This year represents the 20-year anniversary of the Warriors and the 21st season of them playing in the Australian rugby league competition.
I’ve had the fortune to cover the club since arguably its finest season – 2002 – in which the Daniel Anderson-inspired side claimed a maiden wooden spoon and would go on to play the Sydney Roosters in the NRL Grand Final. I moved into the best seat in the house as a side-line commentator for Radio Sport in 2004 and held that role until the end of the 2010 season. While there will be more astute judges out there and people that have had a closer association to the club than I, naming my all-time Warriors side seems appropriate now that I’ve begun this blog.
So here goes…
My all-time Warriors side: 1. Ivan Cleary, 2. Francis Meli, 3. Brent Tate, 4. Clinton Toopi, 5. Manu Vatuvei, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Stacey Jones, 8. Ruben Wiki, 9. PJ Marsh, 10. Steve Price, 11. Ali Lauitiiti, 12 Simon Mannering (capt), 13. Michael Luck. Bench: Ben Matulino, Stephen Kearney, Kevin Campion, Lance Hohaia. Coach: Daniel Anderson.
At fullback I’ve opted to go with the ever-reliable Ivan Cleary. He was the calming influence on a young side that could produce magic plays but also had the ability to blow up the basic stuff. His steady nature and ability to communicate made those around him more consistent. He was safe as houses under the high ball, an under-rated ball player and a premium goal kicker. Wade McKinnon enjoyed a couple of terrific seasons before a knee injury set him back and Brent Webb was a very good player for the club. Matthew Ridge was one of the finest fullbacks of his era but didn’t spend enough time on the field to beat out Cleary in my view.
On the wings it is impossible to ignore the contribution Manu Vatuvei has had. The Beast is one of the game’s greatest try-scorers and is such a threat in the opposition red zone – be it in the air or one-on-one with ball in hand. He helps get the Warriors off to a good start in their set so often with his rampaging charges. Sure, his game has been riddled with errors throughout his career but even in accepting those mistakes he’s miles ahead of anyone else. I’ve gone with Francis Meli on the other wing – both he and Vatuvei played predominantly on the left but I’ve gone with Meli due to his ability in the air and strong running as well. He was a bone-rattling defender as former Warrior Brent Tate could attest to. Meli was more consistent over a longer period of time than some of the other contenders like Sean Hoppe or Henry Fa’afili.
The centre position proved difficult. I’ve gone with Clinton Toopi, who was the best centre in the world for a couple of seasons. Big, powerful, fast and with great footwork, he was a real handful for opposition defensive lines. He was one of the main reasons the Warriors enjoyed such success in the 2001-2004 era. Brent Tate gets the second centre spot. He was so competitive and was a tremendously consistent performer. His best days were probably at the Broncos before serious injuries impacted on his career but he was still a fine player during his time in Auckland. The Warriors have struggled to replace him ever since. Nigel Vagana went on to become one of the all-time great Kiwis but many of his achievements came after he left the Warriors. Dean Bell had been a great player and, while a great choice as the club’s first captain, played only one season in Auckland as his career wound down. Tea Ropati came close to selection with his consistency in the early days and Jerome Ropati was also in the discussion – injuries seemed to derail him every time he hit good form though.
Five-eighth might be the one position where the Warriors have really struggled to find a world class player. I have gone with Shaun Johnson in the role even though he has played almost all of his football as a halfback because of the lack of options. Gene Ngamu was solid in the early days and guys like John Simon, Jason Bell and even Greg Alexander spent a brief time in the six jersey with moderate success. Lance Hohaia played a lot of his football at five-eighth while James Maloney came closest to selection having signed as a nobody looking for first grade opportunities and left one of the highest paid players in the game. Johnson however is pure class. He has the ability to do things no other Warrior has been able to do. He has blistering speed, footwork that matches any player in history and has developed into a quality play-maker. While he still has a long way to go to reach the dizzying heights many have predicted he still warrants selection in this side.
Halfback is the simplest of decisions. The Warriors best ever player Stacey Jones has had the greatest impact anyone has had on the Warriors. I doubt there’d be a person on the planet that would select anyone other than the Little General in the number seven jersey.
The props were fairly straight-forward choices as well. Ruben Wiki and Steve Price arrived at the club amidst much fanfare and both lived up to their reputation. Wiki was a terrific leader – even without the captaincy he was the heart and soul of the side. As tough as they come, Wiki had become the ultimate professional through his days at Canberra and that rubbed off on those around him. First to put up his hand for the tough metres, Wiki’s stats would often undervalue his importance. Price was a different type of leader – charismatic, intelligent and with the street smarts you acquire from playing for over a decade with a club like the Bulldogs in the Sydney spotlight. Price was a metre-eater and gave the Warriors side some respect from referees, media and fans alike.
At hooker PJ Marsh earns selection over a number of strong contenders. Creative out of dummy half thanks to his days as a halfback coming through the grades, Marsh was a superb front-on defender, who often smashed much bigger forwards back in their tracks. Like many hookers the club has used, Marsh didn’t stay in the role long enough but has his nose in front of other contenders like Jason Death, Robbie Mears, Ian Henderson, Hohaia or Nathan Friend.
In the second row I’ve gone with the man dubbed the Michael Jordan of rugby league – Ali Lauitiiti, who for a short time may have been the best player in the world. His offloading, footwork and pure magical touch made him impossible to defend. He formed a dynamic left-side attack with Toopi – who not surprisingly features in this team alongside him. On the other side I’ve gone with the ever-reliable Simon Mannering. I’ve never understood the criticism that Mannering has attracted at times. He works very hard, always does his job to a high standard and cleans up the mess others have made so often. Incredibly strong and very resilient, there is no surprise why he has won the club’s player of the year award more than any other. Mannering would also be my captain. No player other than Wiki has commanded the same respect from teammates or opponents like Mannering has. Michael Luck once described Mannering as the best player he has ever played with and this from a guy who lined up alongside Johnathan Thurston numerous times.
I’ve capped off my side with Luck in the lock role. It was a tough choice between two tough as teak players that have stood out doing the hard yards over the years. Like Kevin Campion, Luck played through injury and pain and could be counted on to make tackle after tackle. He demanded the best out of those around him and it is no surprise the club’s performances fell away after his departure. He also provided a perfect lieutenant to Mannering who complemented his leadership skills.
On the bench I’ve taken Ben Matulino narrowly over Jerry Seuseu. Maulino provides great go-forward, good work ethic and hits hard in defence. Stephen Kearney was terrific in the club’s early days and is another to provide leadership qualities while Campion edges out a great Warrior in Awen Guttenbeil. Hohaia gets the final bench spot thanks to his utility value and ability to make an impact off the bench.
Anderson is my coach just from Cleary simply because the Warriors reached their pinnacle in 2002. Cleary probably had them play their most consistent football and is probably a better all-round coach but Anderson took over a club that was on its knees and turned them into the best side in the competition for a short period.