Puti Tipene (Steve) Watene was a rugby league pioneer during the 1930s, becoming the first Māori to captain the Kiwis. More than 80 years later, the NZRL Legend of League’s great grandson, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, became the Kiwis’ skipper just a month after his 23rd birthday.
Born in Hamilton and spending his early years in Ngaruawahia, Watene-Zelezniak’s family moved to Sydney when he was five. The prodigiously talented outside-back joined Penrith and scored 23 tries in 25 games for the club’s under-20s side, winning an NYC grand final and representing the Junior Kiwis in 2013.
The 18-year-old was drafted into the Panthers’ NRL line-up the following season. He scored seven tries in 10 games on the wing and starred in the Ivan Cleary-coached outfit’s finals campaign. A strong follow-up season at wing, centre and fullback in 2015 was cut short by injury in July, ruling out a likely Kiwis call-up for the end-of-year tour to England.
But ‘DWZ’ did not have long to wait for a Test debut, featuring on the wing in New Zealand’s 16-0 Anzac Test loss in 2016. After being at forefront of the Panthers’ semi-final charge that season – scoring 12 tries in 26 games – he made just one appearance during the Four Nations, starting at fullback in the shock draw with Scotland.
The freakish flyer played on the wing in the 2017 Anzac Test and was named in the Kiwis’ World Cup squad at the end of the year. Watene-Zelezniak scored his first Test try in the pool match against Mate Ma’a Tonga – fittingly, in Hamilton – but he endured a torrid afternoon at the hands of his opposing winger, Tonga’s hat-trick hero David Fustiu’a, in the historic 28-22 loss.
With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck unavailable, Watene-Zelezniak scored two tries from fullback in a superb display as New Zealand went down to England in Denver midway through 2018. He retained the No.1 jumper for the Kiwis’ post-season schedule thanks to ‘RTS’s’ knee injury and was coach Michael Maguire’s surprise choice to take over as captain.
The role inspired Watene-Zelezniak to new heights, leading by example as New Zealand scored a 26-24 upset over Australia in Auckland – including a brilliant through-the-legs pass to set up his side’s first try for Ken Maumalo. He then led the Kiwis in all three Tests of the 2-1 series defeat in England, scoring tries in losing efforts in the first two encounters.
Watene-Zelezniak bounced around the struggling Panthers’ team sheet early in 2019, before being dropped to reserve grade and seeking a release to link with Canterbury. But after just one game for the Bulldogs, he joined a select group of players who have captained a Test team from the wing as Tuivasa-Sheck returned for the mid-season showdown with Tonga. The 23-year-old helmed another momentous win as the Kiwis powered to a 34-14 result.
‘DWZ’ was magnificent at fullback for the improving Bulldogs during the second half of the season but a knee injury ended his campaign prematurely and ruled the incumbent skipper out of the Kiwis’ end-of-year schedule.