New Zealand has a rich rugby league heritage that has extended its tentacles over the ditch to give us some of the best players the ARL/NRL has seen.
While rugby union is the national game, rugby league has forged its path as the working man’s sport and given us many torrid encounters at Test match level. At the domestic level in Australia, these players have proven their worth in the greatest game of all.
Matthew Ridge was a star fullback for the Manly Sea Eagles in the 90s. A smooth runner who could kick goals from anywhere. The 25 Test veteran also played for the Warriors when he left Manly.
You can’t go past Sonny Bill Williams as the superstar of both codes. He has effortlessly switched between both at the highest level and is a premiership winner in the NRL and in Super Rugby. Sonny Bill Williams has won everything both codes have had to offer.
Hugh McGahan was an Eastern Suburbs’ favourite during the 80s. Playing 117 games for the Roosters he was also the Kiwis captain for 15 Tests and lead them with distinction. Such a great player was he, that in 1987 he was the joint winner of the Golden Boot award with Parramatta half Peter Sterling.
Ruben Wiki is simply a Canberra Raiders legend. Playing in the great teams of the 90s, Wiki is a premiership winner and Test player. Another player who also returned home to play for the Warriors, Wiki played a then world record of 55 Test matches such was his dedication to keeping himself in top shape.
Gary Freeman came to the Balmain Tigers with a big reputation and delivered in spades. Playing in the glamour team that had Steve Roach, Ben Elias, Garry Jack, Paul Sironen and many other great players, Freeman missed out on a premiership. The much travelled journeyman was a 46 Test veteran and won the Dally M award while at the Roosters.
Benji Marshall was an excitement machine for the Wests Tigers winning the 1995 premiership, which is the joint venture’s only title. A step and hands that Fred Astaire would envy, he had a brief stint at the St George Dragons and with Auckland in Super Rugby.
Mark Graham was tough. Playing 29 Tests, many as captain, the second rower was a stalwart in the North Sydney Bears side that tasted zero success. The 146 games he played in Sydney showed what a great talent he was. A fearsome pack that had him and Hugh McGahan in it, more often than not came out on top at Test level.
Stacey Jones was the Benji Marshall before there was a Benji. His 261 games for the Warriors shows his longevity in the game was built on supreme preparation and guile. With 46 Tests to his name, he was awarded in 2009 the honour of being in the New Zealand Team of the Century.
Current Warriors coach Stephan Kearney was a 264-game veteran in Australia and played 45 times for the Kiwis. A hard-running second rower, Kearney won a premiership with the Storm in 1999 and was also the New Zealand coach.
Dean Bell had a celebrated career in England with Wigan. A Test certainty for much of his career, he returned to New Zealand to link up with the Auckland Warriors where he captained the club in its first season playing 19 games before retiring.
Kevin Iro played for the Hunter Mariners in the first year of Super League. He also had stints at Manly and the Warriors. With Dean Bell, he had a celebrated career with Wigan, Leeds and St Helens in the UK.
A devastating three quarter in the 80s and 90s we never saw his best in Australia but deserves his spot as an outstanding Kiwi to play in our domestic competition.
Simon Mannering is a modern day warhorse. Having played 301 games for the Warriors and 45 Tests for his country, Mannering proves that skill and natural ability are lost on some. However, with hard work and graft he made it to the highest level.
In 2011 he was rewarded with skippering the Warriors in the grand final.
Olsen Filipaina played for the North Sydney Bears and was the entertainer in a lacklustre team. While consistency was his downfall, at Test level he grew another leg and played out of his skin. One of the first Pacific Islander players to make an impression, Filipaina proved you don’t have to look like Andrew Ettinghausen to become popular on the hill.