Loose forward Cooke named in team of century
Canterbury rugby league legend Mel Cooke was "overwhelmed" to be named in the Kiwis' team of the century at the New Zealand Rugby League awards dinner.
Cooke -- universally regarded as the best player to represent Canterbury -- was selected at loose forward. "That's quite an honour; it's remarkable," said the Hornby club stalwart, who scored five tries in 22 tests between 1959 and 1964.
He was "a little bit unwell" and unable to travel to Auckland for the awards dinner.
Cooke had heard 1980s second-rower Mark Graham had been named New Zealand's player of the century but did not know the full team composition until The Press telephoned. "I'm overwhelmed to be included in the company of players of that ability," he said.
Cooke, recently retired as an office-holder in the South Island Kiwis Association, is an avid follower of televised NRL matches and still watches club games at Hornby's Leslie Domain and Canterbury representative matches.
He was one of two former Canterbury players to make the all-star 13, along with hooker Jock Butterfield, who also represented his native West Coast. Butterfield won a then-record 36 caps between 1954 and 1963.
Fellow West Coaster George Menzies (29 tests from 1951-61) was a popular choice at stand-off half.
Cooke was rated ahead of several other outstanding Kiwis back-rowers, including Hugh McGahan, world player of the year in 1988.
However, Cooke's inclusion was no surprise. He had 52 games -- for 21 tries -- for the Kiwis before taking up a player-coach role in Canberra in 1965. The Kiwis -- the official history of the first 100 years of international rugby league -- noted Cooke was the only player to appear in all 18 tests between 1960 and 1964, when the Kiwis won the Courtney Goodwill Trophy as the most successful rugby league nation of the era.
Cooke, who had a "remarkably low pulse rate", was "fitter than the amateurs he played with and the professionals he played against", The Kiwis book noted, and was admired for his defensive durability. Jonny Raper, one of Australian rugby league's "Immortals", once said of Cooke: "He was a punishing tackler who really shook the cobwebs loose if he hit you unexpectedly."
Meanwhile, Mark Graham had a similar response to Cooke on his naming as player of the century.
"This is incredibly humbling," said Graham, who captained the Kiwis in 18 of the 29 tests he played from 1977 to 1988. "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.
Despite the scores of Kiwis who have starred in Australia's first grade, most of the team of the century were from the 1950 to 1980 era except Graham and modern-day greats Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones, who finished their test careers only last year.
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, stand-off -- 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.