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4 days ago
As expected, the retirement of Newcastle Knights superstar Andrew Johns, has triggered debate across the land as to who is the greatest to have played the game.
Of the elite who have showcased their mercurial talents over past 30 years, invariably it gets down to a two-horse race for the number one ranking. In the blue corner you have Andrew "Joey" Johns, whilst in the red corner (sounds better than "maroon" corner and in any case given the Queensland union side are known as the Reds and the player in question has a union background, so we'll run with it) you have the King, Wally Lewis.
When you dissect their games, there is little between them. Both were punishing defenders, had super long and short kicking games, were brilliant passers of the ball and master tacticians.
Joey easily trumps the King in the goal-kicking stakes, but Lewis was as superior in terms of leadership. Few would argue that Lewis is the finest captain the game's produced. You just have to look at his astonishing record at Origin. The manner in which his decisions destroyed magnificent New South Wales' teams.
Time and time again, Blues supporters were left in disbelief as to how their star-studded side would be put to the sword by the freakish talents of the number six whose influence in a game was all-consuming.
As much as Lewis inspired his team, he was equally effective in demoralising the opposition as he went about systematically dismantling their game.
Even when the play had stopped, Lewis didn't. He engaged in psychological warfare with whoever was in earshot to get the upperhand in the other battle being fought - the one between the ears. If anything, he was even more dominant at this facet of the game.
Take the infamous Mark Geyer face-off incident. In an explosive confrontation with an enraged giant who had wreaked havoc up until this point, here you had an ageing champion not only show no signs of backing off, but up the ante as the sin-binned pair left the field shoulder-to-shoulder.
Lewis knew it was defining moment in the game. And from what ensued from that moment on you can only imagine how much his teammates were empowered by the actions of their captain.
Lewis detractors argue that Wally's career is somewhat diluted due to the fact the bulk of his career was played in the Brisbane domestic competition. Mind you, some of his rivals included Mal Meninga, Bob Lindner and Gary Belcher. They could play.
But for me, this only made his achievements that much more remarkable. Come Origin time, Lewis had to raise his level of play ten-fold to meet the almighty challenge of brilliant New South Wales' teams.
It was akin to batting for Bankstown on the weekends, then having to face the might of the West Indies pace attack, and yet still despatching the likes of Holding, Garner, Marshall and Roberts to all points of the boundary.
Would it have been right to think less of Andrew Johns if he had worked his magic for the Cessnock Goannas, then dominate Origin and Test Matches in the manner that Lewis did? No, it wouldn't.
Origin was and still is, considered the toughest arena when it comes to rugby league. And in it Lewis won the man-of-the-match an incredible eight times, was in the running to win another eight times and among the best on the field on eight other occasions.
A friend of mine, who's as avid a Parramatta fan as you can get, to this day thanks his lucky stars that Lewis never signed with Manly in the early 1980s when it looked most likely. He felt had that occurred, the Eels would be still chasing their first premiership.
Just when you thought you couldn't hate Manly more. Imagine the same team with six premierships in a row? Too horrible to contemplate.
It comparing the careers of these two great champions, a lot of currency must lay in the quality of the opposition. Lewis played in an era where the standard of players was several grades higher than that of the mid 1990s to the present.
It is not the fault of Johns that he never had the opportunity to face a Wally Lewis-type player. Darren Lockyer is probably the closest, but his skills set is a long way short of that of the King's. Lewis on the hand, met and conquered some of the game's greats, the likes of Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer, Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin, Eric Grothe, Ray Price, the late Steve Rogers. The list is endless.
Bottom line, if New South Wales circa 1980-87 plays Queensland circa 1995-2006, if I'm backing the Blues I want fifty start.
A player who went on the 1986 Kangaroo Tour said Wally Lewis ran the whole shebang. The side went through undefeated. Enough said.
Respected commentators Ray Warren and Peter Peters, along with Peter Sterling, Tony Melrose and I'm sure Max Krilich as well, all rate the King as the best they've seen.
So when you pick the greatest team ever, when it comes to the halves, it's Lewis five-eigthth and captain, Johns halfback. Simple.