Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Crossing the Ditch

New Zealanders currently represent a sizeable chunk of most NRL clubs’ playing rosters.  There has been a Kiwi presence in every grand final since 1993, while a number of stars from the Shaky Isles rank amongst the world’s finest individual talents.  But it took many decades for players from Australia’s easterly neighbours to make a major impact in the Sydney premiership. 

Several Kiwis ventured to Britain following the advent of rugby league in New Zealand and the subsequent tour to the Mother Country in 1907-08 – most notably Lance Todd and former All Black Charlie Seeling – and the national side was a formidable opponent for Australia and England (later Great Britain).  The first New Zealanders to play in the Sydney premiership were members of the trailblazing 1908 Maori side that toured Australia – Peter Moko (nine games for Glebe in 1909) and Punga ‘Glen’ Pakere (five games for Norths in 1910).  Another Maori player, Huatahi Turoa Brown Paki, played 15 games for St. George in 1923.

Bill Kelly, a former All Black who toured Australia with the Kiwis in 1912 and 1913, was lured across the Tasman by Balmain in 1914.  He became the first player to represent New Zealand and Australia in rugby league (a feat which has been replicated only by Tonie Carroll, 89 years later) in his first season in Sydney, playing in the centres in one Test against England for Australia.  The following season he captain-coached Balmain to the club’s maiden first grade title and the first undefeated season by a premiership club.  Kelly became a revered coaching figure after his retirement as a player in stints with University, Newtown, Balmain (including another premiership win in 1939), St. George and Canterbury.  Fittingly, Australia and New Zealand compete for the Bill Kelly Cup in the mid-season Test. 

But the New Zealand Rugby League prevented their ‘amateur’ players from crossing the Tasman to play in Australia for several decades, finally easing that stance in the 1960s – provided the sought-after player had given satisfactory service to the game in New Zealand. 

Lock Rex Percy, a veteran of nine Tests and two tours to Australia in 1956 and 1959, joined Balmain in 1961 and spent three seasons at Leichardt before heading to the country and captain-coaching in Parkes and Yass.  The Kiwis’ success on the international stage in the early part of the decade – including a 2-0 home series defeat of Great Britain in 1962 – piqued the interest of clubs in Australia.  Manly signed NZ Team of the Century hooker Jock Butterfield and 11-Test forward Trevor Kilkelly in 1964, but both men had modest seasons.  Butterfield, a veteran of 36 Tests, played only nine games, while Kilkelly appeared in six in the Sea Eagles’ disappointing campaign. 

NZ Team of the Century lock and 22-Test Kiwi Mel Cooke accepted a player-coach role with Canberra in 1965 and skippered the Monaro representative side against the touring Lions the following season.  The brilliant loose forward also won selection for NSW Country.  Another back-rower in New Zealand’s Team of the Century, 18-Test Kiwi Ron Ackland, finished an admirable career with stints for Goulbourn and Inverell in country New South Wales.  

Many more Kiwi greats bolstered the line-ups of country clubs in NSW and Queensland – predominantly in captain-coach roles – including former Test captain Graham Kennedy (Wagga Kangaroos), Team of the Century five-eighth George Menzies (Harden), 28-Test utility-back Cyril Eastlake (Narromine, Goulburn), 18-Test prop Robert Orchard (Redcliffe, Mt. Isa, Mackay, Cairns) and 22-Test centre Bill Sorenson (Glen Innes).  Further loosening of the NZRL’s transfer regulations ramped up the flow of players to Sydney, with Bill Schultz spending three seasons with Easts in the late-1960s, although the former Test hooker struggled to cement a regular first grade berth.

Playing professionally overseas meant the end of the international careers of departing New Zealand players, but that did not stop several Kiwi representatives joining Sydney clubs in their prime during the early 1970s.  Tough forward Oscar Danielson, the first Samoan-born player to join an Australian club, played five Tests for New Zealand before joining Newtown for a three-season stint in 1970.  Fearsome prop Bill Noonan cut his Kiwi career short after just two Tests to join Canterbury in 1970, where he became the first New Zealander to appear in grand final.  He was part of the side that went down to Roosters in the 1974 decider, and went on to play 161 games for the club in nine seasons, before joining Newtown in 1979. 

Canterbury also acquired the services of goalkicking prop Henry Tatana and centre Bernie Lowther in 1972 following New Zealand’s stunning 24-3 defeat of Australia the previous season.  Tatana, who kicked six decisive goals in that match, was second in the premiership’s pointscoring race in 1973 with 159 – the second-highest total in club history at the time.  He topped a century of points again in 1974 but was dropped from first grade late in 1974 and missed the grand final.  Lowther was similarly unlucky.  He was the club’s top tryscorer in 1973 with 13 (fourth-equal in the premiership) and scored four tries in a match against Penrith in 1974, but was relegated before the finals.

Both players left the club, with Lowther proving a handy buy for Souths over the next two seasons, while Tatana topped the scoring for St. George in 1975-76.  Tatana’s reliable kicking helped the Dragons to finals victories over Manly and Easts in 1975, but he became the second Kiwi to suffer grand final defeat when the Roosters hammered Saints 38-0 in the decider.  Tatana left the club following St. George’s finals exit in 1976, having scored 547 points in five seasons in the premiership.

Penrith delved into New Zealand’s rugby union ranks in 1978, luring highly-rated prop Kent Lambert to the club.  Lambert, an 11-Test All Black, had publicly bemoaned the financial hardships suffered by the then-amateur code’s players and signed with the Panthers.  He penned a three-year contract, but a severe run of injuries limited him to just one first grade appearance.

More successful were Auckland’s rugby league Test brothers, Dane and Kurt Sorensen, who joined Cronulla in the late-1970s.   Dane crossed over in 1977 but suspension ruled him out of the following year’s grand final, before Kurt linked with the club in 1979.  In a mutually beneficial move, the NZRL allowed overseas-based players to continue representing  the national side, and the intimidating forwards carved out illustrious international careers for the Kiwis.  Dane Sorensen played a then-record 216 first grade games for the Sharks, while Kurt finished his career with a successful stint in England after 118 games in Cronulla colours.

The trickle of Kiwi players to the Sydney premiership became a torrent in the early-1980s.  Powerful five-eighth Olsen Filipaina, who regularly outpointed Wally Lewis at Test level, linked with Balmain in 1980.  But he was unable to replicate his international form on a consistent basis and left the Tigers after five patchy seasons, before spending much of his time in subsequent stints with Easts and Norths in reserve grade.  Tough-as-teak prop Mark Broadhurst gave excellent service to Manly and Illawarra, but Kiwi greats James Leuluai (Manly) and Fred Ah Kuoi (Norths) struggled to adapt and found greater success in English club football. 

But the Bears and Roosters benefitted handsomely from a host of successful Kiwi imports during the 1980s.  Powerful second-rower Mark Graham’s contribution in eight years with the club saw him chosen in the Bears’ Team of the Century in 2006.  A long-serving Kiwi captain, Graham won a premiership with Brisbane Norths under coach Graham Lowe in 1980 before linking with the Bears and winning the Dally M Second-rower of the Year award in 1981-82.  He was named New Zealand’s Player of the Century in 2009 and appeared in 147 games for North Sydney.  Tenacious half Clayton Friend, who played a vital role in Kiwi Test victories over Australia in 1985 and 1991, played four seasons of first grade for the Bears and finished third in the 1987 Dally M Medal count.

Kiwi Test regulars Gary Prohm, robust three-quarter Dean Bell and ultra-talented lock Hugh McGahan joined Easts in 1985.  McGahan was the most influential signing, captaining the Kiwis while playing for the Roosters and taking over the club captaincy in the late-1980s.  He was temporarily installed as captain-coach after the mid-season sacking of Russell Fairfax in 1990, before retiring at the end of 1991 with 118 first grade games and 32 Tests (and a then-record 16 Test tries) to his credit.   Former All Black Kurt Sherlock became just the second post-World War II dual international and was a valuable utility-back over six seasons with the Roosters, racking up 88 appearances and 235 points.

Darrell Williams became the first Kiwi to win a premiership in 1987, playing in the centres in Manly’s 18-8 grand final victory over Canberra.  In the Raiders side that day was New Zealand Test prop Brent Todd, who won titles with the Green Machine in 1989-90 and lost another grand final against Penrith in 1991, before wrapping up his career with Gold Coast.  Gary Freeman was Balmain’s halfback in the Tigers’ twin grand final losses in 1988-89.  After falling out with new Balmain coach Alan Jones in 1991, Freeman moved to Easts and became the first overseas player to win the Dally M Medal in 1992.  A veteran of a then-record 45 Tests for New Zealand, Freeman was a valuable No. 7 in subsequent stints with the Panthers and Eels, retiring in 1996 with a total of 151 first grade appearances.

Newcastle dipped heavily into New Zealand’s reservoir of talent for their 1988 entry into the premiership.  Sam Stewart was the club’s first captain, while Tea Ropati, Adrian Shelford and Tony Kemp also turned out for the Knights in their inaugural season.  Kemp’s return to Newcastle in 1989 was initially blocked by the NZRL but he eventually spent six seasons in Knights colours and played for the Crushers in their 1995 debut season, while also making 25 Test appearances.

A vigorous raid on New Zealand’s rugby union ranks in the early 1990s resulted in several All Blacks and provincial players switching codes.  The recruitment drive simultaneously elevated the importance of a quality goalkicker within a first grade side’s make-up.  15-a-side recruits Matthew Ridge (Manly), Daryl Halligan (Norths), Eion Crossan (Souths), John Schuster (Newcastle) and Gavin Hill (Canterbury) emerged as genuine match-winners with the boot for Australian rugby league clubs. 

Ridge, enticed to Australia by Manly’s Kiwi coach Graham Lowe, was joined at the Sea Eagles by the game-breaking Iro brothers, Kevin and Tony, and Adrian Shelford.  Rigde was one of the decade’s finest fullbacks, winning a premiership with Manly, setting a host of pointscoring records and captaining his country before heading home to join the Super League-aligned Warriors.  Halligan became the first player in premiership history to pass 2000 points in first grade in a decorated career with the Bears and Bulldogs that garnered a premiership in 1995 and 19 Test appearances.

Initially a reserve grade player at North Sydney, Jarrod McCracken quickly gained a reputation as fiery, game-breaking centre for the Bulldogs in the early-1990s.  A 22-Test Kiwi rep between 1991 and 1999, McCracken joined the Eels in 1996 and developed into an intimidating second-rower.  He co-captained Parramatta in 1998-99 and was the inaugural skipper of the Wests Tigers during their 2000 debut season.

Northcote winger Sean Hoppe was a sensation for the Raiders in 1992-93 but was axed from the club after he signed to join the Warriors for their 1995 debut.  He signed a one-year deal with Norths and scored 15 tries, while his ex-Canberra team-mates Ruben Wiki and Quentin Pongia played a crucial role in the Raiders’ 1994 grand final victory.  Pongia’s front-row partner John Lomax suffered the same fate as compatriot Dane Sorensen 17 years earlier when suspension ruled him out of the decider (see Suspension Denies Grand Final Dream).  Lomax and Pongia, though outstanding props, had careers littered with suspension and injury, but Wiki became one of the all-time great Kiwi imports.  An ironman in 225 appearances for Canberra, Wiki eventually joinied the Warriors (where he originally signed a contract to play in 1995 before backing out of the deal) in 2005 and became the first overseas player to make 300 first grade appearances.

McCracken, Halligan and Kiwi Test winger Jason Williams were in Canterbury’s losing grand final side in 1994, but the latter two tasted title success the following season, alongside former All Black John Timu (McCracken was demoted from first grade after signing with the ARL during the 1995 Super League war).  Ridge was in the Manly side that went down to the Bulldogs in 1995, but combined with another ex-All Black, devastating centre Craig Innes, in the Sea Eagles’ 1996 triumph.

The Auckland Warriors’ 1995 entry into the premiership enticed several Australian-based Kiwi players back to New Zealand, including Hoppe, Hill, Gene Ngamu and Wests’ Kiwi international Stephen Kearney.  The skilful and intimidating second-rower eventually joined Melbourne in 1999 and was a vital component of the Storm’s premiership-winning side in his first season.  He left the NRL at the end of 2005 with 264 first grade games and 43 Tests under his belt, before earning a reputation as a future NRL mentor at the Storm and as New Zealand national coach which led to a first grade head coach role with Parramatta in 2011.

Despite the homeward pull of the Warriors, many Kiwi players remained integral to Australian clubs throughout the 1990s.  Inspirational lock Tawera Nikau helped Cronulla to the 1997 Super League grand final before joining Kearney and fellow New Zealanders Matt Rua and Richard Swain in Melbourne’s 1999 grand final celebrations.  Despite spending just two seasons with the Storm, one of the grandstands at the club’s Olympic Park was renamed ‘The Tawera Nikau Stand’ in 2005.  Richie Barnett, Nikau’s team-mate at Cronulla, was an outstanding backline player for the Sharks and Roosters and captained New Zealand in 11 of his 26 Test appearances.

Formidable but suspension-prone prop Craig Smith debuted with Souths in 1995 before joining Illawarra and representing Rest of the World and Queensland’s Origin side in 1997 under the ambiguous representative rules of the Super League war years.  He debuted for the Kiwis the following year in the first of 12 Test appearances and was part of St. George Illawarra’s losing grand final side in 1999.  Another valuable front-rower, 16-Test Kiwi Jason Lowrie, played 160 games for the Roosters, Balmain and Wests Tigers, and was renowned for taking 139 first grade appearances to score his first try.

Although Nathan Cayless was born in Sydney, he identified with his New Zealand parentage and represented the Kiwis 39 times, captaining the Kiwis to an historic World Cup final victory in 2008.  Installed as Parramatta captain as a 21-year-old, he became the first player to captain one club in 200 first grade games before retiring in 2010.  His brother Jason won a premiership with the Roosters in 2002 and played ten Tests for the Kiwis.

Powerhouse winger Lesley Vainikolo (Canberra) and classy centre Willie Talau (Canterbury) managed to slip the Warriors’ net to debut during the 1998 NRL season, with Talau forming a right-side combination with Halligan in a Bulldogs side that powered to the grand final.  Explosive forward Tony Puletua made his debut for Penrith a year earlier and was a mainstay of the Panthers’ pack, before forming one of the modern era’s best second-row combinations with former Warrior Joe Gulavao as the club won the 2003 premiership.

Nigel Vagana began his first grade career with the Warriors but was a tryscoring sensation at the Bulldogs, topping the premiership in 2002.  Subsequent stints with the Sharks and Rabbitohs took his career tally to 140 tries and the devastating centre remains the only overseas player to break the 100-try barrier.

Three young Kiwis – Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Karmichael Hunt – took the NRL by storm in 2004, although Broncos fullback Hunt pledged his allegiance to Australia and represented Queensland and the Kangaroos with distinction.  ‘SBW’ was the complete package: sublimely skilled, fast, and strong, he was one of the game’s biggest hitters, best off-loaders and most damaging ball-runners.  The centre/back-rower was part of the Bulldogs’ premiership-winning side in his debut season, alongside fellow Kiwis Matt Utai and future South Sydney captain and Test skipper Roy Asoatasi, but infamously walked out on the club in 2008 to play rugby union in France, before becoming an All Black in 2010.  Meanwhile, Asotasi was at one stage recognised as the world’s best prop and 2002 Dally M Rookie of the Year Utai scored 71 tries in 127 games for the Bulldogs before joining the Tigers in 2011 after a season in the NRL wilderness.

Marshall, the only one of the aforementioned superstar trio to remain in rugby league after Hunt’s 2010 switch to AFL, stamped himself as one of the decade’s most dazzling individual talents.  The Tigers’ unheralded squad, which contained New Zealanders Paul Whatuira (previously a premiership-winner at Penrith) and Dene Halatau, rode Marshall’s brilliance all the way to grand final glory in 2005.  The mercurial pivot emerged through several injury-riddled seasons to star in the Kiwis’ 2008 World Cup triumph and take over the New Zealand captaincy in 2009.  He became arguably the game’s premier match-winner in 2010 after spearheading the Tigers return to the finals and the Kiwis’ stunning upset of Australia in the Four Nations final.

Melbourne’s champion side of the late 2000s, which has been sullied by revelations of salary cap breaches that resulted in the stripping of two premierships, contained a strong Kiwi influence.  Forwards David Kidwell (a 25-Test Kiwi who played over 200 games for five NRL clubs), Jeremy Smith, Adam Blair and Sika Manu each played a key role in the Storm’s on-field dominance during this period.  After switching to the Dragons in 2009, Smith was one of seven Kiwi Test players in the 2010 grand final.  Jason Nightingale and former Warrior Nathan Fien accompanied Smith on the Saints’ victory lap, while young stars Sam Perrett, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Jared Warea-Hargreaves were in the Roosters side that went down 32-8. 

New Zealand’s brazen challenge to Australia’s world rugby league supremacy – which included the Kiwis’ upset of the Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four-Nations finals – was exacerbated by the Warriors’ memorable charge to a second grand final appearance in 2011.  The gallant Warriors were beaten 24-10 by a Manly side featuring Kiwi stars Galuvao, budding superstar five-eighth Keiran Foran and centre enforcer Steve Matai.  The Warriors’ Under-20s outfit took out their second straight title, while feeder side Auckland Vulcans also qualified for the NSW Cup decider in a momunmental year of achievement fcor the club.  

Many other Kiwis have had a massive impact on the NRL with Australian clubs in the last decade – Frank Pritchard at Penrith, Bronco and Bulldog Greg Eastwood, Tigers bulldozer Taniela Tuiaki, former Cowboys captain Paul Rauhihi and scores more – ensuring that there will continue to be a sizeable New Zealand presence in the NRL outside of the Warriors.  Australians joke (or complain) about the hordes of New Zealanders in general that move across the Tasman, and that influx is also reflected in the proportion of Kiwis starring in the NRL.   From the humble beginnings when the Kiwis in the premiership could be counted on one hand, there is now at least a handful of New Zealanders at every NRL club – and the competition is all the more richer for it. 

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