Niggle it, just a little bit: Where does Reed Mahoney rank in rugby league’s greatest ever agitators?


With the NRL community possessing varying opinions on Bulldogs hooker Reed Mahoney and his penchant to become involved in feisty on-field situations more consistently than any other player in the competition, his status as the best niggler in the modern game appears unchallenged.

Week after week, Mahoney is popping up in skirmishes, surrounded by much bigger men and verbally reminding those around him of the situation and their error, with his Canterbury team taking an advantage as dopey opponents take his bait.

Of course, without the recourse of a violent haymaker to the head that was mercifully weeded out of the game many a season ago, the role of the cheeky little man has become even more frustrating and infuriating to modern opponents.

In essence, Mahoney can do as he pleases, in full knowledge that a violent physical attack on his smaller frame will see the perpetrator binned or sent from the field permanently.

Thus he chirps away endlessly and the Bulldogs fans are loving it, as their team’s results improve and their scheming hooker grows in value.

Knights forward Jack Hetherington was so wound up by Mahoney’s sledges that he literally waited for him outside the dressing rooms after they were both sin-binned and his Newcastle teammate Jacob Saifiti fell for the Bulldogs hooker’s antics in the return match last week, earning himself an early shower in the process and a $3000 fine for his overreaction.

Frankly, Mahoney is damn good at what he does. He can play a bit as well, but is he anywhere near some of the best niggling pests the game of rugby league in Australia has seen?

He is up there, but there have been some masters of the art over the years.

Englishman Tommy Bishop was one of the pioneers of the type of niggle we see in the modern game. In 60 games for the Sharks from 1969-73, he brought an artform to the game from the UK that had barely been explored by Australian players.

Traditionally, Aussies had stood toe to toe and belted each other in the domestic competition, knowing that a smart-alec or disrespectful comment was essentially an invite to a duel.

Few players would take an intentional dive and the consequences of ‘gobbing off’ were essentially a one-on-one stand-off with a more than willing opponent.

These days, things are very different and Mahoney uses every element of the now less brutal game to his advantage in getting under the skin of opponents.

Tommy Raudonikis took Bishop’s lead in the 1970s and become not only the ‘phantom biter’, but also a player capable of driving opponents to the point of insanity, in his efforts to distract them from the core business of actually playing the game.

With acts that would see him banned from the field for months in the modern era, Raudonikis improved on Bishop’s early work whilst playing for the Magpies and Jets, eventually earning his folklore in the game in retirement.

As the ’80s rolled around and a cleaner game was sought by the powers at be, there was still scope for some niggle experts, despite the lingering threat of having one’s head punched as a result.

Western Suburbs and then Canterbury five-eighth Terry Lamb got many hot under the collar with some believing his actions leant more towards grub than niggle merchant.

To his credit, Lamb was never a coward, yet did ruffle plenty a feather and was responsible for one of the games most famous grand final incidents when he wiped out Balmain star Ellery Hanley in the 1988 decider.

Lamb’s teammate Paul Langmack probably fitted the moniker of niggler more aptly and plenty a frustrated Parramatta and St George player wanted to whack the snot out of him in the mid-eighties.

Michael Pobjie might be something of a forgotten name from the 80s, yet he was one of the most frustrating opposition players imaginable; prepared to do almost anything to grind the gears of the more talented, yet easily baited athletes, during his time with Newtown, Souths and Balmain.

The late Terry Hill arrived in the early 1990s and began producing quality comedy and niggle across a brilliant career than spanned five clubs.

Apparently cheeky to his final days, Hill had a target on his head that few were able to hit thanks to his football know-how and ability to physically and metaphorically duck and weave.

In the modern game, very few used niggle as effectively as Justin Hodges, the former Brisbane, Roosters and representative centre, that the majority of NSW fans would have joyfully pushed down a steep sand dune had they been given the chance.

Folks north of the border held similar attitudes towards Michael Ennis, the representative hooker that made his name with the Bulldogs and then moved to the Sharks.

Potentially the G.O.A.T when it comes to niggle, the night he wound up Nathan Hindmarsh to the point of haymakers at close range was an absolute glorious one in terms of seeing the gift of the gab driving a man to near insanity.

Michael Ennis had the last laugh when the Sharks beat the Storm in the 2016 Grand Final. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Will Chambers did some brilliant work for the Storm prior to his sudden retirement after also moving to the Sharks in 2021. In the spirit of Hodges, he pestered the Blues during State of Origin contests and often drove them to distraction.

There have been some quality NRL men when it comes to niggle and Mahoney has made a bold claim to be considered among the greats early in his career.

At just 26 and wearing the blue and white of another former champion of niggle Josh Reynolds, he does have quite a few to outclass if he is to claim the crown heading into the second quarter of the 21st Century.

My money is on Ennis to hold the title for now. But have I missed someone else deserving of consideration?

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