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Opinion

My best New Zealand rugby league team of the last 50 years ... with a twist!

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Roar Guru
5th May, 2022
42

For no particular reason, here’s what I believe is the best New Zealand team to play the game since 1970.

The selection criteria are pretty simple – the player must have played at least one Test for NZ since 1970.

But as always, there’s a twist. Players who have also represented another country as well as NZ are ineligible!

Here’s the team. Test match appearances for the Kiwis are in brackets.

1. Matthew Ridge (25)
Ridge gave up an emerging career with the All Blacks to join Manly in 1990 and proved to be one of the best fullbacks in the game over the next decade.

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A very accurate goal kicker, strong defender, excellent with the ball, and a fierce competitor, Ridge went on to score 168 points for the Kiwis and captained his country.

2. Dane O’Hara (36)
O’Hara played nearly every game there was for the Kiwis between 1978 and 1986 and even captained the team from the wing twice in 1980.

A winger with all the skills, O’Hara resisted offers to play in Australia and instead became one of Hull FC’s greatest players, scoring 116 tries in his 271 appearances for the club.

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3. Dean Bell (26)
Bell was a powerful ball runner and tough defender who was rated one of the best players in the world in the late ’80s.

He played 360 games at the top level, won seven consecutive Challenge Cup titles with Wigan, and also won both the Man of Steel Award and the Lance Todd Trophy.

4. Roy Christian MBE (33)
Christian played all of his football in NZ, and wore his country’s colours on 74 occasions, including 33 Test matches.

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A strong centre in the classic sense, Christian was a fixture in the NZ team for eight years, and was captain of the Kiwis when he retired following the 1972 Rugby League World Cup.

5. Sean Hoppe (35)
Hoppe scored 17 tries in his 35 Tests and 117 tries in his 250 games at the top level. He had the power, speed and determination to be a threat to any defence and won three Super League titles and a Challenge Cup with St Helens.

6. Benji Marshall (31)
Marshall was a freakish player who was impossible to stop on his day. He played nearly 350 games at the top level, won a premiership with Wests Tigers in 2005, was the Golden Boot winner in 2010, and captained the Kiwis between 2008 to 2012.

Marshall was one of the best players to ever play the game and possibly the greatest Kiwi of them all.

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Benji Marshall of the Tigers

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

7. Stacey Jones ONZM (46)
If Marshall was the best Kiwi player of all time then Stacey Jones is a very close second. Jones ruled the paddock during his 12-year international career and there was little he couldn’t do on the field.

He scored 170 points for the Kiwis and racked up over 300 games in the top grade, setting records for both points scored and games played for the Warriors along the way. He was named in NZ’s Team of the Century (1917–2006).

8. Ruben Wiki ONZM (captain) (55)
A player who always led by example, Wiki was one of the toughest players to play the game, and was feared by opponents who had any sense.

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He began life as a centre but was even more effective once he switched to the forwards, going on to play 311 games in the top grade and a record 55 Tests for NZ over a 13-year period, 18 of them as captain.

He won a premiership with the Raiders in 1994, was the first NZ-born player to play over 300 games in the NRL, and was named in NZ’s Team of the Century (1917–2006).

9. Issac Luke (43)
Luke seemingly only had one gear once he ran out onto the field and he certainly played well above his weight, particularly when representing his country when the red mist often descended.

A top-flight dummy half and a rugged defender, Luke was also an excellent goal kicker and scored over 610 points in his 14-year career in the top grade.

10. Quentin Pongia (35)
Pongia never gave the opposition an even break, and maintained the rage for the whole 80 minutes.

He was an old-school front rower, one of the best defenders in the game and loved to control the middle of the ruck. He won a premiership with Canberra in 1994 and captained NZ in five Tests in 1998.

11. Stephen Kearney ONZM (45)
Kearney was a destructive ball runner and had some silky ball-playing skills to go with it.

He captained his country at just 21 years of age and was no stranger to success, having won a premiership with Melbourne, a Challenge Cup with Hull FC, and a World Cup and a Four Nations championship for his country.

Stephen Kearney

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

12. Mark Graham (29)
Graham was one of the best forwards in the game in the early ’80s and was a born leader, captaining North Sydney and leading NZ on two tours of England.

He was named in NZ’s Team of the Century (1917–2006) and also selected as NZ’s Player of the Century.

13. Hugh McGahan MBE (32)
A very mobile forward who knew the way to the try line, he was also a strong defender. He captained his country on 15 occasions and was awarded the Golden Boot in 1987.

14. Gary Freeman MNZM (46)
Just shaded for the halfback role by Stacey Jones, Freeman is the ideal player to come off the bench. He was a tenacious and talented competitor who loved to get into the face of the opposition, and he was never beaten until the final whistle.

He played 37 consecutive Tests for the Kiwis and won the Dally M in 1992.

15. Nathan Cayless (39)
Born in Australia and a former Australian Schoolboy representative, Cayless chose to honour his Maori ancestry and play for NZ, and was selected in their Test team at just 21 years of age.

A rugged and mobile front rower, Cayless was a natural leader, both with the Parramatta Eels who he led onto the paddock for 217 games, and NZ, who he captained to victory in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.

16. Kevin Tamati (22)
Tamati wasn’t the biggest forward to play the game but he was one of the toughest, and would make an impact playing off the bench.

He was totally fearless and loved to make it personal with his opposition, and you’d rather have him in your team than play against him.

17. Simon Mannering (45)
There have been few better back rowers in the NRL era than Mannering, who spent 14 years with the Warriors and represented NZ between 2006 to 2017.

He captained NZ on 11 occasions, winning all but two games, and was part of NZ’s victories in both the 2008 Rugby League World Cup and the 2010 Four Nations Championship.

Let me know what you think.

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