28 October 2022
as seen on NRL.com
by Corey Rosser
Once described as rugby league’s answer to Michael Jordan, Ali Lauiti’iti took the NRL by storm through the early 2000s with his incredible array of skills and sheer power with ball in hand.
Named the Dally M Second-Rower of the year in 2002, he was a key figure in the Warriors’ maiden Grand Final run that year and in total played 115 games for the club before departing for the UK Super League.
By the end of his career, Lauiti’iti had played for the Warriors, Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity at club level, along with representing both New Zealand and Toa Samoa at Test level.
NRL.com sat down with the 43-year-old to discuss his dream team of players he lined up with and against across an 18-season career.
“I played with him at both the Warriors and Leeds and he was an exciting player. Great on the ball but kept busy off it too. His speed and evasion allowed him to create things others couldn’t. A naturally gifted player.”
“He had a lot of confidence and was so physical. He loved to assert his physicality on other teams – basically he loved hitting guys – and as people saw could do some damage. Francis was a strong runner too who could score some tries.”
“Explosive and super aggressive. Another one who could put on a shot. He loved to create tries and played with confidence. He was a guy who wanted the ball in his hands and his confidence helped the Warriors in the early 2000s. His enthusiasm was contagious.”
“He knew where the try-line was and was so smooth in his movements. He was light on his feet but powerful enough to break through tackles and use evasion to glide through people. He was an older brother to all of us in the Samoan team at the back end of the career.”
“The rugby league version of Jonah Lomu. So much power and the fastest guy around when he was coming through the grades. He had raw speed and strength and could create a try from anything. He was a sprint champion as a kid with hardly any training, which is freaky.”
“He did some exciting things on the field and was one of those players who is rare to come across. Three foot tall and the heart of a giant. He was a player to remember.”
“Stacey led through his actions and the things he could do were out of this world. Not only a player I loved playing with, but he was a guy I watched on TV as a kid. He was right up there with the greatest halves around in my era and was a Kiwi guy Australians would always talk about, and he was respected around the world.”
“Smokin’ Joe. Just all power and strength in attack. Knew his role and where to position himself and did it every time. He was a big, big guy and someone I played against a lot when he was at Bradford Bulls, which was never fun when it came to tackling.”
“Had a big heart and was brave enough to tackle anything that came at him. In attack his speed off the mark at dummy-half was huge and he was creative and sneaky with the ball. He gets into my team ahead of another legend I played with, Danny Buderus, which is saying something.”
“Tough and never, ever took a backwards step. Jerry loved the hard stuff but could also produce a pass when needed. He was crucial in making the Warriors’ pack so intimidating in the early 2000s, he was our leader out there and led from the front.”
“You’d take a carry after Ruben and he’d already taken out half the opposition pack. Off the field what he brought to the team was unmatched. He was one of the greatest leaders I ever played with.”
“Logan was a workhorse, he led by example and would do anything for the team. He was super underrated and one of those guys who did all the hard stuff for others.”
“A great leader. A creative player who had the skill of a half, but the body and work ethic to play in the middle or on the edge. Such a versatile player, he was good enough to have been a star in the NRL too.”
“Probably the most skillful forward I played with. Some of the things I saw him do were extraordinary. You had to always expect the unexpected with him and he was the king of the offload. He could have five defenders on him and still offload.”
“Tough and one of the biggest hitters I played with. He always wanted to get amongst the rough stuff and could be relied on. Off the field he became a great friend.”
“He’s one of the bosses where I work at the New Zealand Rugby League, but he’s not my boss, so he’s here on merit! He was so versatile. Played hooker for New Zealand, played a NRL Grand Final at five-eighth, could play wing, centre, fullback. Only Craig Wing could be close to him in that regard. Explosive and creative too.
Skillful and strong in the centres, but able to play in the pack too. He started out as a second-rower in his early days and played as a middle forward for the Kiwis. His talent was unreal and he went on to play rugby union for England too. He could have been a great Warrior if he didn’t get injured early on in his career.
Ruben Wiki’s extraordinary career garnered the most elite of achievements: a then-world record 55 Tests for the Kiwis, selection in the New Zealand Team of the Century, the first non-Australian to make 300 first-grade appearances in the Australian premiership and one of just three Kiwis to be inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame.
The Otahuhu junior’s role in 16 seasons at rugby league’s highest level can also be split into two halves, spending seven years as a blockbusting centre before gravitating to the forward pack and becoming recognised as one of the code’s most respected enforcers.
The 1992 Junior Kiwi represented Auckland and New Zealand Māori, joined Canberra Raiders in 1993 and starred in the club’s 1994 premiership triumph. Wiki scored 15 tries in 25 games and became just the third New Zealander (along with teammate Quentin Pongia) to win a Sydney grand final as the Raiders carved out an emphatic win over Canterbury Bulldogs.
A Kiwis call-up for the end-of-season tour to Papua New Guinea followed and Wiki was an automatic Test selection for the ensuing 12 seasons. The backline powerhouse was a key figure in New Zealand’s 1996 series cleansweep of Great Britain and momentous wins over Australia in 1998 and ’99.
“I first had him in the Junior Kiwis in 1992, when we beat the Junior Kangaroos for the first time in history – it showed me then what a good player and person Ruben was,” former coach Frank Endacott recalls.
“I had no hesitation in picking him in every Kiwis Test once I became coach. He was one of those special players, a lovely person, a tough competitor, and by geez the opposition always respected him.
“I moved him to lock against Great Britain (during a Test) at Bolton Stadium and they couldn’t handle him. He was so dependable and he’d never argue whatever position you put him in, he’d just play and do the job at the highest level.”
Wiki’s hulking frame and ferocious style made his transition to the Raiders’ engine-room in 1999 and the Kiwis’ pack at the 2000 World Cup a smooth and permanent one. He made the first of 18 Test appearances as captain in 2003 – a leadership tenure that included New Zealand’s watershed 2005 Tri Nations success and a gallant farewell to the international scene as the Kiwis lost an epic golden point final to Australia in the 2006 tournament.
“When I was coaching we had a number of good candidates and he was spoken about among them,” Endacott adds.
“It was only a matter of time before he became Kiwi captain. He had the respect of the opposition and his own players – they looked up to him and they’d follow him to the end of the earth.”
During the latter Tri Nations, the 33-year-old also became the first player to play 50 Tests for any nation. He was named at prop in the Kiwis’ Team of the Century in 2007 and, fittingly, skippered the All Golds against Northern Union in that year’s centenary match.
A two-time Raiders player of the year and bona fide club legend (he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2022), Wiki left the Australian capital after 225 games in the lime green to return home to Auckland and play for the Warriors. He was the Warriors’ player of the year in 2005 and played an instrumental, inspirational role as front-row cornerstone and spiritual leader as the club returned to the playoffs in 2007 and reached the preliminary final in 2008, the 35-year-old Wiki’s last NRL campaign.
Ruben Wiki's monster hit-up ?#NRLFinalsMoments pic.twitter.com/dqhewebt2u
— NRL (@NRL) September 24, 2019
Ruben Wiki's monster hit-up ?#NRLFinalsMoments pic.twitter.com/dqhewebt2u
— NRL (@NRL) September 24, 2019
“He’s arguably New Zealand’s greatest all-round player ever and would be hard to beat among any internationals, proving himself in the centres with his speed and strength, then shifting into the back-row and ending up as one of the best props in the world,” rugby league journalist, author and historian John Coffey asserts.
“I wouldn’t think there’s anybody else who has gone (from the backline) all the way to the front-row and been so dominant, whether it was on defence or attack.”
Wiki remained entrenched in rugby league post-playing through roles as NZRL’s high performance manager, on the Kiwis’ support staff and as the Warriors’ long-serving strength and conditioning coach. Made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for his services to rugby league and awarded the Ken Stephen Medal, recognising his off-field community work, in 2007, Wiki became just the eighth Kiwis rep to be inducted to the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Clubs: Otahuhu Leopards, Canberra Raiders, New Zealand Warriors
New Zealand Representative:
1994 2 Tests in Papua New Guinea
1995 2 Tests in Australia
1995 3 Tests at World Cup (England)
1996 2 Tests v Papua New Guinea
1996 3 Tests v Great Britain
1997 1 Tests in Australia
1998 3 Tests v Australia (home and away)
1998 3 Tests in Great Britain
1999 1 Test in Australia
1999 3 Tests in Tri Nations (NZ and Aus)
1999 1 Test v Tonga
2000 6 Tests at World Cup (England)
2001 1 Test v France
2001 1 Test v Australia
2002 1 Test v Australia
2002 1 Test in Wales
2002 2 Tests in Great Britain
2002 1 Test in France
2003 2 Tests v Australia (home and away)
2004 3 Tests in Tri Nations (NZ and GB)
2004 1 Test in France
2005 1 Test in Australia
2005 5 Tests in Tri Nations (NZ, Aus and GB)
2005 1 Test in France
2006 5 Tests in Tri Nations (NZ and Aus)
Total Test Appearances: 55 matches – 15 tries (60 points)
Total Matches Played: 58 matches – 17 tries (68 points)
Kiwis captain in 18 Tests (2003-06)
New Zealand Player of the Year (2003)
Ken Stephen Medal (2007)
New Zealand Team of the Century (2007)
All Golds captain v Northern Union (2007)
Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2007)
First New Zealand to play 300 NRL games (2008)
New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame (2017)
NRL Hall of Fame (2019)
Canberra Raiders Hall of Fame (2022)
June 24, 2022
New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) has inducted, for the first time in its history, four Kiwi Ferns to its prestigious Legends of League. Congratulations to Kiwi Fern legends, Luisa Avaiki, Nadene Conlon, Trish Hina and Leah Witehira who now join the esteemed Legends’ Club.
Also receiving the top New Zealand Rugby League honour are Kevin Iro, Stacey Jones, James Leuluai, Sir Graham Lowe, Dane O’Hara, Quentin Pongia, Howie Tamati and Ruben Wiki.
Expanding the NZRL Legends of League further has been a long time coming – and the return of the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns to the Test arena after a three-year, COVID-enforced hiatus seems the perfect juncture to honour a new batch of inductees.
A six-strong panel made up of NZRL President, NZRL Life Member and former Kiwis captain and coach Howie Tamati, NZRL Life Member and 1994-2000 Kiwis coach Frank Endacott, 1990s Kiwi and 2008 Legends of League inductee Tawera Nikau, 1995 Kiwi Ferns original and long-serving NZRL Kiwis and National Teams Manager Nadene Conlon, former NZRL Director Elizabeth Richards, and rugby league journalist, author and NZRL historian Will Evans heeded the call in recent months to run the rule over dozens of worthy candidates.
Building on the recent work to recognise and celebrate the New Zealand women’s team’s history, the historic decision was made to induct an initial group of four Kiwi Ferns to the Legends of League, along with eight new Kiwis selections.
The key criteria set down for Legends of League recognition were: longevity, leadership, achievement and performance at international level (first and foremost) as well as club and provincial level; enhancing rugby league’s standing in New Zealand; and post-playing contribution to the game. Having been retired for at least five years – a directive since the establishment of the Legends of League in 1995 – remains a requirement.
Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones narrowly missed the five-year retirement cut-off when the last batch of Legends of League were inducted in 2013 – and their inclusion this time around was essentially a fait accompli.
The Auckland juniors and long-time Kiwis teammates, who played 101 Test matches between them in the 1990s and 2000s, were the only New Zealand Team of the Century selections yet to receive Legends of League recognition. In 2019, Wiki and Jones – both esteemed Kiwi captains and universally admired for their impact on the Australian premiership – joined Mark Graham as the only New Zealanders in the NRL Hall of Fame in 2019.
The outpouring of emotional tributes for 35-Test Kiwi Quentin Pongia from every corner of the rugby league world following his death in 2019 from cancer, aged just 48, reflected the esteem in which he is held in the game. Widely revered as one of the toughest and most durable and uncompromising forwards of any era, the West Coast-bred, Canterbury provincial rep and Canberra Raiders premiership winner was a Kiwis engine-room cornerstone from 1992-2000 and captained New Zealand to Test series glory in Great Britain in 1998.
‘The Beast’ moniker illustrated the powerful impact Kevin Iro had as a blockbusting centre or winger in the Kiwi jersey for more than a decade, and on the British and Australian club scenes for 15 seasons. Aucklander Iro scored 16 tries in 34 Tests from 1987-98 and starred in a host of Challenge Cup final and Super League grand finals with Wigan, Leeds and St Helens.
The remaining four Kiwis Legends of League places went to key figures of the Kiwis’ halcyon 1980s era that featured so many ground-breaking victories.
The ultra-versatile James Leuluai played Tests in four different backline positions – but it is as brilliant, elusive centre that he is chiefly remembered. A breath-taking sidestep and blinding acceleration garnered 14 tries in 29 Tests.
Leuluai also produced some unforgettable Challenge Cup moments at Wembley with Hull FC, where he played alongside Auckland and Kiwis teammate and fellow 2022 Legends of League inductee Dane O’Hara.
Dubbed the ‘Rolls Royce of wingers’, O’Hara was a prolific try-scorer – including 14 touchdowns in a then-record-equalling 36 Test appearances for New Zealand – but was equally revered for his professionalism, dedication and leadership. He captained the Kiwis against Australia in 1980, a rare feat for a winger.
Taranaki hooker Howie Tamati was another vital component of New Zealand’s international rugby league renaissance, playing the last 19 of his 24 Tests for the Kiwis in succession, captaining his country against Papua New Guinea in 1983 and featuring prominently in watershed triumphs over Australia and Great Britain. Tamati, one of the game’s great servants, later coached the Kiwis in 1992-93 and began a long tenure as NZRL President – a post he continues to hold with pride and enthusiasm – in 2013.
Previous inductees such as Scotty McClymont, Lory Blanchard and Ces Mountford enhanced their case for inclusion by coupling esteemed playing careers with outstanding tenures as coach of the Kiwis. But Sir Graham Lowe has broken new Legends of League ground as the first inductee (aside from referee John Percival) without a prominent playing background.
After cutting his teeth at Ellerslie in the 1970s, Lowe became one of the most influential and revolutionary figures in the code’s history in New Zealand. The national team’s outstanding results under Lowe’s tutelage from 1983-86 heralded a turning point for the Kiwis, while his achievements and status as a club coach at Norths Devils, Wigan and Manly Sea Eagles, as well as State of Origin level with Queensland, are virtually unmatched by a New Zealander.
Luisa Avaiki’s inclusion as one of the first four Kiwi Ferns Legends of League was never in doubt. One of just three players to feature in New Zealand’s first three World Cup triumphs, Avaiki was the only 1995 original still playing when the Kiwi Ferns carried off the 2008 title. Meanwhile, the front-row powerhouse’s role as captain of the 2003 and ’08 World Cup successes underline her status as one of women’s rugby league’s finest leaders, and she has gone on to carve out a highly successful career in coaching and development post-playing.
Another 1995 original, Nadene Conlon’s distinguished standing as a women’s rugby league pioneer and long-serving, high-achieving Kiwi Ferns leader is matched only by her towering off-field contributions to the game. The 2000 World Cup-winning co-captain – admired for her tireless performances as a backbone of the Kiwi Ferns’ pack – has spent more than two decades working in rugby league coaching, development, administration and management with Auckland Rugby League, the Warriors and NZRL, while few have done as much to drive women’s rugby league’s progress.
Trish Hina has been described as one of New Zealand’s greatest sportswomen, representing her country in rugby league, rugby union, touch football and softball. But the Wellington five-eighth undoubtedly made her biggest impact in the 13-a-side game. Arguably women’s rugby league’s first genuine superstar, Hina’s Kiwi Ferns tenure spanned 13 years and her linchpin role in three World Cup triumphs included two player of the tournament nods. The record-breaking try-scorer and goalkicker boasted a game-breaking kitbag of skill, vision and pace unmatched among her contemporaries.
Leach Witehira was a prominent figure on New Zealand’s trail-blazing tour of Australia in 1995 and later formed a stellar halves combination with Hina as the Kiwi Ferns won the first two World Cups. Witehira was a prolific try-scorer at international level, a steady playmaking influence and key leader as the Ferns cemented their status as the dominant force in women’s rugby league.
New Zealand Rugby League congratulates the 12 new members of the Legends of League – a richly-deserved honour for some of the Kiwis’ and Kiwi Ferns’ best ever.
2022 NZRL LEGENDS OF LEAGUE INDUCTEES
Sir Graham Lowe
By warriors.kiwi & Photosport.nz
As seen on warriors.kiwi/news
New Zealand rugby league greats Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones have tonight been revealed as two of the four players to join the NRL Hall of Fame in a formal induction ceremony in Sydney on Wednesday night.
In a momentous night for the game in New Zealand, they will be inducted alongside Australians Danny Buderus and Craig Young, joining 106 players previously honoured.
The Kiwi legends were among last year’s nominees when Kiwi legend and New Zealand player of the century Mark Graham (the first Kiwi included) was inducted along with Petero Civoniceva, Cliff Lyons, Steve Menzies, Ricky Stuart and Gorden Tallis.
And they were again included in a list of 25 nominees announced last week for this year’s intake.
Wiki (46) and Jones (43) were long-time Kiwi teammates throughout their careers, Wiki playing a then-world record 55 Tests from 1994 to 2006 while Jones made 46 Test appearances from 1995-2006; they also both captained the Kiwis.
Wiki became the first New Zealander to play 300 NRL games, finishing with a total of 312 appearances including 225 for Canberra and 87 for the Vodafone Warriors.
Jones played his entire NRL career with the Vodafone Warriors, making a club record 261 appearances (until Simon Mannering went ahead of him).
Wiki and Jones have both worked extensively for the Vodafone Warriors since their playing careers ended, Wiki as a strength and conditioning coach and Jones in a number of coaching positions (he’s now an NRL assistant coach).
They were both named in the New Zealand Rugby League’s Team of the Century and have both been included in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.
A voting college representing a cross section of the game – scroll down to see college members – selected their top five players to be included in the exclusive Hall of Fame club. The four players were selected through an independent audit of the votes.
NRL Chief Executive Todd Greenberg said the four inductees were all worthy recipients of the honour.
“All four of our player inductees will stand proudly alongside the 106 players who they will join in the Hall of Fame,” Greenberg said.
“These are some of the best players of their generations, and they will now join the best of the best.
“They each dominated their respective eras and commanded enormous respect. They still do.
“This year’s Hall of Fame class is an exceptional one. We will be recognising greatness when our latest class are formally inducted.”
Senior manager of NRL awards Frank Puletua said the induction ceremony would be one of the most important nights on the calendar.
“This year, we will be acknowledging our contributors as well as our players,” Puletua said.
“The Hall of Fame induction has become an incredibly important night for the game as we take the opportunity to reflect on our pioneers and our finest players.
“All four of our player inductees can now forever be known as Hall of Famers, and that only adds to their standing in the game.”
Three contributors – one each from administration, broadcast media and print media – will be announced tomorrow ahead of the formal induction.
For more information on the NRL Hall of Fame and Immortals, please visit nrl.com/hall-of-fame/
Born: February 6, 1978, Taree, NSW
Junior Football: Taree United
Club: Newcastle Knights
Premiership Career 1997-2013: Newcastle Knights: Played 257. Points 246 (61 tries, 1 goal).
First Grade Debut: Newcastle v South Queensland at Marathon Stadium, 23/3/1997 (Rd 3)
Grand Finals: 1 – Newcastle 2001 (W)
Rep Career: Australia: Tests 24 (2001-06), Kangaroo tours 2001, 2003; Tri-Nations 2004, 2005. New South Wales: State of Origins 21 (2002-08). Country Origin: 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008
Born: May 7, 1976, Auckland, NZ
Junior Football: Point Chevalier
Club: Vodafone Warriors
Premiership Career 1995-2009: Vodafone Warriors: Played 261. Points 674 (77 tries, 176 goals, 14 field goals). Super League 2006-2007: Les Catalans: Played 45 games.
First Grade Debut: Warriors v Parramatta at Parramatta Stadium, 23/4/1995 (Rd 7)
Grand Finals: 1 – Warriors 2002 c (L)
Rep Career: New Zealand: Tests 46 (1995-2006), World Cups 1995, 2000, Tri-Nations 1999, 2005, 2006; Captained Kiwis in seven Tests
Born: January 21, 1973, Auckland, NZ
Junior Football: Otara Scorpions
Clubs: Canberra Raiders, Vodafone Warriors
Position: Centre/Second Row/Prop
Former Kiwi captain Ruben Wiki was among seven rugby league greats presented with golden caps at the Rugby League International Federation’s Golden Boot awards dinner in Leeds last night.
The presentation of golden caps for players who appeared in 50 or more Tests was a feature of the night which saw England winger Tommy Makinson win the men’s Golden Boot while Australian Jillaroos centre Isabelle Kelly was awarded the inaugural women’s Golden Boot.
When rugby league legend Wiki retired from international football in 2006, he had played a world record 55 Tests, a mark which stood until Kangaroos captain Darren Lockyer (59) overtook him. Cameron Smith ended his representative career this year with a total of 56 Tests.
Wiki’s golden cap was collected on his behalf by his former Kiwi team-mate Motu Tony, who is in England with the touring New Zealand team.
Players awarded golden caps were:
Jim Sullivan (1921-1934) 54 internationals for Wales, England and Great Britain
Mick Sullivan (1954-1962) 50 internationals for England and Great Britain
Ruben Wiki (1994-2006) 55 internationals for New Zealand
Adrian Morley (1996-2012) 53 internationals for England and Great Britain
Darren Lockyer (1997-2011) 59 internationals for Australia
Petero Civoniceva (2001-2014) 51 internationals for Australia and Fiji
Cameron Smith (2006-2017) 56 internationals for Australia
As well as Tony, the Kiwis’ representatives at last night’s dinner included Kiwi head coach Michael Maguire, captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – who was on the short list of four for the Golden Boot – former Kiwi Daryl Halligan, New Zealand Rugby League chairman Reon Edwards and CEO Greg Peters.
Watene-Zelezniak has had an outstanding year at international level, performing impressively against England in Denver, in the one-off Test against Australia last month and in each of the first two matches of the current series against England.
Kiwi Ferns centre Honey Hireme was on the short list for the women’s Golden Boot.
Three greats were inducted into England’s Rugby League Hall of Fame – Wakefield’s Derek Turner, Hull’s Johnny Whiteley and Andy Gregory, whose club career included stints with Widnes, Warrington and Wigan.
As well as Morley, Whiteley, Gregory the dinner at the Centerary Pavilion was attended by a cast of rugby league greats, among them the incomparable Billy Boston – now 84 – Garry Schofield, Mal Reilly and Neil Fox while there was also a table including former Great Britain internationals George Nicholls, Jimmy Thompson, Brian Lockwood, Alan Smith and Keith Bridges.