Across the Tasman, fans love their rugby league and the New Zealanders are passionate diehards that love to see their team win and perform well. It all started as the Auckland Warriors but now, everyone knows them as the New Zealand Warriors. A team built on passion, pride and a small but rich history, the Warriors are building towards success and boast some tremendous players both now and from the past. Again, the paragraphs on each player will focus solely on their stints with the Warriors.
Here is our take on the best ever Warriors side:
1. Brent Webb – Of Torres Strait Islander descent, the Cairns born fullback was excelling in the Queensland Cup as the leading try-scorer before being spotted by Daniel Anderson and signing with the New Zealand Warriors. Webb’s Warriors debut came in 2002 in front of a home crowd aged just 21. A fan favourite over the years, Webb won the Supporters’ Player of the Year Award in 2003 and 2004, and became eligible as a New Zealand representative after living in the country for three years. He won the Tri Nations tournament in 2005 and despite scoring 11 tries in 2006, it was a largely pedestrian year for the Warriors. He cemented a spot in the Warriors side in 2003 when Ivan Cleary departed the club and nifty feet, quickness and surprising strength became strong staples of his game. He then departed in 2006 and moved onto stints with both the Leeds Rhinos and the Catalan Dragons.
2. Francis Meli – Born in Apia, Samoa, the Marist Saints junior in Auckland was signed by the NRL club in 1998. His debut came early in 1999 and as per a feeder arrangement with the Warriors, he fronted up for Brisbane Souths on several occasions. Early on his career, representative opportunities came knocking, as he had the chance to play for Samoa in 2000. The following year, he ended up changing his allegiance to the New Zealand Kiwis side before eventually reverting back to the Samoan side. He was a member of the Warriors side that made the 2002 grand final and played on the wing, before finishing up as top-scorer in 2003 with 23 tries, a club record for the Warriors. After that successful 2003 season from an individual perspective, he was named the Warriors’ Player of the Year. He also scored a finals record five tries in 2002 in a win against the Bulldogs. The 2005 season was the last one for Meli with the Warriors and after 8 seasons with the club, he made the move to St Helens and then went on to play for the Salford Devils.
3. Sean Hoppe – A local New Zealander, the Northcote Tigers junior made his first foray into rugby league with stints at the Canberra Raiders and North Sydney Bears, before signing with the Warriors in 1995. This was the inaugural year for the Warriors and after scoring 19 tries in their first season – a club record at the time – Hoppe was voted the competition’s best winger for his try-scoring exploits. With a total of 44 tries, Hoppe sits fourth on the list for most tries scored by a Warriors player. He ended up averaging a try every second game, a handy strike-rate. He became a popular player with the Kiwis side as well, playing in a whopping 35 Tests for New Zealand. Close to the end of the 1999 season, Hoppe ended up signing with St Helens where he remained for several seasons.
4. Clinton Toopi – Born in Stratford, New Zealand, the powerful centre spent most of his career with the Warriors after debuting for them in 1999. He was a member of their 2002 NRL grand final side and was a favourite for some throughout his years with the club. Starting out as a forward initially, Toopi became a centre and enjoyed a healthy try-scoring strike-rate during his time as a player across the three teams he played for. His time at the Warriors saw him rewarded with representative honours for both the New Zealand Maori side and the New Zealand side, playing in four and ten games respectively. After 8 seasons with the Warriors, Toopi departed and went off to play in England for the Leeds Rhinos. After a brief hiatus from league to play rugby union, Toopi’s final footballing tenure was in 2010 when he rejoined the NRL, signing with the Gold Coast Titans.
5. Manu Vatuvei – One of the most loved and revered players by Warriors fans, Vatuvei has been a mainstay and a stalwart of the club for over a decade now. Born in Auckland, Vatuvei started out in the Bartercard Cup and such was his skills and talents that he was signed by the Warriors into their developmental system at just 16 years of age. His debut for the Warriors came in 2004 and his career continued to blossom from there. 2005 saw him score his first try and be rewarded with his first international cap for New Zealand before going on to enjoy numerous seasons of high try-scoring quality. The hulking winger is known for his commitment and hard-running style, proving to be a handful on every carry. Although as a player, he has not played in an NRL grand final, Vatuvei was a part of the Kiwis side in 2008 that won the Rugby League World Cup. To date, he also holds the record for the most tries scored by a Warriors player. He also created further history, when just this year, he became the only player in NRL history to score 10 tries in a season in 10 consecutive seasons. At just 29, Vatuvei may well break even more records.
6. Gene Ngamu – A Northcote Tigers junior, the professional rugby league career of Ngamu began in 1992 when he signed with the Manly Sea Eagles. He made the Junior Kiwis side that year and played one game for the Rabbitohs before settling at the Warriors at the start of the 1995 season. There, he enjoyed consistent individual success particularly as a goal-kicker. He is the joint record holder for most points scored in a game by a Warriors player along with Ivan Cleary and James Maloney. After 5 seasons with the Warriors, some accurate goal-kicking and numerous appearances for the Kiwis side, Ngamu departed the club and sought out a deal in England.
7. Stacey Jones – The Little General. Arguably the best player to have ever donned the Warriors jersey, the hopes in a season always rested in the hands of Jones, a dogged, determined, crafty individual, who produced consistent footy regularly. Predominantly a halfback that lead from the front, there were occasional stints at five-eighth for the maestro. To date, he is the first and only Warriors life member and at the time of his retirement, held the record for most games played, most tries scored and most points scored. Spotted by the Warriors in the early 90’s, Jones had natural talent and showed it in 1995 when he not only made his debut, but then went on to retain his spot due to good form, thus moving the more experienced Greg Alexander to fullback. Despite some lean years during the mid-to-late 90’s, Jones stuck with the team and continued to prove his worth as a player, often showcasing his talents. Awarded the co-captaincy in 2001, he proved to be the catalyst in the Warriors finals charge for three straight years that included the 2002 minor premiership and a grand final appearance in the same year. 2002 was a tremendous year for Jones and it was capped off when he won the Golden Boot Award to further enhance his profile and reputation as one of the best ever New Zealand players. Jones illustrious club career brought about many personal successes and he was involved in two World Cups, three Tri-Nations and made 41 total appearances for the Kiwis. Jones then went to the other side of the world to play for Catalans in the Super League but he would yet return to the Warriors. In 2008, he returned to the club as kicking coach and in 2009 he came out of retirement and played one final year with the club. Nowadays, Jones is coaching the Warriors NSW Cup side.
8. Joe Vagana – Coming through the ranks of Kiwi rugby league, Vagana joined the Warriors side ahead of the 1995 season and played immediately. A hulking forward, Vagana laid the platform for the Warriors side and was a crucial player in the forward pack for the club during his time there. In 1995, he represented Western Samoa at the Rugby League World Cup before playing for New Zealand in the 1999 Tri-Nations tournament. Amassing 116 games for the club in just six seasons, an opportunity to stay beckoned but when new owner Eric Watson came along, he only bought the club and not the player contracts. As a result, he was free to depart the Warriors and he did so, signing with the Bradford Bulls in the Super League where he enjoyed some success.
9. Lance Hohaia – One of the best Kiwi utilities of the modern era if not in their history, it was hard as a rugby league fan to not like Hohaia. Born in Hamilton, New Zealand, his junior footy came for the Taniwharau Rugby League club and after stints for local NZ sides, he was signed by the Warriors and made his debut in 2002. He was involved in the Warriors grand final appearance that same year, coming off the interchange bench. There were periods when he was in and out of the Warriors side, simply because his overall utility value worked against him. With no clearly defined role in the side, he slotted in and out when the club needed a utility. 2007 saw Hohaia spend the majority of the season in the centres and after ignoring outside interest to remain with the Warriors, Hohaia was selected in the Kiwis training squad for the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. 2009 saw another change in position for Hohaia but one that remained a constant, as he was put in at fullback to replace the injured Wade McKinnon the year before and he excelled, holding down the spot both for the Warriors and the Kiwis, excelling on all fronts. Continued success in the role saw Hohaia build his profile and help the Warriors
to perform on varying levels. After a storied stint with the Warriors, Hohaia departed at the end of the 2011 season and signed with St Helens. He ultimately had to retire due to prolonged and sustained concussion injuries and issues.
10. Richard Villasanti – Somewhat of a troubled player over the years in which he was involved in rugby league, Villasanti was a man-mountain and often brought about fear into defenders. A big bopper, he eventually forged a career on big hits and sturdy defence and was at times, an important part of the Warriors go forward during his time at the club. The junior Kiwi started with the Balmain Tigers and Wests Tigers, before going on to play for the Warriors from the 2001 season. Surprisingly, Villasanti was born in Canberra and so he was eligible for New Zealand and Australia, as well as Tonga. At one point, he was picked in a Tongan squad but failed to make the final side. Then, interestingly, 2003 saw the hulking forward make his sole representative appearance when he played for Australia. Perhaps the biggest moment of infamy for Villasanti came in the 2002 NRL grand final when he tackled Brad Fittler head-first, leaving many in shock and awe. After 96 games with the Warriors, Villasanti was released early and joined the Sharks but had minimal impact. He was then involved with rugby league teams in England before returning to Australia and playing for Country rugby league teams.
11. Awen Guttenbeil – Born in Whangarei, New Zealand, Guttenbeil’s presence was on show from the word go, after he signed with the Warriors in 1996 after opting to put his hand up for the then Super League competition that year. Although he showed plenty of promise when he began his career, injuries plagued his career but as the noughties rolled around, his career kicked off. It culminated with a career-best season for the entire Warriors side, when in 2002, they made the NRL grand final. Interestingly, whilst Guttenbeil enjoyed successful appearances with New Zealand, he actually made his representative debut for Tonga in 1995, before first-grade appeared. Over his 11 seasons with the club, he became one of the club’s longest-serving players and is just the second Warrior to receive a testimonial with the club. The forward is also the only Warriors player to have a jersey designed for him. Guttenbeil’s test career for New Zealand spanned 10 games in four seasons before he departed the Warriors club and played on for two years with Castleford.
12. Logan Swann – Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, life with the Warriors started early with the hulking forward beginning his career with the Auckland Colts side in 1995 and the reserve grade team in 1996. His appearances with the reserve grade side were so impressive, he was picked in the New Zealand Kiwis side before playing any first-grade. His debut came in 1997, before he represented Samoa at the World Nines in 1998. His first stint with the Warriors lasted seven seasons, with Swann a part of the Warriors 2002 NRL grand final side. Enjoying a stint with the Kiwis at numerous World Cups and Tri-Nations tournaments, Swann went on to play for both the Bradford Bulls and the Warrington Wolves. He then returned to the Warriors for two more seasons in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, he became just the third Warriors player to reach 150 games for the club.
13. Monty Betham (C) – Also born in Auckland, Betham quickly developed a reputation has a hard-hitting, aggressive player that often had opposition teams on edge. At one point, he was voted as the player that opposition players least wanted to pick a fight with in an NRL players poll. Primarily a lock, Betham was also adept at playing hooker, and was a part of the successful finals sides of the 2001 and 2002 seasons, in which Betham played a big role. Bethan enjoyed lengthy stints with the Kiwis side over his career and made appearances for them against France, Australia and England. The utility value he offered saw him play a lot of those games from the bench.
14. Simon Mannering – One of the Warriors best modern-day players, the Napier-born second-rower did not start out in rugby league but rather, in rugby union. It was only after being spotted by league development officers when Mannering moved to the game of league and Warriors fans would be thanking their stars that he did. He has grown and matured since coming through the Kiwi ranks at Wellington and then the Warriors themselves, before making his first-grade debut in 2005. Representative footy came knocking in 2006 when Mannering had his break-out year, playing for the Kiwis side and winning the club’s Rookie of the Year award. Since then, Mannering has grown from strength to strength and developed into a versatile, committed back-rower/lock, becoming one of the Warriors elite players. In 2010, he was given the club captaincy, an honour in which he still holds. At only 28 and with close to 250 first-grade games to his belt, Mannering will be involved with the Warriors and the NRL for some years to come.
15. Jerry Seu Seu – Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, the hulking Seu Seu was a noted hard-hitter in defence and often left attackers worse for wear. Originally involved with the Counties Manukau side, he eventually joined the Auckland Warriors in 1996 and played reserve grade that year and in 1997, culminating in his being named the Reserve Grade Player of the Year in 1997. After several years of toiling, hard work and making himself better as a player and a person, Seu Seu eventually became the Warriors go-to forward in 2000 after Joe Vagana left to play overseas. The bruising forward was a member of the Warriors 2002 grand final side and represented both Samoa and New Zealand over the years – four appearances for Samoa in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup and 11 appearances for New Zealand in Tests of varying natures. After 8 seasons with the Warriors, he departed and enjoyed a couple of years in England playing with the Wigan Warriors.
16. Ali Lauitiiti – Another strong, powerful forward produced by the Warriors system, the Auckland born back-rower enjoyed 7 seasons with the club. After shining as a junior Kiwi in 1997 and 1998, Lauitiiti made his debut for the Auckland Warriors in 1998 and went on to become a mainstay of the side for the majority of his career. A handy try-scorer on the fringes, his hard-running was a problem for opposition sides as he became a fan favourite of sorts during his time with the club. 2002 was a career-best year for the forward, when he won the NRL’s Back-Rower of the Year award and made the NRL grand final with the club. His career culminated in 113 games for the Warriors, 19 games for New Zealand and four games for Samoa, before he eventually made the move to the Leeds Rhinos.
17. Wairangi Koopu – The Opotiki forward was often regarded as one of the most consistent players in the Warriors side for some years, and was thus given the nickname of ‘Mr Consistency’. Making his debut in 1999, the budding forward impressed early and from 2000, became a key forward in the Warriors rotation. At one point, he played in 50+ first-grade games, giving him the aforementioned nickname. His play and style also played a part, with Koopu justifying selection with solid form, a good work-ethic and a committed approach. His impact off the bench helped the Warriors progress over those subsequent years and often helped to wrestle back momentum when he came on. His dynamism helped him continue to develop as a Warriors player before an injury in 2006 unfortunately stunted his career, resulting in a move to the Melbourne Storm for the 2009 season.
Dragons remain in the top eight after win v Panthers albeit unconvincingly
A win is a win but the St George Illawarra Dragons know they will have work to do, after a scrappy, unconvincing win against a dogged and defiant Penrith Panthers side.
Emerging 19-12 victors after trailing during the second half, the Dragons will face nervous waits both from other results this week and for three of their players that were put on report.
The Panthers, for the most part, were the better side throughout the game, though they failed to capitalise on a lot of their chances and that was what allowed the Dragons to take the lead when they did.
The player likely to be in the most strife is Dragons back-rower Tyson Frizell, who was put on report for tripping. Euan Aitken (knee to the head) and Jake Marketo (dangerous throw) are also expected to come under scrutiny.
The game was a tense affair throughout, locked up at 10-10 and then 12-12, before a Gareth Widdop try and a field goal by Benji Marshall put the game beyond doubt.
Collectively, the two teams made 27 handling errors, conceded 16 penalties and 42 missed tackles, further illustrating the scrappy and at times dour nature of the clash.
There was further bad news for the Panthers, with lock Elijah Taylor likely to be out for the rest of the season with a broken arm.
His side may have won but McGregor knows that there was very little to take out of the clash apart from the two points.
“It was a scratchy win,” McGregor said.
“But it was a win and we’ve won three of our last four so that’s really important.
“It keeps us alive but we’ll push that aside and look forward to the Titans.”
The errors cost his side and Panthers coach Ivan Cleary knows they did not respect the ball.
“We kept turning the ball over – that’s what we did,” Cleary said.
“Every time we had momentum or looked like something was going to happen, someone made a bad decision.
“We just didn’t want to grind away.”
Panthers captain Jamie Soward echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“It’s tough when you don’t respect the ball and you want to throw offloads. I’m guilty of it as well and you get beat,” Soward said.
“We just didn’t do it in the second half. If we had held the ball we would have won.”