Kiwis keep making mark across ditch

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:00 03/03/2013
Benji Marshall
Getty Images
RISE OF THE KIWIS: In the distant past Kiwis at the top level were a rarity - but New Zealand is the present and the future of rugby league.

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OPINION: Cast your mind back over 18 years of rugby league. Past the Warriors' two grand final appearances. Past the Kiwis' World Cup victory in 2008.

Past the Super League War. Past a time where Kiwi players such as Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Kieran Foran come to represent some of the best talent in the NRL.

Think back to a time when New Zealand was seen as the Wild West.

An untamed frontier full of player potential, but lacking the cohesiveness in organisation to represent and champion the causes of those who played the game in New Zealand.

Think back to Mt Smart Stadium on March 10, 1995, and remember Dean Bell, ball in hand, striding out on to the then-Ericcson Stadium as fireworks flew and Polynesian drums were beaten.

Despite losing 25-22 in a thrilling encounter to a star-studded Brisbane Broncos line-up, the Warriors were officially born that night.

It was a watershed moment for all Kiwi sports - getting a New Zealand team in an Australian professional club competition - but even more so for league.

We'd had our glory days in the years before the Warriors' first-grade inclusion, of course.

The famous 18-0 defeat of the Kangaroos at Carlaw Park in 1985, and the 13-6 win at Lang Park in Brisbane two years later, spring immediately to mind - but, in reality, New Zealand had failed to fire consistently on the international stage.

We had produced the likes of Bell, Olsen Filipaina, Gary Freeman and the Iro brothers in the previous decade - but Kiwis in the ranks of Australian teams through the 80s and early 90s were largely limited.

Slowly but surely, the worm would turn. A Kiwi here or there would become one in every team. One in every team would get to the point now where you're likely to find at least two or three in each - as well as Toyota Cup (under 20 years) ranks chock-full of Kiwis.

One just needed to attend last year's National Rugby League Secondary School Champs in Papakura to notice the sheer number of NRL scouts watching the new next generation of young Kiwi players.

Dozens were scooped up and put into academy systems across Australia, while even younger players are being offered scholarships to attend high school across the Tasman and get on the NRL conveyer belt.

At the top level, Kiwis are getting the people through the turnstiles. Who will fill up Sydney Football Stadium for the NRL opener between the Roosters and Rabbitohs? Sonny Bill. Which top prospects ignited media maelstroms last year as they decided whether to opt for Origin or Kiwis duty? Jason Taumalolo and Josh Papalii - both born in Auckland.

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New Zealand is no longer that frontier town. Given the player base and financial potential to grow, it's obvious that the NRL is viewing it very much as prime real estate.

In many ways, the Australian market is getting close to maxing out with the competitiveness of the sporting market there.

Led by a Warriors side with an ambitious part-owner like Sir Owen Glenn willing to splash the cash, New Zealand's audiences, both at grounds, and on pay-TV, should be set to increase. And with pre-season games in Hamilton and Dunedin, an in-season clash against the Bulldogs in Wellington and more likely to come, the NRL brand is truly going national.

New Zealand Rugby League itself has transformed as well. Once an organisation whose reputation was bound by ineptness and allegations of being an "old boys network", the NZRL is now one of the most polished, savvy sporting organisations in the country - one that places a premium on professionalism and transparency.

You need just compare the passing of the Kiwis captaincy from Marshall to Warrior Simon Mannering to the way New Zealand Cricket handled its own change in skipper as an example of its savvy.

Ex-chief executive Jim Doyle played a massive part in turning it around over the last few years - and with former Lion Foundation boss Phil Holden now at the reins, the direction of the NZRL looks in safe hands.

The World Cup, which takes place in the United Kingdom-Ireland and France in October and November this year, will be a key indicator of where the sport really is in this country. With the likes of Marshall and Williams key assets, there's every chance of going back-to-back.

No need to think 18 years in the past now. Like the NRL has been, cast your mind forward to the future of rugby league. You're going to find a lot of Kiwis in it.

- Sunday Star Times

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