New Zealand Warriors: All-Time Greatest XIII
The New Zealand Warriors entered the ARL/NRL competition in 1995 as the Auckland Warriors, along with the North Queensland Cowboys. Unlike the Cowboys, they are yet to win a premiership, though they were beaten grand finalists in 2002 and 2011.
There’s never been much doubt about the Warriors’ attacking flair and potential, but the club’s inconsistency has often frustrated rugby league fans. Plenty of great players have had stints in Auckland over the years, but some were at the back end of their careers (like Kevin Campion, Ivan Cleary and Ryan Hoffman) and others who were in their prime (like Brent Tate and James Maloney), didn’t stay long. Tate was named in our greatest North Queensland Cowboys line-up and Maloney in our best Cronulla Sharks team.
I haven’t been able to find a place in my team for those players, nor the likes of Sean Hoppe, Gene Ngamu, Lance Hohaia, Thomas Leuluai, Nathan Fien, Ben Matulino, Logan Swann, Awen Guttenbeil, Jacob Lillyman and Joe Vagana – all worthy nominations.
Current young Warriors’ players like Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Solomone Kata will likely be pushing for spots in this team after they’ve achieved more in their careers with the club. Issac Luke may also force his way in. But for now, I’ve selected players who’ve had more success in the Warriors jersey over a longer period.
The stats I’ve listed below for each player only reflect their matches for the Warriors, not for other club or representative teams.
Fullback: Brent Webb
103 matches (2002-06), 39 tries.
Brent Webb arrived at the Warriors from Cairns in North Queensland after being spotted as a young player with potential in the Queensland Cup. His pace and attacking style of play saw him quickly fit in with the natural flair of the Warriors and he made the number 1 jersey his own during his time at the club. Webb’s form with the Warriors earned him regular selection in the Kiwis Test team after he fulfilled the three year residential qualification period.
Winger: Manu Vatuvei
226 matches (2004-17), 152 tries
Manu Vatuvei, a.k.a. ‘The Beast,’ made his debut for the Warriors at 18 and was playing Test football for the Kiwis only a year later. Over his career, he has used his imposing size to become a try-scoring machine. He was the first player in NRL history to score at least ten tries for ten consecutive seasons. Vatuvei is the Warriors’ overall leading try-scorer and in the top 10 NRL try-scorers of all-time. He has also had a long and successful Test career.
Centre: Nigel Vagana
71 matches (1996, 1998-2000), 37 tries
Nigel Vagana had impacting stints with several clubs over the years, but his career started with the Warriors. He was the club’s leading try scorer twice in his first three seasons in the NRL, before attracting a big money offer from Canterbury. His Warriors’ form had already earned him Test selection and he was a mainstay of the Kiwis’ team for most of his career.
Centre: Clinton Toopi
129 matches (1999-2006), 57 tries
After playing his junior football in New Zealand as a forward, Clinton Toopi made his name in the NRL as a centre with the Warriors. He made his first grade debut at 19 and went on to give good service to both the Warriors and Kiwi Test teams over a number of seasons. An electrifying player, Toopi was the Warriors’ leading try-scorer in 2002, the year the club made its first grand final.
Winger: Francis Meli
110 matches (1998-2005), 60 tries
Francis Meli was a big, blockbusting winger with a great try-scoring rate. He was also well known for the big defensive hits he could put on opposition centres and wingers. Meli still holds the Warriors record for the most tries in a season after crossing for 23 in 2003; five of those tries came in a semi-final against Canterbury, which has never been done, before or since! Unsurprisingly, Meli won the Warriors’ Player of the Year award that season. He was also a member of the Warriors’ 2002 grand final team and represented the Kiwis in 14 Tests during his time at the club.
Five-eighth: Shaun Johnson
134 matches (2011-17), 58 tries, 242 goals
He’s mainly played at halfback for the Warriors, but Shaun Johnson’s undoubted attacking ability gets him the nod at number 6 in this all-time greatest team (with the mercurial Stacey Jones a must at number 7). A gifted touch footballer in his youth, Johnson uses his stepping ability, ball skills and speed to mesmerise defences.
In his first season in first grade in 2011, he was a part of the Warriors’ grand final team. The following year he gained Test selection and he’s been an integral part of the Kiwis’ team ever since. In 2014, Johnson was awarded the Golden Boot after being voted the best player in the world. He already holds the all-time Warriors point scoring record, despite only being halfway through his career.
Halfback: Stacey Jones
261 matches (1995-05, 2009), 77 tries, 176 goals, 14 field goals
It needed someone special to tip Shaun Johnson out of the halfback role in this all-time greatest team, and Stacey Jones is that man. He made his debut for the Warriors during their first season, and became their chief playmaker for the next decade. He was dangerous in attack – fleet footed, with a superb kicking game – and was instrumental in establishing the credibility of the club in its early years.
Jones led the Warriors in the 2002 grand final, scoring a memorable individual try in that match, and claimed the Golden Boot award to cap an incredible season. Arguably New Zealand’s greatest ever rugby league player, Jones was an automatic selection in Kiwi Test teams throughout his career, captaining his country for five years.
Prop: Ruben Wiki
87 matches (2005-08), 12 tries
The Warriors tried very hard to get Ruben Wiki for their debut season in 1995, but he opted to stay with Canberra after having won a premiership with them in 1994. The New Zealand side eventually got their man ten years later and it was worth the wait. Wiki had an immediate impact, winning the Warriors Player of the Year award in 2005. A fearsome and inspirational prop, he led from the front during his four seasons at the club, finally hanging up the boots at 35. Wiki went on to break the record for the number of Test appearances (55) for the Kiwis while he was at the Warriors. He is the only New Zealand-born player to have played more than 300 NRL games, and was also named in our all-time greatest Canberra Raiders team.
Hooker: Monty Betham
101 matches (1999-2005), 10 tries
Monty Betham was an aggressive player who alternated between hooker and the backrow at the Warriors and for New Zealand. I’ve selected him at number nine in this all-time greatest team, as much for his toughness and leadership as his football ability. Betham captained the club regularly during his career, but unfortunately missed their 2002 grand final through injury.
Back in the days when players could throw punches on the field, Monty topped an NRL player poll as ‘the opposition player you would least like to fight’! He is the son of a former Commonwealth middleweight boxing champion. Betham retired from rugby league at 28 to become a professional boxer himself. He showed his ability in the ring by winning the New Zealand cruiserweight title.
Prop: Steve Price
91 matches (2005-09), 13 tries
Steve Price spent 11 years with Canterbury before being squeezed out by the salary cap and finishing his career with five seasons at the New Zealand Warriors. Price’s leadership skills were immediately recognised, being named captain as soon as he arrived. He led the club from the front for the rest of his career, winning two Player of the Year awards and regularly producing superhuman performances. Price’s form with the Warriors ensured that he continued his representative career for both Queensland and Australia until he finally hung up his boots at 35.
Second row: Stephen Kearney
79 matches (1995-98), 11 tries
The current Warriors coach was already an established Test player at just 23 when he became a key signing for the club for their debut season in 1995. He was a tall and rangy ball-playing forward who always attracted plenty of defensive attention. Kearney won the Warriors Player of the Year award in 1996 and continued his Test career during his four seasons at the club.
Second row: Ali Lauiti’iti
115 matches (1998-2003), 33 tries
Ali Lauiti’iti was a talented big man who made his debut for the Warriors at just 19, becoming a Test player at 21. He was a devastating runner who also had great ball skills, often able to offload in seemingly impossible situations. Lauiti’iti was an important part of the Warriors forward pack in 2002 when they made their first grand final, winning the Warriors Player of the Year and the Dally M Second Rower of the Year awards to cap an outstanding season.
Lock: Simon Mannering
267 matches (2005-17), 59 tries
The current Warriors’ warhorse holds the record for the most matches played for the club and is a five-time winner of their Player of the Year award. He has an incredible work rate in both attack and defence and is a natural leader, captaining the club for six seasons during his career. He was the captain of the Warriors’ 2011 grand final team and has been one of the first forwards selected for the New Zealand Test team for the past decade.
So that’s my opinion for the Warriors’ all-time greatest 13. Do I have it right? How would this Warriors team fare against the other all-time greatest teams that we’ve covered in our series so far?
- South Sydney Rabbitohs
- St George-Illawarra Dragons
- Sydney Roosters
- Wests Tigers
- Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
- Parramatta Eels
- Manly-Warringah Sea-Eagles
- Penrith Panthers
- Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
- Canberra Raiders
- Brisbane Broncos
- Newcastle Knights
- North Queensland Cowboys