Ellery Hanley: The greatest player in British rugby league history

Zach Holland

Ellery Hanley is the GOAT of British rugby league.

You look throughout the history of rugby league and for many, the 1980s and 1990s produced some of the most electric action while at the same time being able to capture the imagination of its fans and leaving behind stories that are still talked about today.

If there was a player at the time that you could say was right at the forefront of the action and the face of the British game, then it must have been Ellery Hanley. A player dubbed by many as one of the best to grace the beautiful game. So in tribute, we look at the career of one Great Britain’s finest ever players.

Born out Leeds, West Yorkshire, and of Jamaican descent, Hanley’s rugby league journey began with junior club Corpus Christi before signing with Bradford Northern in 1978. Even at such a tender age, he made a name for himself right from the get-go after scoring a try on his debut in a win against Rochdale. Despite such a successful debut, he still found regular first-team places hard to come by during those early years whilst with the West Yorkshire outfit. However, the best of Hanley was yet to come.

During the early to mid-80s, Hanley eventually went on to become one of the standout players in the league and he showcased his versatility to a variety of different positions by moving from the wing to centre and then stand-off. The 1984-85 season would be his last and best for Bradford as he went on to become the first player to score 50 or more tries in a season since St Helens legend Alf Ellaby while also claiming his first of a record three Man of Steel awards. By the end of his six-season spell with Bradford, he had scored 89 tries in 129 appearances.

By 1985, he made the switch over to Wigan for £150,000 in a record transfer for a rugby league player at the time. The acquisition of Hanley would mark a turning point in the British game as Wigan became one of the most dominant teams of the late 80s and early 90s. The 1985-86 season, his first with the Cherry and Whites, saw him continue his prolific try scoring ways by adding 35 to his already impressive tally.

Although his first season with the Lancashire outfit was without silverware, that would all completely change come his second season. The 1986-87 campaign saw Hanley switch between centre, stand-off and loose forward while serving up a try scoring masterclass by crossing the line on 63 occasions in a stunning effort and a record for a non-winger. A collection of astounding performances that year would go on to help Wigan claim their first league title in 27 years as well as seeing him secure his second Man of Steel award.

Wigan’s 1986-87 RFL Championship would mark the start of a path of success in the late 80s, with Hanley the central showpiece for an all-star Wigan line-up. By 1988, he had claimed his first Challenge Cup along with earning the Great Britain captaincy. Now, the 1988 Great Britain Lions Tour may have ended with a series defeat to Australia but the Lions team were still able to end on a high with a third test win over the Kangaroos as well as securing a win over New Zealand.

After fulfilling his GB commitments, the rugby league superstar signed up to play for Balmain in Australia to see out the remaining rounds of the 1988 NSWRFL season. The versatile man helped the Tigers reach their first Grand Final since 1969. However, the final itself saw Hanley leave the field with concussion and the void he left was certainly felt as Canterbury came from 6-4 behind to win 24-12.  It was still a short but brilliant spell as he made eight appearances, scoring five tries.

Before moving back to Wigan, his Australian adventure continued as he made the switch over to Western Suburbs from Balmain in 1989 and in one season with the club, he made 13 appearances, scoring four tries. That same year, Hanley again showed why he was one of the standout stars of the game as he became an integral in Wigan’s Challenge Cup win. The 1989 final saw him awarded the Lance Todd Trophy after scoring a try in a 27-0 win over St Helens. The honours would not stop there either as his displays throughout the year again earned him his third Man of Steel Award alongside claiming his first Golden Boot award.

After six years with Wigan, he added two more domestic honours to his remarkable portfolio with another RFL Championship and Challenge Cup victory. By the end of his spell with Wigan, he made 202 appearances while scoring an astounding 189 tries along with winning three RFL Championships, four Challenge Cups, four John Player Trophies and four Lancashire Cups.

By 1991 and now at the age of 30, Hanley was playing predominately as a loose forward and he went on to sign for hometown club Leeds as a player-coach. Although his time with the Loiners was not as successful in terms of silverware, he was still able to help steer them to back-to-back Challenge Cup final appearances in 1994 and 1995. The 1994-95 season saw him score 41 tries in what was a world record for a forward. By the end of his spell with Leeds he had made 114 appearances while still allowing his career try scoring tally to rise with another 106 to his name.

After 20 years in the game, Hanley ended his career back out in Australia with Balmain where he made 26 appearances and scored three tries. He would take his talents in to coaching and even before his retirement, he had already had a taste during his playing days when he took over as head coach of Great Britain during the Kangaroos 1994 tour – but it would unfortunately end in a series defeat to Australia. However, he was still able to taste success as a head coach, winning the Super league title in 1999 with St Helens and achieving League Two play-off success with Doncaster in 2008.

Overall, in an spectacularly prolific career, Hanley made 489 club appearances in both England and Australia alongside scoring a freakishly good 396 tries.

He may not have seen eye to eye with the media but he was still a sight to behold whenever he stepped on to a rugby field. The 80s and 90s saw some of the best talent that British rugby league has ever had to offer, but there is a strong argument to be made that Hanley was right at the top of the pile.

There is not a great deal more that you can say about an athlete such as him. A player who not only possessed an unfathomable try scoring ability but showcased a skillset unlike those around him and was as versatile as any coach could ever dream of. Throughout his 20-year career, the Lions legend excelled in every position he played.

Alongside players such as Martin Offiah, Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards, he was part of one of the most defining and culturally profound eras of the sport by leaving behind a legacy that will not long be forgotten by fans and players on both sides of the world.

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