Born: 7 February, 1975 – Auckland
Test record: 38 Tests (1998-2006) – 19 tries (76 points)
Tours: 1999 Tri Nations, 2000 World Cup, 2002 tour of Great Britain, 2004 Tri Nations, 2005 Tri Nations, 2006 Tri Nations
One of the finest Kiwis of his era and among the most prolific tryscorers in premiership history, brilliant centre Nigel Vagana crossed for a then-record 19 tries for New Zealand and filled several backline roles in the black-and-white jersey.
A Richmond junior and 1994 Junior Kiwi alongside his cousin, giant future New Zealand Test prop Joe Vagana, the quicksilver youngster was at fullback for the Auckland Warriors Colts team that lost the Lion Red Cup final to defending champs North Harbour.
Vagana made his first-grade debut for the Warriors off the bench early in 1996, but it would be his only appearance in the top flight that year; after starring for the club’s reserve grade side that stormed into the grand final (a loss to Cronulla) he ventured to England and scored 21 tries in 24 games for Warrington in 1997.
Returning to the Warriors in 1998, Vagana immediately grabbed a starting centre spot and – after only a handful of NRL games – a spot on the bench as the Kiwis stunned a full-strength Australia 22-16 in the Anzac Test.
The 23-year-old led the Warriors in 1998 with 13 tries but missed New Zealand’s end-of-season program.
Vagana returned to the Kiwis set-up for the 1999 Tri Nations, starting on the wing in all three matches and scoring a try in the 24-22 upset of the Kangaroos, a double in the 26-4 thrashing of Great Britain and another four-pointer in the nail-biting defeat to the green-and-golds in the final. He also blazed over for a hat-trick in the one-off clash with Tonga as his tally ballooned to seven tries in just five Tests.
The elusive, lightning-fast three-quarter was a permanent fixture on the flank for Frank Endacott’s Kiwis in 2000, featuring in the Anzac Test and five of their six World Cup matches – including the final against Australia at Old Trafford. He dotted down in the pool wins over Cook Islands and Wales, and the semi-final dismantling of England.
Vagana topped the Warriors’ try charts in 2000 after crossing 12 times for the second straight year, but he was lured to the Bulldogs at the end of the year and flourished with 16 touchdowns in 2001, as well as his first Test start at centre in the mid-season loss to the Kangaroos in Wellington.
Challenging for the mantle of the code’s best centre, Vagana was named Dally M Centre of the Year for the second straight season in 2002. He led the NRL with a Bulldogs record 23 tries, including a club-record-equalling five-try haul against Souths – the first time in eight years any player had crossed five times in a match.
Vagana played all six Tests of the Kiwis’ post-season campaign, bagging two tries in the 30-16 series-opening victory in Great Britain (the three-Test series would finish in a draw) and another brace in the one-off showdown with France.
His electric form for the heavyweight Bulldogs continued in 2003 with 22 tries, while he showed his versatility by filling in at fullback as New Zealand shocked Australia 30-16 at North Harbour Stadium at the end of the season.
Joining the struggling Sharks in 2004 and again donning the No.1 in the Anzac Test loss at Newcastle, Vagana returned to the centres for the Kiwis’ ultimately disappointing Tri Nations campaign – where he dotted down in a two-point loss to Great Britain at Hull – and the 2005 Anzac Test defeat in Brisbane.
Vagana plugged another troublesome gap throughout the 2005 Tri Nations, slotting in at five-eighth. He scored tries in the two preliminary matches against Australia – the stirring win in Sydney and the narrow loss in Auckland. The veteran was controversially handed a lenient one-match ban for a high tackle on Great Britain’s Paul Deacon; he was able to serve it during the Test against France, allowing him to line up in the final.
Vagana celebrated in his fifth career win over Australia as New Zealand powered to a staggering 24-0 triumph at Elland Road.
Remaining at five-eighth for the bulk of the Kiwis’ 2006 schedule, the 31-year-old had the honour of captaining his country in the Anzac Test defeat at Suncorp Stadium. Vagana then passed Sean Hoppe as New Zealand’s greatest Test tryscorer with his 18th try in the Tri Nations opener against the Kangaroos and added another in the crunch 34-4 win over Great Britain in Wellington. He bid farewell to the Kiwis in the gallant extra-time final loss to the Kangaroos in Sydney – finishing with the rare distinction of having played 10-plus Tests at five-eighth, centre and wing.
Having scored 32 tries in 61 games for Cronulla, Vagana was a high-profile signing for rebuilding South Sydney and played every game to help lead the club to its first finals series in 18 years in 2007. After playing the All Golds’ exhibition clash with Northern Union in Warrington at the end of the year, he also took over the captaincy of Samoa that year – leading the island nation through a successful World Cup qualification process.
Injury hampered the last season of his NRL tenure in 2008, but he finished with 140 tries – then the most ever by a non-Australian – from 240 games. Vagana skippered Samoa at the World Cup before hanging up the boots.
Vagana remained a valued servant to rugby league, becoming a long-serving education and welfare officer with the NRL, the General Manager of Football and Wellbeing with the NZRL and, in 2022, the Chair of Richmond Rovers.