries in 18 games for Brisbane in 2006, a defensive shift by coach Wayne Bennett and a masterstroke to use Justin Hodges saw the New Zealand powerhouse relegated to 18th man duties for the premiership upset over Melbourne. Achieving some solace with selection for the Kiwis in the end of season Tri-Nations, a move to Bradford the following year resulted in a run of injuries that restricted Tupou to a legacy as a player with a tonne of potential left unrealised.
Luke Williamson (Manly Sea Eagles – 2008)
After suffering the heartbreak of losing a Grand Final twelve months earlier, the versatile Manly second rower was unable to force his way into a fully fit side heading towards the play-offs. Featuring in 18 matches in 2008, Williamson and fellow forward Adam Cuthbertson were able to share in the ecstasy of the 40-0 payback against Melbourne, but in spite of the loss, the 30-year-old was left to wonder what might have been.
Jason Ryles (Melbourne Storm – 2012)
Rated as the best front rower in the world at one point in time, the disappointment of going down against his former club in 2010 left Ryles at a crossroads heading into 2012. Given an opportunity to help continue the Melbourne salary cap rebuild, the 33-year-old suffered a hamstring injury in the lead up to the finals. Playing 22 matches in 2012, mid-season purchase Richie Fa’aoso offered up his premiership ring to Ryles who finished up his time in the NRL the following year.
Nathan Merritt (South Sydney Rabbitohs – 2014)
While his final year in the NRL was a bittersweet conclusion to a storied career, the emergence of Alex Johnston and an inability to find the try line saw Merritt absent when South Sydney broke their 43-year drought. Holding the Rabbitohs try scoring record with 146 four-pointers, the immediate disappointment of working so hard to help the Bunnies achieve their dream ultimately paled in comparison to what the 31-year-old managed to achieve across 13 seasons in first grade.
Leo Dynevor (Newcastle Knights – 1997)
With Andrew Johns only managing 11 games throughout the entire 1997 season, the unsung hero in the Knights maiden premiership was rookie half Dynevor. Playing 19 games that year, including two finals matches, the 23-year-old halfback lead the Knights to a second-placed finish at the end of the regular season. Missing out on the final 17 in favour of Great Britain representative Lee Jackson, Dynevor went on to spend two years with Western Suburbs at end of the millennium.