As internal ructions festered, rugby league dressed up in dinner suits last night for its annual awards, naming legendary Auckland second rower Mark Graham as the sport's player of the century.
At a function in south Auckland, the 29-cap Kiwi, who captained the national side 18 times, was named by a six-man panel at second row in the team of the century and then as the stand-out player in league's 100-year history in this country.
No present-day Kiwi was named in the XIII, which included only recently retired Stacey Jones and Ruben Wiki of the modern generation.
There was, at least, an award for Kiwis skipper Roy Asotasi after he presided over their atrocious northern hemisphere tour, selected as the NZRL player of the year.
Fullback Sam Perrett, who with Simon Mannering had also been shortlisted for player of the year, won the rookie of the year title and Warriors skipper Steven Price was named personality of the year.
But in something of a snub for Kiwi league's biggest night of the year, officials were earlier yesterday expecting a very poor turnout from the Kiwis squad, with only Perrett a confirmed attendee hours before the function began.
Former Kiwis skipper Wiki was to collect the holidaying Asotasi's award.
An Otahahu junior, Graham played eight seasons of Winfield Cup for North Sydney Bears at a time when New Zealanders found it difficult to prosper in Australia, but excelled with his work-rate and doughtiness.
He famously returned to the field after halftime of a 1985 test against Australia, despite carrying a broken cheekbone and a badly damaged ankle.
"This is incredibly humbling," said Graham, who travelled from Australia to attend the dinner.
"It's unbelievable to think I've been singled out from all the players who have worn the Kiwi jersey over the past 100 years."
Also honoured at the dinner was the late Cliff Johnson, who was named captain of the century.
A 34-test veteran from 1950-60, prop Johnson led the Kiwis 14 times and played 70 matches for his country.
Graham and Johnson were named along with 11 other players in the team of the century.
Players from the 1950s era dominated the final selection.
Apart from Johnson, the others included were fullback Des White, centre Tom Baxter, winger Tom Hadfield, standoff George Menzies, hooker Jock Butterfield and second rower Ron Ackland.
Named at loose forward was Canterbury's Mel Cooke, who started his test career in 1959.
The brilliant Roger Bailey, a Kiwi from 1961-70, was the other centre and 1969-75 try-scoring sensation Phil Orchard was the other winger.
Completing the selection were Graham and modern-day greats Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones, who finished their test careers only lastyear.
New Zealand team of the century: Fullback -- Des White (Auckland), 1950-56 21 tests, two tries, 63 goals), wing - Tom Hadfield (Auckland), 1956-61 17 tests, 15 tries, centre - Tom Baxter (Auckland) 1949-56 29 tests, five tries), centre - Roger Bailey (Auckland), 1961-70 29 tests, 12 tries, wing - Phil Orchard (Bay of Plenty and Wellington), 1969-75 21 tests, 15 tries, Standoff - George Menzies (West Coast), 1951-61, 29 tests 4 tries, Halfback Stacey Jones (Auckland), 1995-2006 46 tests, 16 tries, 47 goals, 2 field goals, prop - Cliff Johnson (Auckland), 1950-60 34 tests, 3 tries, hooker - Jock Butterfield (Canterbury and West Coast), 1954-63, 36 tests, 7 tries, prop - Ruben Wiki (Auckland), 1994-2006 55 tests, 15 tries, second row - Mark Graham (Auckland), 1977-88, 29 tests 7 tries, second row - Ron Ackland (Auckland), 1954-63, 18 tests, 1 try, Loose forward Mel Cooke (Canterbury), 1959-64 22 tests, 5 tries.
Selection panel convener Bernie Wood said nine of the all-time team had been near automatic selections, but there had been debate over rivals to centre Roger Bailey, winger Tom Hadfield, prop Wiki and second rower Ron Ackland.
He said the team represented Kiwi league's three "golden ages" - 1946 to the mid-1950s, coach Graham Lowe's mid-1980s spell, and the abruptly ended recent reign of Brian McClennan.
- The Auckland Lions will survive into a second season, their manager Steve Brewster told the Star-Times yesterday.
He said an Auckland Rugby League board meeting had agreed "in principle" to keep the venture alive for 2008, despite the $1m-a- year cost. But Brewster said they had "a few issues to tidy up" with the New South Wales Rugby League, which runs the NSWRL Premier League (effectively the NRL reserve grade competition), in which the Lions compete.
He declined to specify what those problems were, but it is well- known the Lions resent paying the travel and accommodation costs of the visiting Australian teams.
Brewster said recruitment would now begin, starting with the future of coach Graeme Norton. Nine of last year's side have secured professional contracts, while the involvement of Warriors players will be much less after the NRL introduced the under-20 competition for next year.
The Lions will also be forced to play on a separate day to the Warriors, and plan to use Mount Smart No 2 as their home venue.
- Labour MP Mark Gosche officially opened the NZRL rugby league museum yesterday, marking the end of a five-year battle by former Kiwis Jack Fagan and Don Hammond to create a permanent exhibit of league memorabilia.
The museum struggled for funding and came close to being made homeless earlier this year, but will now open three days a week at league headquarters in Penrose, Auckland.
A board of trustees led by a judge, Trevor Maxwell, will administer the museum which will be curated by Hammond. New Zealand internationals including Wiki and Des White were among the first to view the exhibits, passing through a turnstile, rescued from the now- demolished Carlaw Park.
- Sunday Star Times
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