Born: 8 May, 1969 – Dannevirke
Test record: 9 Tests (1995-97) – 5 tries (20 points)
Dannevirke-born, Hawke’s Bay product John Timu was among the last All Blacks to switch codes before rugby union’s professional awakening. The versatile back’s transition to rugby league was a rousing success, gaining dual international status in 1995 via a Kiwis debut after just 11 first-grade games for the Bulldogs and winning a debut-season premiership with the club – thus becoming the first former All Black to feature in a Sydney grand final victory.
Timu attended Lindisfarne College in Hastings and, like many young prospects destined for higher honours from the region, began his provincial rugby career with Otago after heading south to study in Dunedin. The 19-year-old made a swift impact on the wing for Otago in 1988 – racking up a record 16 tries – and represented New Zealand Māori. He replaced John Kirwan in the All Blacks squad midway through their tour of Wales and Ireland at the end of 1989 after the superstar winger broke down with injury. An automatic selection for subsequent All Blacks trips, Timu did not make his Test debut until the tour of Argentina during 1991 and featured at wing and fullback during that year’s World Cup. He shaped as a key member of New Zealand’s tilt at the 1995 World Cup, but after 50 games (including 26 Tests) in the black jersey and 68 tries in 101 games for Otago, Timu made the shock announcement he was joining the renamed Sydney Bulldogs.
The 25-year-old appeared a custom-made solution for the Bulldogs’ troublesome custodian role. But after making his premiership debut at fullback in the opening round of the ’95 season, Timu was pitched into the centres and adapted superbly. He was part of a four-strong Kiwi backline contingent at the club including Daryl Halligan, Jason Williams and Jarrod McCracken. Timu also proved a handy back-up goalkicker, bagging a try and five goals in an early-season victory over Sydney City with Halligan sidelined, and received a Test call-up a few weeks later.
Sporting dreadlocks after his code switch, the robust and compact three-quarter came off the bench in two matches of the Kiwis’ 3-0 mid-season whitewash at the hands of Australia. “John really impressed me, both as a player and a person and he possesses a hunger that was sadly missing from a lot of players,” New Zealand coach Frank Endacott enthused after the series.
Timu finished with eight regular season tries for the Bulldogs and crossed for another in the embattled club’s stunning 25-6 upset of defending champs Canberra in the preliminary final, completing an extraordinary charge to the decider from sixth spot after the Super League upheaval threatened to rip the squad apart only months earlier. He then helped seal a king-sized boilover against Manly with three minutes of the Grand Final remaining, angling back towards the posts before offloading for Rod Silva to score and confirm a euphoric 17-4 result.
Injury ruled Timu out of the year-ending World Cup after he was selected in the Kiwis’ squad but was outstanding at centre during New Zealand’s post-season schedule in ’96. He scored two tries in the 62-8 first Test drubbing of Papua New Guinea, crossed for a match-winning double in the Kiwis’ tense 17-12 series-opening win over Great Britain and produced a slashing solo try to open their account as they completed a 3-0 cleansweep of the Lions in the third Test. He played alongside former Otago and All Blacks teammate Marc Ellis, who joined the Warriors that year, during both series.
Timu played in both of New Zealand’s Tests against Super League Australia in 1997 – donning the Kiwi jersey for the last time in a 30-12 triumph at North Harbour Stadium – before linking with London Broncos in 1998.
Featuring almost exclusively in the centres for the Broncos, Timu played in the club’s Challenge Cup final loss to Leeds in 1999, before retiring at the end of an injury-hampered 2000 Super League campaign aged 31. Timu eventually returned to New Zealand and entered the construction game, operating a building company in the Central Otago town of Wanaka.
A player whose career in both codes was marked by consistency as well as occasional brilliance, Timu set two dual international records: his 26 Tests for the All Blacks is the most by a player that subsequently went on to represent New Zealand in rugby league, while his combined total of 35 Tests was an unmatched New Zealand dual international mark until Sonny Bill Williams came along.