League: Kiwi talent makes its presence felt

By Andrew Alderson

Shaun Kenny-Dowall is another pushing his claims with the best. Photo / Getty Images
Shaun Kenny-Dowall is another pushing his claims with the best. Photo / Getty Images

There has probably never been a time when the New Zealand rugby league player influenced the NRL more.

Look at the top eight sides. They are stacked full of the Kiwis who played in the Anzac test in May. Of the 17 players in the NRL from that test, 12 belong to top eight sides, five are in the lower teams. Two of that five, Adam Blair and Sika Manu, belong to the Melbourne Storm - a top-eight team in any other year.

North Queensland and Cronulla have the fewest Kiwis - and they are 14th and 15th respectively on the table.

The pattern persists when you include all Kiwis, past and present, playing in the NRL. The top-eight teams have 18 of them; the bottom eight, only 10.

Taking in all Kiwis-qualified players, the trend continues. In the top-eight teams, there is a total of 47 New Zealand players (including 15 Warriors). In the bottom eight, there are only 32 - and that figure is skewed by the Storm who have seven New Zealand-qualified men on their books and would, outside of salary cap rorts, be in the top eight.

The conclusion is inescapable. New Zealand players are currently having the biggest impact on the NRL than at any other time in its history. It is some distance from the time when just a select few got to demonstrate their skills across the Tasman.

The reasons for the transition are wide and varied but it is now accepted New Zealand produces talent. Certainly the Kiwis performances of the early 1980s, like beating Australia in Brisbane under coach Graham Lowe in 1983, raised eyebrows.

That was followed by the Warriors' entry into the NRL in 1995, which gave a number of New Zealanders regular exposure in the world's top domestic competition. The final chapter was victory in the 2008 World Cup. The barriers had been broken down.

The Kiwis have continued to compete against Australia since. They produced a 20-20 draw in the Four Nations and a 12-8 loss in the Anzac test. That gives an indication as to the calibre of player the Australians are dealing with week-to-week.

Added to the incumbent mix are World Cup-winning Kiwis Nathan Fien and Jeremy Smith, who are contracted to competition leaders St George while Roy Asotasi (Rabbitohs), Clinton Toopi (Titans) and Frank Pritchard (Panthers) have all worn the national jersey with aplomb - adding valuable experience to their top-eight teams.

Centre Shaun Kenny- Dowall, the four-try hero from the Roosters' win over the Broncos on Monday night, is another pushing his claims with the best.

It wasn't always that way. Former Kiwis fullback Darrell Williams etched his name into history back in 1987, playing for Manly against Brent Todd's Canberra. Williams was the first Kiwi to play in a grand final-winning team.

Veteran Kiwis skipper Mark Graham was playing for the North Sydney Bears at the time. They were pioneering times.

"New Zealand officials didn't want me to go," he said. "We had to take them on legally to get permission. In the old days you had to pay a transfer fee. I went to Brisbane and was going to claim a restraint of trade. I had [All Black] Bryan Williams as my lawyer. That alone was enough to get the leaguies up in arms.

"They basically wanted compensation via a transfer fee for teaching me how to play football. I'd played six tests by then and they wouldn't let you go unless you'd played exactly that many.

"You could say I did it for selfish reasons but I only wanted to test myself against the best. I said if you take me on, and stop me doing what I want to do, there will be trouble. She was all on. I was lucky to get backed."

Former Eastern Suburbs and Kiwis captain Hugh McGahan says it's great to have that exposure for New Zealanders as the reality is that no future Kiwis will come directly from any national competition back home.

"Obviously the number of Kiwis playing in the NRL has helped New Zealand league. It gives us far greater depth than in the past. The only area at the moment where we lack depth is in the halves.

"The catalyst for me has been the career path which the Warriors has provided. Scouts now come across to have a serious look at our players. Deals are then done [like the recent Roosters "home" match in Christchurch] where clubs get to have a look at local talent if they come across and sacrifice the gate money they'd get playing at home.

"Before that, only established test players were looked at. Now there's no chance every top age-grade player can play at the Warriors. They've got to be brave, take the plunge and look across the Tasman."

Graham says it's like he's travelled into a time warp from when he was fighting for his right to work.

"The beauty of it is that if you are in the top side, the [Auckland] Vulcans or the under-20s, you've got a chance of playing a game in Australia then heading home and waking in your own bed the next morning."

- Herald on Sunday

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