Greatest New Zealand Rugby League Players

New Zealand’s Greatest Rugby League Players

20. Simon Mannering

Clubs: Warriors (212 games)
New Zealand record: 39 Tests (2006-14) – 5 tries (20 points)

Phenomenally hardworking and consistent, second-row warhorse Mannering became just the second player to make 200 appearances for the Warriors and has captained the club over 100 times – becoming one of the few Warriors players to earn widespread respect from Australian critics. A more than capable stopgap centre, Mannering starred in the Kiwis’ 2008 World Cup and 2010 and ’14 Four Nations triumphs over Australia, the latter as captain. Still just 28, the Warriors’ 2011 Grand Final skipper has the New Zealand Test appearances record well in his sights.

19. Jock Butterfield

Clubs: Brunner, Sydenham, Manly (10 games), Leeton, Mt Isa, Cloncurry
New Zealand record: 36 Tests (1954-63) – 7 tries (21 points)

New Zealand’s Team of the Century hooker, West Coast product Butterfield’s Kiwi Test appearance record stood for three decades while his 99 appearances in all matches remains a record mark unlikely to be bettered. The tough and resourceful forward featured in wins over Australia in 1959, ’61 and ’63 before spending a season at Manly in 1964. Butterfield went on to captain-coach in the Riverina and country Queensland until he was 40.

18. Kevin Iro

Clubs: Mount Albert, Wigan (100 games), Manly (24 games), Leeds (124 games), Hunter (4 games), Warriors (16 games), St Helens (82 games)
New Zealand record: 34 Tests (1987-98) – 16 tries, 7 goals (78 points)

Nicknamed ‘The Beast’ while Manu Vatuvei was still in nappies, Iro was among the most devastating three-quarters of the 1980s and ’90s. Although his Australian premiership stints with Manly, Hunter and Auckland were underwhelming, he was a regular Challenge Cup final destroyer with Wigan, before starring for Leeds and winning two Super League titles with St Helens late in his career. Iro scored 16 tries in 34 Test appearances for New Zealand from 1987-98 and captained the Cook Islands in its historic World Cup campaign in 2000.

17. Tawera Nikau

Clubs: Otahuhu, York, Sheffield, Castleford (165 games), Cronulla (61 games), Melbourne (53 games), Warrington (59 games)
New Zealand record: 19 Tests (1990-97) – 4 tries (16 points)

An intimidating and creative lock who dominated the British club scene with Castleford, Kiwi Test star Nikau belatedly headed to Australia in 1995 to link with Cronulla. He was a key member of the Sharks side which finished in the top four in ’95, qualified for a preliminary final in ’96 and reached the ’97 Super League Grand Final. Joining fledgling Melbourne in 1998, Nikau was named Dally M Lock of the Year, before playing a vital role in the Storm’s stunning premiership win the following season; he was unlucky not to collect the Clive Churchill Medal after a commanding second half display in the Grand Final defeat of the Dragons. The veteran of 114 first grade games departed at the end of ’99 but his impact was reflected in the naming of a grandstand after him at Melbourne’s Olympic Park. Although his Test career was curtailed by a personal dispute with former Castleford and New Zealand teammate Richie Blackmore, Nikau was among the Kiwis’ most consistent and dynamic performers of the early-1990s.

16. Shaun Johnson

Clubs: Warriors (83 games)
New Zealand record: 13 Tests (2012-14) – 7 tries, 46 goals (120 points)

One of the most freakishly talented players the code has ever seen, Johnson will be recognised as New Zealand’s greatest-ever rugby league product if his career continues on its current trajectory. The Warriors rode the rookie halfback’s brilliance to the 2011 Grand Final, and while the club’s enigmatic results have mirrored his week-to-week form somewhat, he is in the NRL’s top bracket for ball-playing ability, footwork, speed and all-round kicking. Johnson’s impact in three seasons of Test football has been immense, with the highlights to date including a brilliant last-minute try to defeat England in the 2013 World Cup semi-final (one of the greatest test matches of all time), and his twin man-of-the-match awards against Australia as the Kiwis claimed the 2014 Four Nations crown. His spellbinding Four Nations form controversially garnered the 2014 Golden Boot, becoming just the fourth Kiwi to win the award. Untouchable on his day, the budding superstar is destined to become the Warriors’ and Kiwis’ record point-scorer within two seasons.

15. Kieran Foran

Clubs: Manly (128 games)
New Zealand record: 19 Tests (2009-14) – 5 tries (20 points)

A resilient, intelligent and productive five-eighth, Auckland-born Foran made his first grade and Test debuts as a 19-year-old in 2009. He was outstanding as Manly surged to premiership glory in 2011, building one of the all-time great club halves combinations with Daly Cherry-Evans in ensuing seasons and playing in another Grand Final in 2013. Foran, a courageous defender and clever ballplayer, is widely regarded as one of the NRL’s top bracket of players. After captaining the Kiwis in one Test in 2013 aged just 22, Foran played a starring role in his country’s Four Nations triumph.

14. Sonny Bill Williams

Clubs: Bulldogs (73 games), Sydney Roosters (45 games)
New Zealand record: 12 Tests (2004-13) – 5 tries (20 points)

Auckland-born Sonny Bill Williams won a rookie-season premiership with the Bulldogs as a teenage centre/backrow sensation in 2004. Rangy, fast, powerful and skilful, Williams quickly earned superstar status and shaped as the player the Bulldogs would build a team around – as well as being a standout performer for the Kiwis when injuries permitted – but he controversially walked out on the club in 2008 just half a season into a five-year deal. After playing Rugby Union in France and winning a World Cup with the All Blacks and a Super XV title with Waikato, ‘SBW’ returned to the NRL with the Roosters. Arriving under intense scrutiny, the statuesque forward made a monumental impact at the club on and off the field as the Tricolours swept to a premiership (one of the best 12 month-turnarounds the game has seen). Although his eventual selection in the Kiwis’ 2013 World Cup squad was controversial, he was superb at the tournament and was named RLIF Player of the Year.

13. Des White

Clubs: Ponsonby
New Zealand record: 21 Tests (1950-56) – 2 tries, 63 goals (132 points)

Auckland stalwart Des White was chosen as New Zealand’s Team of the Century fullback ahead of the likes of Matthew Ridge and Gary Kemble. One of the great goalkickers, White’s New Zealand Test record of 132 points stood for 40 years, while he starred in the Kiwis’ series victories over Australia in 1952 and ’53 – including a then-world record 11 goals in the second Test at Brisbane in the former season. His outstanding career was lamentably cut down by injury, but his Kiwi record of 202 points on the 1951-52 tour of Britain and France is likely to stand forever.

12. Dean Bell

Clubs: Manukau, Carlisle, Leeds (22 games), Eastern Suburbs (41 games), Wigan (253 games), Warriors (19 games)
New Zealand record: 26 Tests (1983-89) – 11 Tests (44 points)

An aggressive, hard-running three-quarter, Bell played a vital role in Test wins over Australia in 1983, ’85 and ’87, before captaining his country in the 1988 World Cup final loss to the green-and-golds. His stint with the Roosters was hampered by injury and suspension but he went on to become a modern great of the British club scene with all-conquering Wigan, winning seven Challenge Cups (three as skipper) and a Man of Steel Award (in 1992). Bell capped a stellar career by leading the Auckland Warriors in their debut season as a 33-year-old.

11. Gary Freeman

Clubs: Northcote, Castleford (17 games), Balmain (51 games), Eastern Suburbs (35 games), Penrith (44 games), Parramatta (21 games)
New Zealand record: 46 Tests (1986-95) – 10 tries (40 points)

Combative halfback livewire Freeman’s Test career wasn’t without its disappointments, but he set a new Kiwis Test appearances mark during a 10-season tenure, while his 37 consecutive Tests remains a record. Captain of his country from 1990-94, the game-breaking No.7 played in two Grand Finals for Balmain, won a Dally M Medal with Easts (the only overseas winner to date) and gave excellent service to Penrith and Parramatta at the tail-end of his colourful career.

10. Stephen Kearney

Clubs: Western Suburbs (46 games), Warriors (79 games), Melbourne (139 games), Hull FC (24 games
New Zealand: 45 Tests (1993-2004) – 9 tries (36 points)

A tough second-rower with outstanding ball-playing ability, Stephen Kearney played 46 Test matches for New Zealand from 1993-2004. He captained the Kiwis against Great Britain in just his fifth Test as a 21-year-old in 1993 and led his country in one further Test in ’97, but was a first-choice backrower for virtually his entire career. Kearney played 264 first grade games – a then-record for an overseas player – for Western Suburbs, Auckland and Melbourne, including a Grand Final triumph with the Storm in 1999.

9. Hugh McGahan

Clubs: Otahuhu, Eastern Suburbs (117 games)
New Zealand record: 32 Tests (1982-90) – 16 tries, 1 field goal (63 points)

Otahuhu backrower Hugh McGahan played 32 Tests from 1982-90, scoring a then-record 16 tries. He set an incredible world record by scoring six tries in a Test against Papua New Guinea in 1983, while he went on to captain his country in 15 Tests – including the Kiwis’ upset of Australia at Lang Park in 1987 and the tour of Great Britain and France in ’89. A veteran of 117 games for Eastern Suburbs, the rangy McGahan was named joint winner of the Golden Boot (with Peter Sterling) after captaining the Roosters to the preliminary final in ’87.

8. Matthew Ridge

Clubs: Manly (122 games), Warriors (37 games)
New Zealand record: 25 Tests (1990-98) – 6 tries, 71 goals, 2 field goals (168 points)

Overlooked for the NZRL Team of the Century in favour of prolific Auckland goalkicker Des White, former All Black Matthew Ridge’s standing in the Australian premiership pegs him as one of New Zealand’s greatest Rugby League players. During seven seasons at Manly, Ridge scored 1,093 points in 122 games and was a key member of the club’s 1996 Grand Final triumph (and the centrepiece of a star-studded backline). He broke White’s Kiwis pointscoring record with 168 in 25 Test appearances from 1990-98, including 11 as captain. The courageous and combative Ridge led New Zealand’s spirited ’95 World Cup campaign, and while his three seasons with the Warriors were disappointing, he skippered the Kiwis to a 3-0 whitewash of Great Britain at the end of ’96, and victories over Super League Australia in ’97 and a full Australian Test side in ’98.

7. Mel Cooke

Clubs: Hornby, Canberra
New Zealand record: 22 Tests (1959-64) – 5 tries (15 points)

New Zealand’s Team of the Century lock Mel Cooke played 22 consecutive Tests for the Kiwis from 1959-64. Representing from Canterbury club Hornby, the former halfback enjoyed Test wins over Australia in 1959, ’61 and ’63, while he toured Great Britain and France with the Kiwis in 1961. A valuable, hardworking loose forward, Cooke captained New Zealand in eight Tests, including an upset home series victory over Great Britain in 1963 and a tour of Australia the following season. Cooke accepted a captain-coach position with Canberra in 1965, representing Monaro and NSW Country during his time in the ACT.

6. Cliff Johnson

Clubs: Richmond
New Zealand record: 34 Tests (1950-60) – 3 tries (9 points)

Auckland prop Cliff Johnson was named captain of the New Zealand Team of the Century in 2009, leading the Kiwis in 14 of his 34 Test appearances from 1950-60. The rugged front-rower began his Test career in the Kiwis’ series win over the touring Lions, while he led his country to two World Cups and on a tour of Australia. The imposing, highly-respected Richmond stalwart captained Rest of the World in 1960. Johnson’s record for most Tests for New Zealand was eclipsed by long-time teammate Jock Butterfield in 1963.

5. Ruben Wiki

Clubs: Otahuhu, Canberra (224 games), Warriors (87 games)
New Zealand record: 55 Tests (1994-2006) – 15 tries (60 points)

Otahuhu powerhouse Ruben Wiki rose to prominence as a centre in Canberra’s 1994 premiership success, but ultimately played most of his then-world record 55 Tests for New Zealand in the pack. Wiki scored 60 tries in 224 games for the Raiders, eventually gravitating towards the engine-room at club level, and finished his career with four seasons at the Warriors to become the first overseas player – and just the 10th player ever – to make 300 first grade appearances. He featured in five Test wins over Australia, while his 18 Tests as captain included the 2005 Tri-Nations final boilover. He was named as a prop in New Zealand’s Team of the Century in 2009, a year after his retirement.

4. George Menzies

Clubs: Runanga, Harden
New Zealand record: 29 Tests (1951-61) – 4 tries (12 points)

A product of West Coast club Runanga, George Menzies was labelled as the world’s best five-eighth during the 1950s. The diminutive Menzies was a classy, clever organiser, and played 29 Tests from 1951-61 – encompassing three World Cup campaigns, a series victory over Australia in 1952 and further Test victories against the green-and-golds in 1959 and ’61. He scored three tries for Rest of the World against Great Britain in 1960. The curly-haired pivot was named five-eighth in New Zealand’s Team of the Century in 2009.

3. Benji Marshall

Clubs: Wests Tigers (201 games), St George Illawarra (15 games)
New Zealand record: 25 Tests (2005-12) – 5 tries, 35 goals (90 points)

Benji Marshall was a unique talent and a brilliant match-winner in 11 seasons with Wests Tigers, spearheading the club’s 2005 premiership success and playing 201 games, while breaking club records for tries (76) and points (1,118). The dazzling five-eighth’s Test career – which was significantly restricted by injuries early on – was equally memorable. He was the linchpin of the Kiwis’ watershed World Cup triumph in 2008, before captaining his country in the last 16 of his 25 Test appearances. Marshall’s tenure as skipper peaked with a magnificent display in New Zealand’s Four Nations final upset of Australia in 2010 on his way to winning the Golden Boot – just the third Kiwi to do so. Dally M and RLIF Five-eighth of the Year in 2011, Marshall endured an inglorious exit form the NRL two years later before a failed rugby union switch, but made an admirable return with St George Illawarra in 2014.

2. Mark Graham

Clubs: Otahuhu, Brisbane Norths, North Sydney (146 games), Wakefield Trinity
New Zealand record: 29 Tests (1977-88) – 7 tries (24 points)

A bruising and skilful second-rower, Mark Graham was named New Zealand’s Player of the Century in 2009. Graham was regarded by many keen judges as the best in the world in his position during the 1980s. The Otahuhu product played 28 Tests from 1977-88 – 18 of them as captain, including the 18-0 victory over Australia in 1985 – during an era of tremendous progress for New Zealand Rugby League. He won a BRL premiership with Kiwi coach Graham Lowe at Brisbane Norths in 1980, before playing 146 games in eight seasons for North Sydney. Graham was one of the premiership’s dominant forwards, winning two Dally M Second-rower of the Year gongs and captaining the club for several seasons.

1. Stacey Jones

Clubs: Auckland City Vulcans, Warriors (261 games), Catalans (45 games)
New Zealand record: 46 Tests (1995-2006) – 16 tries, 47 goals, 2 field goals (160 points)

Mercurial halfback Stacey Jones played 46 Tests (seven as captain) for New Zealand, scoring 160 points and 16 tries – second and equal-third in Kiwis history. The 19-year-old unseated Gary Freeman for the Kiwi No.7 role at the 1995 World Cup after a sensational rookie season with the Auckland Warriors, and was an unwaveringly brilliant and consistent performer for club and country for over a decade. Captain of the Warriors’ charge to the Grand Final as he claimed the 2002 Golden Boot honour, Jones played a record 261 games for the club. He starred as the Kiwis won the 2005 Tri-Nations and was equally brilliant as they almost repeated the dose in ’06. Arguably only Andrew Johns and Allan Langer would be regarded as better halfbacks during Jones’ era. ‘The Little General’ was named halfback in New Zealand’s Team of the Century in 2009.

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