Published in Rugby League World in December 2010
THE 25th anniversary of the Golden Boot being awarded to its inaugural winner, Wally Lewis, seems the perfect time to reflect upon an award that crowns a player as the world’s best – the ultimate accolade for any individual. The roll call of winners throws up a list of some of the finest players ever to lace on a boot, and evokes memories of some of their greatest achievements.
Rugby League World, with the blessing of Harry Edgar, the founder of Open Rugby, this magazine’s predecessor, has decided to recognise that while Lewis, and the other early winners, received the award in one year, it was ultimately awarded for their achievements in the previous calendar year. Therefore Lewis will now be now recognised as the 1984 winner, Brett Kenny the 1985 winner, through to Mal Meninga, who becomes the 1989 winner.
The Golden Boot was dropped in 1991 when Adidas stopped their sponsorship. Edgar readily admitted that he struggled for at least three years with international issues that saw the award move too far from what he had initially intended it to be back in the early 1980s. When League Publications Ltd, the publishers of the Monday-morning newspaper, Rugby League Express, which was first published in September 1990, bought Open Rugby from Edgar in late 1998, and changed the name to Rugby League World shortly after, they re-introduced the Boot with Andrew Johns the winner in 1999.
Edgar gives a lot of credit for the birth of the Golden Boot to Peter Deakin, who worked for Open Rugby and who later did such magnificent and groundbreaking marketing work at Bradford in the early Super League years. Edgar explained: “It was in the early 1980s that I thought it would be really good to do. A French football magazine called Onze promoted the ‘Golden Shoe’ which went to the European footballer of the year and it was sponsored by Adidas – it looked great and I thought it would be fantastic if we could do something like that in Rugby League. I’d always wanted to do something on an international basis.
“That’s how the seed of the idea grew. For credibility it had to be the ‘Adidas Golden Boot’, so we started talking to them and after a lot of effort we got them on board to sponsor the world ratings, which we’d been doing for a while. Then we asked them to be associated with the world’s best – the Golden Boot. This was perfect for Peter. He loved a big event and the razzmatazz involved in something like this, and it was down to him that we managed to get Adidas on board. They were heavily into rugby union and didn’t want to touch Rugby League at first.
“Like most things with Open Rugby, I would come up with the idea and I’d pass it onto Peter and off he’d go. I was like the ball-handling lock forward and he was the barnstorming second-rower going through the gap. He had so much energy and he loved the idea. He played a big, big part in it.”
With Adidas on board and the first Golden Boot made, all that was left was to come up with a winner. By 1984 Lewis was such a dominant figure in the Origin arena that he was despised in New South Wales – he was even booed as he led Australia onto the Sydney Cricket Ground for a Test match against Great Britain. The reason he was hated south of the border was simple – he was the principal reason why the Blues had failed to get their hands on the Origin shield in the first five years. In 1984, he produced two of his record eight man-of-the-match awards in the first two games. At club level, Lewis led his new club, Wynnum Manly, to Grand Final success in Brisbane, and he also captained a combined Brisbane side to victory over the Winfield Cup’s Eastern Suburbs in the final of the National Panasonic Cup. They also beat South Sydney, Canterbury and Parramatta along the way as Lewis was crowned player of the series. And that Test against Britain was one of three Ashes wins that year for Lewis’s side while he also captained the Oceania side to an easy victory over the Northern Hemisphere in Paris. He was as convincing a winner of the Golden Boot as you could get.
“Wally was the man and he was such a genuine winner,” said Edgar. “We’d got Australia involved as we had Adidas [the Australian version of the company] and Rugby League Week magazine on board. It worked out perfectly because we wanted the first Golden Boot event to be done around an international match and the only one at the time was Australia against New Zealand in Brisbane. Wally Lewis receiving the award in Brisbane – perfect.
The September 1985 issue of Open Rugby reported: “June 19 was a proud day for Open Rugby magazine – the day an idea first introduced in the magazine some seven years ago came to fruition. The scene was Brisbane’s plush Parkroyal Hotel – the morning after the night before when the giants of the League world from Australia and New Zealand had done battle in a great Test match at Lang Park. The Adidas Golden Boot is to be the symbol of excellence worldwide in Rugby League, and it was fitting that the man who stole the show at this gathering of League people, media men and extremely articulate after-dinner speakers was Wally Lewis, the recipient of the inaugural award.”
Lewis, whose Golden Boot year began in rather inauspicious circumstances as Wakefield, with whom he was guesting for in the Brisbane off-season, lost 14-12 at Hilton Park, Leigh, emailed Rugby League World to say: “Winning the Golden Boot was stunning. Being rated good enough to represent your city (Brisbane), state (Queensland) and country (Australia) is something that ranks among the proudest moments of your life. But when I was informed that I had won the Golden Boot, it was something very special. It was an individual award, and one that left me in disbelief. To see a list of the players being considered for the award guaranteed plenty of pride.
“The only controversial point of the award came just before its presentation. Upon being contracted by Brisbane club Fortitude Valleys, I was signed to a contract by sports footwear company Puma. They were the direct competitors of Adidas. Thankfully the disagreement quickly disappeared and I was cleared to accept the award. It was a high-cut boot that weighed plenty, and still holds a very special place in my trophy room at home. I can remember the photo that was taken after the presentation, and I’m sure I had a beard in those days.”
The next winner was Lewis’s fierce State of Origin rival, Brett Kenny, who prevailed from a shortlist of ten contenders. Despite Queensland’s domination of the interstate scene in those early days, the Blues won eight of the 12 matches that Kenny started at stand-off, and, along with Peter Sterling, he was the golden boy of Parramatta’s four Winfield Cup successes between 1981 and 1986. In 1985 he was hugely instrumental in New South Wales winning the Origin shield for the first time – it was the first series that he played every match in his favoured position. However, it was in England that Kenny enjoyed his finest moments in his Golden Boot year, as he became the first overseas player to win the coveted Lance Todd trophy at Wembley as the stand-out player in the Challenge Cup final with his Wigan side defeating Hull. It wasn’t just any Cup Final; it is widely regarded as the greatest-ever Rugby League contest to be played underneath the Twin Towers. Kenny produced a blistering first half, scoring one try and setting up others in a majestic display as Wigan ran out to a convincing half-time lead. His great Parramatta friend, Peter Sterling, inspired a Hull fightback but the damage was done. In all, Kenny scored 19 tries in a glorious spell at Wigan, and with Lewis enduring a very difficult 1985, Open Rugby plumped for Kenny as their newest winner, although he had to wait until the Kangaroo tour of late 1986 before being awarded the Boot.
“Finding the right time to present the award wasn’t very easy back then,” Edgar continued. “Now the internationals are always tagged onto the back end of the year so there’s an obvious time to do it, but in the 1980s that wasn’t the case. Adidas were keen that we should hold a big event where we could get a lot of media attention but in 1986 we had to wait until the Kangaroo Tour in the autumn, and that’s when Brett Kenny won it for what he’d done the previous year.”
Kenny remembers that he didn’t even know what the award was for, due to the fact that it was still yet to be established. “The Golden Boot was something I didn’t know too much about – I actually thought it was for goalkickers at first! Two gentlemen from the Open Rugby magazine approached me and explained it was for the best player in the world and that was fantastic to hear. I had to keep it to myself until the presentation function, which was pretty hard to do because when you win something like that you want to tell everybody about it. The Golden Boot is a great achievement for any footballer. To be named the best player in the world is a wonderful honour.”
Another Australian was the next recipient and it was another of the Kangaroos’ formidable backline. Balmain’s Garry Jack was the undisputed number-one fullback at state and national level and played a big role in their respective series whitewash wins in 1986. The Blues pulled off the first-ever 3-0 Origin win with Jack scoring a try in the first game, but it was on the international scene that he shone like a beacon. He played nine Tests in 1986 – a figure that seems incomprehensible now – averaging a try a game. Three of his tries came in the Ashes – one in the first game and two in the second – as Australia wrapped up the series with comprehensive 38-16 and 34-4 wins. Jack, another obvious winner, was the first player to receive the Golden Boot live on television.
Jack’s quality as a fullback was noted recently by Australian TV pundit and former New South Wales coach, Phil Gould: “Garry Jack was one of the best I ever saw,” he said. “He would knock you out if he had to, to stop you scoring a try!”
“In 1987 I took the Boot to Australia to present it to Garry Jack,” said Edgar, “and had some fun and games with Customs! The function was a reunion of the Kangaroos from the year before and all the Queenslanders were there because it was a few days before an Origin game in Sydney – perfect.
“The Golden Boot award that year was actually made live on television – that’s how big it had become. We had to interrupt what we were doing because Channel Ten wanted him live on the news and nothing could stop for the news. The whole evening stopped for Garry to go out of the room to be interviewed live on the news, but that sort of publicity was great for us.”
After that Edgar started to experience difficulties with the Australians. “By 1988 I thought it would be great if we could take it to another country,” Edgar recalled. “My dream was to do something in France but it was totally out of the question because Adidas there wouldn’t touch Rugby League. I think part of their unwritten agreement with French rugby union was that they don’t touch Rugby League. So France was a no-go area but New Zealand was different. Adidas New Zealand were really keen and they were happy to put on a big event but, of course, it needed a Kiwi winner. Luckily, there was a genuine winner with Hugh McGahan in such great form for his performances in 1987 when he led the Kiwis to victory over the Aussies in the only game they played that year. He was also in great form in the Winfield Cup for Eastern Suburbs. He was the outstanding choice for the Golden Boot.
“That was the first time we encountered a problem. The Aussies couldn’t believe that we didn’t want to pick an Australian and, in their eyes, it was Sterlo’s turn. Now, nobody was a bigger admirer than Peter Sterling than I, but it was simply Hugh McGahan’s award that year. However the Aussies insisted that it should be Peter so we had to compromise, and so we had a joint award. Personally, I don’t think that works.”
McGahan, however, didn’t seem too concerned that he had to settle for a half share of the award, when he emailed his vote for this year’s award: “Winning or sharing the boot with Peter Sterling was a proud moment for me – firstly to be rated alongside a ‘great’ of the game, but it was also recognition that Rugby League is played outside Australia and that non-Australian players can aspire to the same heights if they believe in themselves and their abilities. It was also confirmation that hard work and sacrificing some aspects of life will be rewarding in many ways, least of all materially.”
Sterling, who was outstanding for Parramatta in 1987 and was man of the match in the second Origin encounter, as well as the unofficial ‘fourth’ Origin game played in America, noted: “It’s probably the greatest honour you can achieve in Rugby League and one I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
The following year saw another non-Australian winner in Britain’s Ellery Hanley. His performances for Balmain Tigers in 1988 were so stunning that they are used as a rather unfair and unrealistic barometer for every Englishman who has since plied his trade down under. Hanley arrived in Sydney mid-season with the Tigers languishing far off the pace, but with Hanley in scorching form in the centres, they finished sixth and qualified for the play-offs on the basis that they had the same points total as the team in fifth – back then points difference didn’t rule a side out of the semi-finals. Having to do it the hard way, they won an unlikely Grand Final berth in sensational style by winning four sudden-death matches all against sides who had finished higher than them. Hanley was in unstoppable form as Penrith, Manly, Canberra and Cronulla were brushed aside, although in the final against Canterbury he fell victim to a Terry Lamb high tackle that saw him leave the field and not return. To this day many believe it was a premeditated attack to leave the Tigers shorn of their main strike weapon, such was his threat to the opposition.
The Yorkshireman then backed up those performances in the 1988 Ashes by scoring a lovely individual try as Great Britain led 6-0 at half-time in the first match and by playing a leading role as his side won their first match against Australia since 1978 in the third Test, a match that was listed by this magazine last year as Great Britain’s greatest result.
“In 1989, given that we’d had Aussie winners as well as Hugh from New Zealand, we were keen to see a British winner, and fortunately for us, there was no doubt at all that Ellery was the deserving winner,” Edgar pointed out. “He was the one man that the Aussies had no argument over after his performances for Balmain and for Great Britain on the Lions tour.
“So there was no argument over him being the rightful winner but, again, problems began because Adidas in this country had more or less dropped out. The guy we’d dealt with who we’d managed to persuade to back us had gone and after that it was the usual PR types who didn’t understand what it was all about and they weren’t sympathetic to us. We couldn’t do anything in this country – it had to be done in Australia.
“By then Channel Ten had got involved as a third party and, like with Garry Jack, they wanted to present it live on TV, but this time not at a function but at a game. This was in 1989 and Ellery was back in Australia with Wests. The chosen game was up at Newcastle, where Ellery had to drive there from Sydney to be presented with the award. Channel Ten got their live moment and we got plenty of publicity but I don’t think Ellery was too impressed because he’d been at the functions for the other winners, and all he got was a pitchside presentation – and I could sympathise with that.”
It was also reported that Hanley accepted the award dressed in Puma gear, something that didn’t go down well with the sponsors of the Boot! But irrespective of the side issues, Hanley was delighted to win the Golden Boot, for reasons similar to McGahan’s: “I am delighted to have won the Golden Boot, because it might be a long time before a Great Britain player wins it again,” he said at the time. “It’s always going to be difficult for British players to get this ultimate recognition when Australia dominates our sport in so many ways.” Hanley was right – it was 15 and a half years before another Brit was regarded as the world’s best.
Another iconic League figure stepped up to the plate in 1989 and enjoyed a year he will look back on as his finest in the game. Mal Meninga is one of the code’s most famous names and faces, and the sight of him in full flight was a thing of beauty. He moved to the still relatively new Canberra Raiders in 1986 after a blistering stint in England with St Helens. Three years later, the Raiders played their part in a truly unforgettable Grand Final as they defeated Balmain in extra-time. Meninga’s contribution was immense as he made a crucial try-saving tackle late in the game to prevent the Tigers wrapping the game up. And then, in the final seconds, after John Ferguson’s try reduced the deficit to two points, Meninga had to hold his nerve to tie the scores with the conversion. He did, and his side prevailed in the extra period. At representative level, he was part of two sides who whitewashed their opponents, scoring two tries in the first Origin as his side gained the momentum to record a 3-0 series win before the Kangaroos gained a trio of wins in New Zealand. To cap all that, Meninga had recovered from four broken arms to become the world’s best player.
“By this time the Golden Boot had been hijacked from what I wanted it to be,” Edgar remembered. “Mal Meninga was the obvious winner for his performances in 1989 but again there was no pomp or ceremony – he was just given the Boot and that was it. The decision makers at Adidas had changed and they weren’t sympathetic to us.”
Unbeknown to Edgar at the time, Meninga was to be the last winner that he would be responsible for. When, in early 1991, the panel decided that Great Britain’s Garry Schofield was the world’s finest, on the back of a series of mesmeric displays for Great Britain against New Zealand and Australia, the Australians wouldn’t support the decision, and Adidas refused to support an English-based presentation. Without Adidas, Edgar pulled the plug.
“It had very much become an Australian thing and we decided to make one last effort to get it back to what it was and what it should have been,” he said. “We wanted to have it in England and after Garry’s performances in 1990 – he should have been the rightful winner. He’d been absolutely outstanding on the tour to New Zealand and in the Ashes series against Australia – the closest we’ve been to them in years. Garry was a brilliant player – no one can deny that.
“But we couldn’t get the backing to do it in this country. We couldn’t do it in Australia because Schoey wasn’t due to be in Australia. Typically, the Australians believed that an Australian should win it, but we believed that Garry should and that was more or less the last straw. Adidas wouldn’t do anything to make it happen in this country and that was it for me.
“As well as that, Peter [Deakin] wasn’t on the scene anymore because he was working in America and he’d been instrumental in getting sponsors and pushing the Aussies. When he wasn’t involved, the driving force was gone and that was it.”
Sadly, and suddenly, it appeared that the award that Wally Lewis described as “stunning” and Peter Sterling as “the greatest honour you can achieve in Rugby League” had seen the light of day for the last time. It ended up being shelved for nine years before League Publications, the new owners of Open Rugby, decided to revive it. Martyn Sadler, chairman of LPL, who wrote for Open Rugby in its early days, said: “I thought it was a great innovation when Open Rugby introduced it, and thought it was overdue recognition for the greatest players in the game. We wanted to find a way to mark the fact that LPL had acquired Open Rugby – something that would make people sit up and take notice.”
Graham Clay was the first editor of the newly named Rugby League World and recalled: “When we bought Open Rugby, one of the first things I wanted to do was bring back the Golden Boot because it was a hugely prestigious award. I remember reading Open Rugby when I was a kid and seeing such great players like Wally Lewis and Brett Kenny winning the award and thought it would be great to bring that back. The criteria was simply to judge who had been the best player in the world for each year, with performances in internationals playing a big part in that – but, as Andrew Johns proved in 1999, outstanding domestic performances could still land you the award.”
Johns, the brilliant Newcastle Knights scrum-half, who had firmly established himself as one of the world’s best since breaking into top-level rugby in 1993. In 1999 he actually missed the Tri-Nations series but played all three Origin games as the series finished tied for the first time in its 20-year history. He was once again fantastic for Newcastle Knights, although they were eliminated in the first round of the play-offs.
Johns told Rugby League World recently: “I remember growing up having posters on my wall of all the big names, and me and my brother had a picture of Ellery and his Golden Boot, so I couldn’t believe it when I won it because it’s such a prestigious award. When I got mine [in England], the picture went back to Australia and my mum rang me and told me off for picking up an award like the Golden Boot without having a shave!”
In 2000 another of the game’s great names got his hands on the award. Brad Fittler had long been one of the game’s most recognised faces and in captaining both New South Wales and Australia to Origin and World Cup glory, he did his reputation no harm at all. He also led Sydney Roosters, the club who had broken the bank to entice him from Penrith Panthers at the height of the Super League war, to their first Grand Final in 20 years.
“Brad Fittler was another great name, of course,” says Clay, “and I actually presented the award to him at the Sydney Roosters Leagues Club. I was out there at the time launching the Australian version of Rugby League World. We used a similar panel back then that is used now, one that was made up of journalists and former players including Peter Sterling. Steve Mascord liaised for us in Australia and got some big names involved.”
Fittler recalled: “It topped off the year. During your career there are always people who put you down, and others who praise you. That’s the way it is. So there’s nothing wrong with being proud of the accolades that come your way. You get enough kicks where it hurts, on and off the field, and when finally your achievements are recognised, there’s no point in hiding your light under a bushel. I was absolutely rapt to get that award. I was at ease with the world.”
Johns became the first man to win the Golden Boot for a second time in 2001 when his performances in leading Newcastle Knights to their second Premiership in five years had few people disputing that he was the premier player in the world. He won the Clive Churchill Medal as the best player in their unlikely Grand Final win over Parramatta – Newcastle were huge underdogs that day – before he went on to help Australia win the Ashes on British soil a month later, in particular producing an excellent performance as Australia levelled the series at Bolton with a convincing 40-12 win.
2002 saw a third non-Australian winner with the mercurial Kiwi scrum-half, Stacey Jones, recognised for taking the Warriors to their only Grand Final to date and helping New Zealand earn a share of the spoils in their Test series in Great Britain, picking up the George Smith Medal as player of the series in the process.
Jones admitted to being speechless that he had won the Golden Boot before adding: “It’s a great honour, a massive honour.”
A year later the current Australian captain, Darren Lockyer, won his first Golden Boot largely for inspiring an under-strength Australia to their first Ashes whitewash of Great Britain in 18 years. Lockyer, who hails from Roma, the same Queensland town as Arthur Beetson, had long been a dominant figure on the international scene. With each Test delicately poised in the closing stages, Lockyer’s magic touches turned all three in his side’s favour from losing positions.
By this time Tony Hannan had taken over as the editor of the magazine: “The Golden Boot is one of the great awards – if not the greatest award – in Rugby League, and something it was a huge honour to have a hand in, as editor of Rugby League World.
“One of the biggest problems we always seemed to have was the awarding of the actual Boot itself, given that ideally the decision is made after the final game of that year’s international series and it is usually going to go to an Aussie.
“In 2003, for example, I had to tear around to a hotel in Leeds city centre on the Sunday morning after the Australians had just completed their first 3-0 Ashes whitewash over Great Britain since 1986. Ironically, given the time it took me to get there, that was the one sponsored by the government’s ‘Think!’ road-safety campaign.
“2003 was also the year in which Darren Lockyer won the award for the first time. He had kindly agreed to pose with the Boot in front of a Christmas tree in the hotel foyer, shortly before the Kangaroos left for the airport. I remember thinking then what a down-to-earth bloke he was and nothing in the handful of times I’ve met him since has made me change my mind. There’s no sport quite like Rugby League for that. These lads may be among the best athletes on the planet but they rarely, if ever, have any airs or graces and are genuinely thrilled to join the illustrious list of former winners.”
The award caused controversy in 2004 when it was won by a British player for just the second time. After a magnificent year with Wigan, when he dragged an injury-ravaged side through the toughest of seasons, Andy Farrell’s name was added to the list of illustrious previous winners. He won a thoroughly deserved second Man of Steel after figuring for much of the year in the unusual position of prop, producing form that was as good as any in his 14-season Wigan career. Internationally, he captained Great Britain once again and was instrumental in them finishing top of the Tri-Nations table after helping them to three wins in four games against Australia and New Zealand – the other game was lost on the hooter as Luke Rooney snatched yet another late winner for the Green and Golds.
Farrell remarked at the time: “This is one of the proudest moments of my career. Winning the Golden Boot has been one of the things I have always dreamed of,” he said. “Some great players have won this award in the past and to be spoken of in the same breath makes me feel privileged and honoured.” Wayne Bennett, the Australia coach, spoke in glowing terms of the British captain: “We were pleased for Andy Farrell – he’s been tremendous. I was disappointed at the criticism that has been levelled at home about him winning it. That’s pure sour grapes, but not from the Australian team. There was nobody there who didn’t think he deserved it.”
With the Golden Boot winner decided after those round-robin games and before the final because the presentation was by now tied into the international awards evening, the decision to hand the award to Farrell surprised few in this country, but caused an outcry down under which Bennett refers to. The critics’ arguments were strengthened when Great Britain were absolutely annihilated in the final six days later against Australia, who were led by a rampant Darren Lockyer, with the Daily Telegraph in Sydney leading the way.
Their writer Dean Ritchie wrote that “Farrell is honest, tough and committed. But it ends there. He has obviously won the award for years of loyal service to Great Britain. It is an award handed out on sentimental grounds.” Ritchie claimed that a panel of unnamed journalists, officials and players that he had contacted ranked Farrell as the 28th best player in the world with former Kangaroo great Laurie Daley, who lined up against Farrell at stand-off in the 1997 Super League Test series, adding, “Andy is a good footballer but he’s never done anything to put fear into the Australians.”
When contacted by Rugby League World recently, Ritchie stood by his remarks from six years ago: “The NRL is so far ahead of Super League it is embarrassing. Any player who wins the Golden Boot must do so from the NRL competition, not by playing matches against reserve-grade standard Super League sides,” before adding: “I was inundated with emails from England. The fans were filthy.”
Hannan remembers the fuss with some fondness: “You could hear the howls of protest from Bondi to Blackpool. It’s always fun when the Aussies whinge, so I enjoyed that very much. Anyway, Faz had won his award fair and square. Although Britain were subsequently turned over in the 2004 Tri-Nations final, at times over that year it seemed as if he was carrying his team single-handedly on his own shoulders.
“In some ways, though, that did show the pitfall of awarding the prize before the final game. Trying to avoid the last-gasp rush of 2003, we set up a glitzy international awards dinner at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, sponsored by Gillette. Led by Farrell, Britain had enjoyed a great tournament up until then, but were stuffed 44-4 in the big match.
“It’s a really tough – if not impossible – one to call. I think on balance, though, that waiting, as the magazine has done more recently, is the best approach. There can be no doubt, then, that the right man has won.
“The funniest thing was the reaction of the notoriously parochial Australian press. Horrified at a non-Australian winning it, they were asking, who votes for this thing? Well, you did you dummies! Every one of them was given a vote although, typically, some of them couldn’t be bothered to use it.”
A year later Anthony Minichiello, the outstanding Sydney Roosters, New South Wales and Australia fullback, became another Golden Boot winner to be accept the award before the final, only – as with Farrell a year earlier – for it to be undermined by a thrashing on the big stage with Australia losing 24-0 to New Zealand in the Tri-Nations final at Elland Road, their first series defeat since a 2-0 reversal at the hands of the French in 1978.
No-one could really argue with the next winner. Darren Lockyer, by now a stand-off, enjoyed the perfect 2006, leading Brisbane to an unlikely NRL Premiership with a 15-6 win over the much-fancied Melbourne Storm in the Grand Final. He also scored the winning try in the State of Origin series as the Maroons won a series for the first time in five years. In the Tri-Nations, this time held in the Southern Hemisphere, his influence helped Australia win back the trophy from the Kiwis. He was an obvious and undisputed winner and joined Andrew Johns as a two-time winner.
But with 2004 and 2005 in mind, two changes were made to the process of finding the latest Golden Boot winner after I became editor of Rugby League World in 2007. It was decided that the Boot would only be awarded after the last big international of the year and that voting process would be transparent to the public, especially as it came so soon after the controversial Man of Steel awarding to James Roby over Trent Barrett. So, a panel of illustrious ex-players including Sterling, Schofield, McGahan and Mike Stephenson joined various media members like Sadler, Mascord, Malcolm Andrews and myself in voting the Melbourne, Queensland and Australia hooker, Cameron Smith, to be a clear winner of the 2007 Golden Boot, with Jamie Peacock, who had led Leeds and Great Britain to success, coming second. Peacock was the first recognised runner-up of the Golden Boot, with Johnathan Thurston, Steve Price, Gareth Ellis and Roy Asotasi also shortlisted and receiving votes in that order. The first, second and third choices of each voter was published in the magazine for all to see.
“The main thing is transparency,” said Sadler. “We have published the names of the judges, and have revealed how they voted. I think that gives the Golden Boot a lot of credibility.”
“I’m quite shocked actually,” said Smith on hearing he had won the Boot. “It’s capped off a great year and I’m made up to have won it. If you’d told me at the start of the season what sort of year I’d have, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s been a quite incredible year and I’m fortunate to be at a club with such a great coach and players. Look at the talent in the Queensland and Australia teams as well. It’s a season I will remember for the rest of my life.”
The 2008 winner enjoyed the sort of nightmare final game that Farrell and Minichiello did. But the voting was carried out after Billy Slater’s disastrous World Cup Final and he still won the Golden Boot at a canter, with only the New Zealand-based Steve Kilgallon out of the 14 judges not rating him the world’s best. Slater was fantastic on a weekly basis for Melbourne and helped the Maroons win their third-straight Origin series before starring in the group stages of the World Cup particularly in their humiliation of England. The big Kiwi winger, Manu Vatuvei, was the runner-up ahead of Greg Inglis, Benji Marshall, Jamie Peacock, Cameron Smith, Brent Kite and Johnathan Thurston.
Slater said when I presented him his award in Sydney: “It’s a massive achievement to be named the best player in the world and I still can’t believe it. You hear the names of previous winners like Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer. They were my heroes and for my name to be thrown around in that category is massive. I probably won’t realise what it means until I’m older.”
By this time, the Rugby League International Federation, chaired by Colin Love, had set up its own awards to rival the Golden Boot. They initially tried to bargain with Sadler to gain ownership of the Boot, but were unsuccessful. “The RLIF tried to take over the Golden Boot, but they didn’t respond to the conditions we laid down if they were to take over the award.” Rugby League World then declined Love’s invitation to present the Golden Boot at their awards night on the basis that it was staged before the World Cup Final. Love, in turn, came up with a series of new international awards but, crucially, ones that only reward a individual’s achievements from October to October and not January to December – as the Golden Boot does. Therefore, strangely, it does not take into account performances in that year’s international competition. So, this year, with anything that happened in the Four Nations not being taken into account, Todd Carney, the Australian’s second-choice stand-off, bizarrely won an award entitled the ‘International’ Player of the Year.
Greg Inglis made it a trio of Storm winners in as many years when his truly destructive performances in the inaugural Four Nations in 2009 left him the clear winner of the Golden Boot, especially after he had won the Wally Lewis Medal as the best player in the State of Origin series. And to cap off the perfect year for Inglis, he won his second Grand Final in three years with Melbourne. He won the award ahead of fellow nominees Billy Slater, Gareth Ellis, Cameron Smith, Fuifui Moimoi and Kevin Sinfield in that order.
“It’s just extremely humbling, especially when I look at the names who have won the Golden Boot in the past,” said Inglis upon receiving the award.
And the list of great players to have won the Golden Boot goes on with Benji Marshall who did to Australia in the Four Nations final what they have done to New Zealand and Great Britain so many times in the past, in engineering that wonderful last-gasp play that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Marshall is a sensational player and any side in the world would be blessed to have him in their team.
“That’s what the Golden Boot is all about,” concluded Edgar. “Benji was head and shoulders above anybody in the Four Nations and I’m delighted that he won it. But I bet there’ll be one or two grumbling Australians!”
What happened to the winners?
After enjoying the perfect 1984, Wally Lewis endured a nightmare 1985. His Wynnum Manly side were surprisingly defeated by Wayne Bennett’s Souths Magpies and he was left helpless as Queensland relinquished the State of Origin crown they had held so proudly since its inception. Although he was part of the victorious Australian side against New Zealand, he clashed on a number of occasions with coach Terry Fearnley. Lewis went on to enjoy a magnificent career, becoming the inaugural captain of Brisbane Broncos in 1988 and his on-field achievements were further rewarded when he was named the sixth post-war Immortal by Rugby League Week magazine. He bowed out of the Origin arena a winner in 1991 and hung up his boots for good at the end of the season.
Brett Kenny followed up his Golden Boot year of 1985 by winning another Grand Final with Parramatta the following year before being part of the wonderful Australia side that beat Great Britain 3-0 in the Ashes. He stood down from the representative scene in 1987 but Parramatta struggled to replace many of the great players that had helped them be so successful. Kenny battled on manfully but a fifth title was never going to materialise. In 1992, he starred at loose forward as the Eels stunned the touring British Lions, before he retired in 1993.
Garry Jack continued to play for New South Wales and Australia for a couple of years after winning the Golden Boot, and he also enjoyed spells with Salford and Sheffield Eagles in England. He was controversially suspended by the ARL for declining to travel to America in 1987 to play in a promotional State of Origin match because his wife was suffering from post-natal depression. He played in both of Balmain’s Grand Final losses in 1988 and 1989 and went on to overtake Keith Barnes’s record of first-grade appearances for the club. His career ended in controversy with him suing Ian Roberts for an on-field altercation.
After sharing the Golden Boot, Hugh McGahan suffered the agony of missing the 1988 World Cup final with injury but played for the Kiwis a further 12 times, captaining them on each occasion including wins against Great Britain in Manchester (1989) and Christchurch (1990). His Easts career finished in 1991 and he almost made a shock return to action in 1996 amid an injury crisis at Leeds, where he was assistant coach.
Peter Sterling, who shared the Boot with McGahan, failed to get his hands on another Winfield Cup and he surprisingly stood down from the representative scene in 1988. An ankle injury prevented him from fulfilling a contract with Leeds in 1989 and a long-standing shoulder injury, initially caused in a collision with Great Britain’s Roy Powell, caused a tearful Sterling to announce his retirement from the game in 1992.
Ellery Hanley returned to Australia mid-season in 1989 but joined struggling Western Suburbs and had no chance of playing in another Grand Final. His standing in the game went from strength to strength as he came within a whisker of captaining Great Britain to Ashes glory in 1990. He won numerous medals with Wigan, before moving to Leeds and ended his playing career with another Balmain stint in 1996 and 1997. He coached Great Britain in 1994 but rejected calls for him to select himself.
Mal Meninga led Canberra to another Premiership in 1990 amid the game’s first salary-cap scandal, although the club were not stripped of their title. He continued to dominate on the representative scene before bowing out of the game in 1994 with another Winfield Cup and Ashes title under his belt.
Andrew Johns spent much of his career regarded as the world’s best player but a lack of Test appearances, due to injuries, cost him a third Golden Boot. He retired from the game after sustaining another neck injury in round one of 2007 before being voted the greatest player of the last 30 years by Rugby League Week in 2008.
Brad Fittler endured a dreadful 2001 after picking up the Golden Boot at the end of the previous year. He was controversially voted the game’s most overrated player by a players’ poll in Rugby League Week, and he was heavily criticised for his performance in the deciding Origin game and for being one of five players to initially withdraw from the Kangaroos’ Tour in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. But in 2002 he led the Roosters to their first Grand Final success in 27 years and he bowed out of Origin a winner in 2004 before retiring later that year.
Stacey Jones enjoyed another career high three years after winning the Golden Boot when he helped New Zealand to Tri-Nations glory in England. He signed for Catalans Dragons in Super League in 2006 and led them out at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final before retiring for a year and then returning for a final season with the Warriors in 2009.
The career of Darren Lockyer has gone from strength to strength after his Golden Boots. He is now the most capped Australian international of all time, and their leading tryscorer. He led Queensland to their fifth-straight Origin success in 2010 and remains captain of club, state and country.
Andrew Farrell only played one more match after lifting the Golden Boot, and that was the ill-fated Tri-Nations final against Australia six days later. He gave no indications afterwards that he was to leave Rugby League at the time, but switched codes just before the new Super League season in 2005.
Anthony Minichiello endured several injury nightmares after peaking in 2005, and saw the fortunes of his Roosters side plummet until this year when, under the coaching of Brian Smith, they reached the Grand Final, losing to St George. Minichiello hasn’t played for Australia since his Golden Boot year and last played for New South Wales in 2007.
The Melbourne Storm trio of winners, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, remain dominant forces in the game, although they have subsequently had their 2007 and 2009 Premierships taken from them in the wake of the Storm salary-cap fiasco that hit the game in the 2010 season. Inglis has since left the club initially agreeing to join Brisbane, but reneging and linking up with South Sydney Rabbitohs instead. Injury ruled him out of the 2010 Four Nations, although Smith and Slater played, but lost to New Zealand in the final … courtesy of the brilliance of the 2010 winner, Benji Marshall.
Updated list of winners
1984: Wally Lewis
1985: Brett Kenny
1986: Garry Jack
1987: Hugh McGahan & Peter Sterling
1988: Ellery Hanley
1989: Mal Meninga
1990-1998: no award given
1999: Andrew Johns
2000: Brad Fittler
2001: Andrew Johns
2002: Stacey Jones
2003: Darren Lockyer
2004: Andrew Farrell
2005: Anthony Minichiello
2006: Darren Lockyer
2007: Cameron Smith
2008: Billy Slater
2009: Greg Inglis
2010: Benji Marshall
What each player did to win the Golden Boot
1984: Wally Lewis
Captained Australia in Ashes whitewash over Great Britain, Queensland in State of Origin success and Wynnum Manly to Brisbane Grand Final glory.
1985: Brett Kenny
Played a starring role in Wigan winning the greatest Challenge Cup final of them all before playing in the Blues’ first-ever Origin series win.
1986: Garry Jack
Magnificent at fullback as NSW and Australia enjoyed comprehensive series wins over Queensland and Great Britain.
1987: Hugh McGahan & Peter Sterling
The Kiwi captained his country to a famous win over Australia in the only Test between the two countries that year while Sterling won two Origin man of the match awards.
1988: Ellery Hanley
Drove Balmain to stunning charge towards Grand Final place and led Great Britain to first win over Australia for ten years.
1989: Mal Meninga
Lifted Canberra’s maiden Winfield Cup Premiership after classic Grand Final against Balmain and played a leading role in series whitewash wins for Queensland and Australia.
1990-1998: no award given
1999: Andrew Johns
Outstanding throughout the NRL season and starred for NSW in drawn Origin series.
2000: Brad Fittler
Lifted the World Cup for Australia after Origin success with the Blues. Also helped Sydney Roosters to the Grand Final.
2001: Andrew Johns
Triumphed with Australia in the Ashes and Newcastle in the Grand Final, winning the Clive Churchill Medal.
2002: Stacey Jones
Led the Warriors to their maiden Grand Final before starring in the Test series against New Zealand.
2003: Darren Lockyer
Won his first Boot after denying Great Britain in each Ashes Test with typical brilliance.
2004: Andrew Farrell
Superb for Wigan winning the Man of Steel before leading Britain to three consecutive Test wins.
2005: Anthony Minichiello
Brilliant fullback who starred for New South Wales in Origin triumph and for Australia before their Tri-Nations final disaster.
2006: Darren Lockyer
Enjoyed the perfect year, tasting success at club, state and international level as captain of all three sides.
2007: Cameron Smith
Part of two comprehensive wins against New Zealand, was the player of the Origin series and won a Grand Final with Melbourne.
2008: Billy Slater
Succeeded at Origin level although lost finals with Melbourne and Australia. Brilliant throughout the year nonetheless.
2009: Greg Inglis
Won a clean sweep with Melbourne, Queensland and Australia, proving to be the game’s most explosive centre since Meninga.
2010: Benji Marshall
Stunned the Aussies by engineering late try to win Four Nations final. Produced many magic moments in 2010.
Wally Lewis: “When I was informed that I had won the Golden Boot, it was something very special. It was an individual award, and one that left me in disbelief.”
Brett Kenny: “The Golden Boot is a great achievement for any footballer. To be named the best player in the world is a wonderful honour.”
Peter Sterling: “It’s probably the greatest honour you can achieve in Rugby League and one I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
Andrew Johns: “I remember growing up having posters on my wall of Ellery and his Golden Boot. I couldn’t believe it when I won it because it’s such a prestigious award.”
Billy Slater: “It’s a massive achievement to be named the best player in the world and I still can’t believe it.”
Greg Inglis: “It’s just extremely humbling, especially when I look at the names who have won the Golden Boot in the past.”