Webcke: Broncos' 1998 side the best I played in
When Shane Webcke says the 1998 premiership side was the best Brisbane Broncos team he played in you realise straight away he is referring to a special group of players.
Webcke won four premierships with champion Broncos outfits, but when he gazed at his 1998 teammates in the dressing sheds, he sensed an air of invincibility rarely felt in professional sport.
"That was the best Broncos side that I was ever in. There are no two ways about it in my mind,” Webcke told NRL.com.
"It was the most confident that I felt. I do remember having an overwhelming sense in 1998 that we were going to win no matter who was put in front of us.
"When that team put its foot down no-one was going to go with us.
"We had a gear that other teams didn't necessarily have. You look at the people that were in that team … it was the perfect storm.”
Indeed it was pitch perfect.
The back five included Darren Lockyer, Steve Renouf and Wendell Sailor. Iconic halves Kevin Walters and Allan Langer were the master puppeteers. Up front Webcke, Andrew Gee, Gorden Tallis and Brad Thorn added bucket loads of starch. The bench boasted a young Petero Civoniceva.
The Broncos got to grand final day and trailed Canterbury 12-10 at half-time. Webcke sat in the dressing sheds without a worry in the world.
"I can remember sitting in that dressing room at half-time and I thought we were about to cut loose,” he recalled.
"It didn't occur to me that we'd be beaten, and that is a funny thing because in the ebbs and flows of footy games you can become fatalistic and think you are going to lose.
"But I had this sense of inevitability that someone was about to do something...and that somebody happened to be Tonie Carroll. He was devastating that day."
Peter Ryan had been suspended for three weeks and missed the grand final, but the second rower was a more than interested spectator. He had been watching Carroll, who had replaced him in the starting line-up, and was less than impressed with his display.
He also had his eye on the scissors of Broncos trainer Tony 'Springer' Spencer.
In the dressing room at half-time Ryan confronted Carroll as only he could.
"Tunza played like a busted arse in that first half," Ryan grinned.
"So I said to him at half-time 'If you don’t go out and play like the man you can be in the second half I'll come on the field and stab you with Springer's scissors'.
"He went back on and played like a man possessed and destroyed people. He carried the ball like a demon and everything he touched turned to gold.
"That grand final was the making of Tonie Carroll. That was when he turned from a boy into a man."
Carroll, described by Ryan as a "mobile pylon", scored minutes after half-time and starred as the Broncos romped to a 38-12 victory.
"Gordie Tallis got the Clive Churchill Medal but I remember us being a bit surprised that Tunza didn’t get it," Webcke recalled.
"Tunza’s try after half-time really turned the match. He could hit holes like few could, and he hit them hard. He was renowned for his defence but he was also a sensational runner of the football.”
All the while Walters and Langer called the shots as only they could.
"It was very instinctive," Walters told NRL.com.
"We’d played a lot of football together and we got better as we got older as well, just around our game management.
“Alf was the best player in my book in the 1990s. In the clutch moments when you needed something to happen if Alf didn’t do it you had a young Darren Lockyer who could pull something out of the hat as well. Phil Lee had a great game in that grand final at hooker, as did Tonie Carroll, and Petero Civoniceva came off the bench.
“So it was a really good mix of a few old boilers like myself, Alf, Steve Renouf and Andrew Gee with the young brigade coming through.
“It was a good team, but you’d probably struggle to fit it under the salary cap now.”
Bubbling away in the background in 1998 was the fact that the game had amalgamated after the Super League split. It was the first season of the new NRL and the Broncos were backing up from collecting the only Super League title in 1997, the same year Newcastle had taken out the ARL premiership.
"We felt like we had won half a competition and Newcastle couldn’t have felt any other way themselves for the simple fact that we were in two separate competitions,” Webcke said.
"It wasn’t as though we had to prove we were a better side than Newcastle in 1998. It was all about proving we were the side we thought we were.
"We’d won Super League and no-one will degrade that in our eyes either because you can only play what’s in front of you. That’s what we did, and we won it.
"There were question marks in 1998 about how we would have gone in a unified competition and we set out to prove that we would have done alright, and in the end we did."
Webcke often wondered what Wayne Bennett saw in him after taking a few years to develop. The 1998 title coincided with his own emergence as one of the great front-rowers of the modern era.
"Sometimes when you play NRL you can be real lucky to be part of something like that, and if you ask all the boys I reckon that's how they would feel. It was the culmination of circumstances that put us all there together. It was a group of iconic players who, form wise, had a devastating year."
*The Brisbane Broncos ramp up their 30-year celebrations this week with an Old Boys luncheon on Friday where the 1998 side will be celebrated 20 years after their inaugural NRL title.