The New Zealand Warriors will celebrate their 20th anniversary during the 2015 NRL season. The club has experienced a tumultuous, exciting, controversial and ultimately underachieving two decades in the premiership, despite a plethora of dazzling highlights and several memorable high points. On the eve of yet another campaign that promises plenty, I’ve put together a Warriors ‘Dream Team’, handpicking the 17 players and coach that made the greatest contributions in the club’s first 20 seasons.
The club’s critics like to point out that with a roster like the one the Warriors have traditionally possessed, they should have multiple premierships on the board. Trawling through the myriad names to don the Warriors’ jumper from 1995-2014 suggest that contention is not quite accurate. While some positions were difficult to settle on due to the strong field of talent, others were tricky to find even one player that would genuinely rate as a Warriors great. There were, of course, several automatic selections, and it’s a formidable line-up whichever way you look at it. Let the debate begin.
Brent Webb (2002-06): 103 games – 39 tries, 27 goals (210 points)
Unheralded, versatile Cairns product Webb settled into the fullback spot in 2003 following Ivan Cleary’s retirement, becoming an attacking spearhead over the next four seasons with his elusive running, innate ball-playing sense and superb support play. After fulfilling residential requirements, Webb played 17 Tests in the No.1 for New Zealand. Webb memorably forced the NRL to bring in a ‘shot clock’ for goalkickers after taking a preposterously long time with his conversions in 2003, but his devastating performance in the 48-22 qualifying final triumph over the Bulldogs that year – scoring 18 points from two tries and five goals, and laying on two of Francis Meli’s five tries – was one of the club’s finest individual displays. After finishing ninth in the Dally M Medal count in 2006, Webb was lured to Leeds amid howls of protest from gutted Warriors fans.
Honourable mentions: Kevin Locke, the next most-capped Warriors fullback after Webb, was sensational in the club’s drive to the 2011 Grand Final and appeared set to wear the No.1 for a decade before Sam Tomkins rolled into town. Wade McKinnon and Ivan Cleary were excellent recruits from Sydney whose stints were consistently stymied by injury. Lance Hohaia also produced some memorable performances in the custodian role. Matthew Ridge’s much-hyped arrival descended into a suspension- and injury-riddled three-season mess.
Manu Vatuvei (2004-14): 194 games – 135 tries (540 points)
Kevin Locke (2009-14): 89 games – 26 tries, 24 goals (152 points)
The first player picked after Stacey Jones, the blockbusting Manu Vatuvei boasts a tryscoring record to compare with any winger in the code’s history. ‘The Beast’ has armies of critics – many of them Warriors fans – due his occasional handling howlers and defensive lapses, but he has proved his value time and again, and routinely follows his bad days with a blinder the following week. Crossing for 135 tries in 194 games, Vatuvei has equalled the legendary Ken Irvine as the only players ever to score 10-plus tries and top a club’s tryscoring chart in nine consecutive seasons. Big Manu’s work-rate out of the Warriors’ end of the field is phenomenal, while last year he became the highest try-scorer in New Zealand Test history with 20 in 27 matches. He was named as one of the game’s Five Players of the Year in David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual in 2008, while he collected the Warriors Player of the Year gong in 2010.
Kevin Locke, partly due to his magnificent performances at fullback from 2011-13, gets the nod on the other flank. The gifted and courageous flyer started 32 games on the wing and played many fine hands, including a double on NRL debut against Wests Tigers, and a scintillating hat-trick against Sydney Roosters in 2010 that included a brilliant, brave kick-and-chase effort to steal an after-the-siren win in Christchurch.
Honourable mentions: The only Warriors winger besides Vatuvei to rack up 100 games on the flank, Francis Meli was painstakingly close to nabbing a spot in this side. During a phenomenal 2003 season, Meli scored a club record 23 tries – including an all-time finals record five-try haul against the Bulldogs – and was named the Warriors’ Player of the Year. But save for the odd powerhouse performance, he was generally a liability renowned for brain explosions that would make Big Manu blush, while his record outside of ’03 was a modest 37 tries in 83 games. Henry Fa’afili was a reliable and popular performer in 91 appearances, while Sean Hoppe was named Dally M Winger of the Year in the Warriors’ inaugural season before his form trailed off in the late-1990s.
Clinton Toopi (2001-06): 129 games – 57 tries (252 points)
Konrad Hurrell (2012-14): 56 games – 37 tries (216 points)
Clinton Toopi was an exciting, freakishly skilled and somewhat erratic talent that in many ways epitomised the Warriors in the early-2000s. The only Warrior to make 100 starts in the centres, Toopi scored 18 tries in 2002 and 17 in ’03, while he was a brilliant provider for the likes of Francis Meli. Toopi regularly saved his best for the finals stage, most notably his stunning 50-metre try in the Warriors’ historic preliminary final win over the Sharks in ’02. His twin hat-tricks in Tests against Australia in 2003 and ’05 saw him regarded among the best centres in the game.
Perhaps the luckiest inclusion in this composite side, Konrad Hurrell’s greatest days in a Warriors jersey are hopefully still to come. But the bulldozing three-quarter’s extraordinary impact in three seasons cannot be denied. The ‘Hurrellcane’s’ tryscoring strike-rate of 0.66 per game is second only to Manu Vatuvei’s 0.70 in Warriors history, while his all-round game has improved dramatically since his eye-catching rookie season. Hurrell is far more than just a battering ram and is already a bona fide match-winner.
Honourable mentions: Jerome Ropati ranks as one of the club’s finest servants, but his luckless run with injuries – making just 18 appearances in his last four seasons – unfortunately bumped him out of this line-up. The talented utility back competed in just one finals series during his 12 seasons with the Warriors. Tea Ropati was a strong contributor during the Warriors’ early seasons, Nigel Vagana was a potent try-scorer but played his best football in Sydney and injuries restricted marquee centre signing Brent Tate to just 47 games in three seasons.
James Maloney (2010-12): 75 games – 24 tries, 222 goals, 7 field goals (547 points)
A perennial problem spot for the Warriors, James Maloney made more of an impact in the No.6 jumper than any other player. His 63 starts at five-eighth are a club record, while he scored a record-equalling 28 points against Brisbane in just his third game for the Warriors. Maloney, an outstanding playmaker and hole-runner, was as crucial as any player to the Warriors’ charge to the 2011 Grand Final, while he notched 206 points that season. Homesick Maloney’s disappointing farewell 2012 campaign tainted his tenure somewhat, but he undoubtedly ranks among the club’s best-ever buys.
Honourable mentions: Lance Hohaia, Gene Ngamu, Thomas Leuluai and Michael Witt are the Warriors’ only other pivots of note, but none of that quartet ever cemented the position for any great length of time.
Stacey Jones (1995-2009): 261 games – 77 tries, 176 goals, 14 field goals (674 points)
Quite simply, the greatest Warriors player of their first two decades. Considered by many to be New Zealand’s finest Rugby League product, Stacey Jones was a mercurial match-winner through the Warriors’ glorious high points and their wallowing lows. ‘The Little General’ peaked in 2002, captaining the club to a historic Grand Final appearance and scoring an iconic individual try in the loss to the Roosters in the decider, before becoming just the second Kiwi to collect the Golden Boot. Remarkably, he won just one Player of the Year award (in 1997) but he was the club’s key man in its first 11 seasons, while Jones’ shock 2009 comeback added another memorable chapter to one of the great modern-day careers. The Warriors’ appearance record-holder and top point-scorer (his 77 tries also stood as a club record for several seasons), Jones put the club on the map.
Honourable mentions: The best player not included in this starting line-up, Shaun Johnson will eclipse even Jones’ achievements if his career continues on its current trajectory. The only player to wear the No.7 more than 50 times besides Jones and Johnson is the limited Grant Rovelli. Brett Seymour is next on the list with just 22 appearances at halfback.
Micheal Luck (2006-12): 150 games – 7 tries (28 points)
The Warriors’ best campaigns have been underpinned by an Australian engine-room backbone – and Micheal Luck played that role to perfection in the club’s 2011 Grand Final charge. The former Cowboy was an absolute workhorse with underrated ball skills; his 121 appearances in the No.13 jumper are 67 more than the next-best Warrior. The club’s Player of the Year in its troubled 2009 season, Luck’s injury-enforced absence for all but six games was a largely overlooked factor in the Warriors’ dreadful 2012 campaign.
Honourable mentions: Kevin Campion was crucial to the Warriors’ emergence as an NRL force in the early-2000s, but the hard-man spent just two seasons with the club. Logan Swann played 54 of his 195 games at lock, while Elijah Taylor shaped as a future Warriors great before being snapped up by Penrith.
Simon Mannering (2005-14): 212 games – 52 tries (208 points)
Ali Lauiti’iti (1998-2004): 115 games – 33 tries (132 points)
Arguably the Warriors’ greatest player after Stacey Jones, Simon Mannering is the personification of consistency and professionalism. Mannering has regularly filled in at centre, but has provided the most value as a hard-running, workhorse backrower. He was controversially elevated to the captaincy at the age of 23 over Steve Price, but he led the club to a Grand Final the following season. In 2014, Mannering became the first player to captain the Warriors in 100 games and the second to make 200 first grade appearances, while the 39-Test veteran collected a record fourth Player of the Year gong.
Superfluously dubbed ‘the Michael Jordan of Rugby League’ by coach Mark Graham, Ali Lauiti’iti was nevertheless a rare talent, blessed with freakish ball skills and great mobility and capable of busting the line to score himself or laying on a try for a teammate, while he also had an underrated penchant for the tough stuff. Lauiti’iti was named the Warriors’ Player of the Year and Dally M Second-rower of the Year during the club’s watershed 2002 campaign, briefly challenging Gorden Tallis’ mantle as the NRL’s premier backrower. His abrupt exit from Auckland early in 2004 was a shattering blow for the Warriors.
Honourable mentions: Logan Swann, Awen Guttenbeil, Stephen Kearney, Wairangi Koopu and Lewis Brown were all outstanding contributors to the Warriors’ cause at various stages.
Steve Price (2005-09): 91 games – 13 tries (52 points)
Ben Matulino (2008-14): 152 games – 13 tries (52 points)
Bulldogs stalwart Steve Price rates as the Warriors’ best-ever Aussie import, providing the club with much-needed stability and leadership at a time when it was in the doldrums and eventually leading it to consecutive finals series. Price played 12 Tests for Australia and 12 Origins for Queensland while based in Auckland, while he was named Warriors Player of the Year in 2006-07, and also collected the Dally M Prop and Captain of the Year honours in the latter season. A career-ending foot injury denied Price the opportunity to become just the second player after Brad Fittler to make 200 appearances for one club and 100 for another.
The first NYC graduate to make 100 NRL appearances, Ben Matulino made his first grade debut at 19 and immediately looked like he belonged. Simultaneously regarded as one of the competition’s most punishing defenders and skilful off-loaders, the dynamic and mobile Matulino was named the Warriors’ Player of the Year in 2012. He is the only forward to have commanded an automatic spot in the 17 other than Simon Mannering over the past five seasons.
Honourable mentions: If there’s any position the Warriors have been well-serviced, it’s in the front-row. Sam Rapira has made a club record 94 starts at prop, while Jacob Lillyman, Ruben Wiki, Jerry Seuseu, Russell Packer, Richard Villasanti, Joe Vagana and Suaia Matagi have all served admirable tenures in the trenches.
Lance Hohaia (2002-11): 185 games – 57 tries, 64 goals, 1 field goal (357 points)
Unquestionably in the top bracket of the most valuable players in the Warriors’ history, Hohaia has played a starring role for the club at fullback, five-eighth, hooker and centre. While he made just 14 starts in the No.9, the ‘Huntly Hurricane’ produced many more memorable dummy-half performances after starting on the bench. A regular match-winner whichever number he had on his back, the diminutive livewire was the only player to appear in both the 2002 and 2011 Grand Finals, starting at hooker in the latter before heading to Super League.
Honourable mentions: PJ Marsh was an outstanding buy before a serious neck injury curtailed his stint in Auckland after just 35 games. Reliable and industrious veteran Nathan Friend has equalled Syd Eru’s club record of 60 starts at hooker, utility Nathan Fien proved a very handy dummy-half option at various stages, Aaron Heremia was vastly underrated, and Ian Henderson, Jason Death and Robert Mears all had their moments for the club.
Shaun Johnson (2011-14): 83 games – 37 tries, 130 goals, 4 field goals (412 points)
Ruben Wiki (2005-08): 87 games – 12 tries (48 points)
Jacob Lillyman (2009-14): 124 games – 5 tries (20 points)
Awen Guttenbeil (1996-2006): 170 games – 15 tries (60 points)
The incomparable Shaun Johnson already has a mind-boggling highlights reel after just four seasons and rates as one of the most influential players in the Warriors’ history; potentially their best ever. Canberra great Ruben Wiki, after backing out on deal to become a foundation Auckland Warrior a decade earlier, enjoyed an outstanding four-season homecoming, with his performances as a front-row enforcer playing a key role in the club’s drive to the 2007-08 finals. Jacob Lillyman has been an unwavering warhorse in the front-row, a model of consistency that represented Queensland in 2011 and 2014 from the club. He was desperately unlucky to miss out on a Four Nations call-up for the Kangaroos in each season. Guttenbeil overcame a shocking run of injuries – playing just 34 games in his first five seasons – to become a intimidating, inspirational backrow presence as the Warriors belatedly became a premiership contender in the early-2000s, playing 20 or more first grade games in six straight campaigns.
Ivan Cleary (2006-11): 154 games – 77 wins, 74 losses, 3 draws
No contest. The Warriors’ longest-serving coach by 62 matches, Cleary guided the club to four finals series in six seasons, turning a notoriously enigmatic outfit into a relatively consistent title contender. Cleary managed to harness the Warriors’ traditional strength, their brilliant adlib attack, and combine it with a defensive steel never before seen from the underachieving club. After taking the team to the 2011 Grand Final, Cleary’s departure to Penrith set the Warriors back at least four years.
Honourable mentions: Daniel Anderson is the only other coach to lead the Warriors to the finals, taking them to a maiden post-season appearance in 2001 and a historic Grand Final a year later. Anderson’s 55.4 per cent win rate is a record for a Warriors coach. Foundation mentor John Monie achieved a 55 per cent win rate but, like Anderson, his legacy was tainted by a mid-season exit. Frank Endacott was a fine coach, but achieved limited results as he contended with an underperforming roster, dreadful recruitment and a diabolical administration.
Over to you, Warriors fans. Who was unlucky to be overlooked? Who should have been left out? We want to hear your thoughts on which players are the greatest of the New Zealand Warriors’ 20 rollercoaster seasons.