Despite being a relatively small nation and rugby league being dwarfed by union in New Zealand, a number of Kiwis are performing at the highest level of rugby league in the Northern hemisphere, the prestigious Super League Competition comprising of twelve teams from Northern England competing with the London Broncos and Catalan Dragons. The exodus of athletes from New Zealand has been consistent ever since a tour of England began in 1907 and showed the Northern Union clubs there what talent was available in the country. Although many players choose to ply their trade with the New Zealand Warriors in the geographically closer NRL competition, the lure of big money contracts has enticed many to join clubs based on the other side of the world.
Gateway To Success
The route to success in rugby league can be a strange one on paper. The relative lack of international competition leads many players from the South Sea Islands such as Tonga and Western Samoa to represent these nations in a World Cup Competition before representing New Zealand in competition against Australia or Great Britain. It may seem unfair that a player can represent two nations at international level in the same sport but this is a reflection in the lack of international matches rather than any lack of loyalty on behalf of the players. Any player would like to be tested against the best in the world and the governing bodies want the highest calibre players on show so players such as David Solomona have represented both Western Samoa and New Zealand at international level. Solomona rose to prominence in the British game by signing for the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats who were not regular challengers for top honours. A spell at Bradford Bulls preceded a contract with Warrington Wolves who are regular contenders for the Challenge Cup and Grand Final.
Like Solomona there are many Kiwis playing in the British game who are integral to the success of their club. Kylie Leuluai now has the third most appearances by a Kiwi for top club Leeds Rhinos and Brent Webb was an integral part of their recent success. In the 1980’s the all-conquering Wigan side were bolstered by the might of Adrian Shelford up front and the power of Dean Bell in the centres. The 1990’s were famous for the arrival of the Paul brothers in the British game. Henry started his career with Wakefield as a teenager before moving to Wigan where he became a huge star of the game. His younger brother Robbie joined Bradford Bulls as a teenager where he went on to captain the club to Challenge Cup Success in 1996 scoring three tries and winning the Lance Todd man of the match award.
One of the negative effects of rugby league players being exported all over the world is the effect this has on the international side. With coaches reluctant to pick players not competing in domestic competition where they could be watched closely, this led to some of the biggest stars of the game not picking up as many caps as they perhaps could have done. The problem was highlighted even more when established Kiwi league stars Henry Paul and Lesley Vainikolo converted to rugby union and actually competed for England internationally despite having represented New Zealand at rugby league for several years. The rules were such that both qualified for England on the basis of naturalisation due to their extensive rugby league careers in England. Having been resident in England for over five years both were eligible to play for their new country though Paul also qualified through the nationality of a grandparent.
New Zealand continues to produce high quality rugby league players capable of competing at the highest level and the future for New Zealand Rugby League looks bright. The New Zealand Warriors have had a tough start to their 2013 campaign winning only one of their first five matches. Players continue the trend of playing exclusively union or league at the highest levels. The most famous league convert was Sonny Bill Williams who started his league career billed as the best teenager in the world before switching to union. He is only the second player to represent his country at union after playing league showing how difficult it is to make the transition. The switch the other way is even more tricky with former All Black Mark Robinson switching to league later in his career but only playing one professional game. He is an advocate of hair loss replacement treatment having undergone treatment in England for this condition. The question of propecia or rogaine is a consideration for many ex players as the strict training regime and diet required to maintain bulk can create high testosterone levels which in turn causes hair to fall out. Rugby league and rugby union require such very different skillsets that there are only certain positions where there is some consistency in attributes that make a good player. In league there is little demand for a tall player excelling in line outs whilst in union there is more emphasis on tactical kicking which might not be a skill that is so well developed in league.
The English Question
Whilst the number of overseas players in the English game is capped by the governing body of the sport there does seem to be an on-going demand for top level Kiwi players in the English game. It isn’t just the international players who are signed up as a number of Kiwis play in the levels of the game outside of Super league and are fortunate that their skills can take them to a land where they can experience a different culture whilst playing the game they love. New Zealand will continue to produce top players because the country is sports mad and when players leave this creates a vacancy to be filled by a hungry young player eager to take his chance. Whether this creates a stable international team capable of competing against the dominant Australian teams remains to be seen but with a first world cup win in 2008 the modern game the country has proved that it is possible to mix it with the best despite ever changing player resource pools.