After sifting through more than 100 players with links to New Zealand scattered around the NRL and Super League, we have come up with our definitive list of the top 50 Kiwi players in the world right now.
50. Konrad Hurrell – Suspension, injury and some poor form restricted him to just 12 games in 2015. It was his worst season since coming into the NRL, yet he still showed enough to suggest one day we might see the Konrad Hurrell we all believe he can be. This season shapes as the most important of his career as the Warriors’ patience starts to really be tested.
49. Thomas Leuluai – A ruptured ACL meant Leuluai didn’t play a part in the 2015 season beyond Round 10, adding to a frustrating couple of seasons on the injury front. But he remains a class presence at club and international level as he enters the twilight of his career. If fit and firing he should be right in the frame for Kiwi selection in the mid-year Test.
48. Sam McKendry – Fast becoming one of the old heads in the Penrith pack despite only being 26 himself. McKendry doesn’t make many mistakes – three errors in 24 games puts him right up with the best props in the competition in that category – and he enters his ninth season as an NRL player with a track record of consistency.
47. Albert Vete – Last year was meant to be a blooding season for Vete, but a combination of injuries to other front-rowers at the Warriors, and his own impressive form, meant he finished with 21 games to his name. Doesn’t have the pure aggressive streak shared by many front-rowers on this list, but his ball-playing skills and pre-contact footwork make him a valuable prospect.
45. Sam Perrett – His role in the Doggies’ backline is somewhat overshadowed these days by some more well-known names, but Perrett continues to add value with his workrate and finishing. The former Rooster appeared in every game for Canterbury-Bankstown last year, averaging 117 metres gained while also dotting down for 10 tries.
44. Frank Pritchard – The only current Super League player to make this list, Pritchard was a big threat on the edges for the Bulldogs last year. The New Zealand Warriors tried hard to secure his services late last year which says something about the quality he still has to offer, and through 2015 Pritchard clocked up 10 line breaks, averaged 119 metres per game and got over for eight tries.
43. Josh Hoffman – Fell away from the type of form which saw him selected to play for the Kiwis, although being asked to play a number of different positions throughout the year didn’t exactly help. His toughness on both sides of the ball continues to be his greatest asset.
42. Solomone Kata – The latest powerhouse back to come out of the Junior Warriors, Kata performed admirably in a debut year where he played every game and made the no.4 jersey his own. Kata topped the club’s try-scoring list with 12, doing enough to be in the mix for the overall NRL Rookie of the Year Award.
41. Gerard Beale – Beale has gone from a reliable utility back to a class act in the centres. Understands his role isn’t necessarily about being a match winner, and plays to his strengths well.
40. Frank Paul Nuuausala – Had a couple of standout performances for the Raiders last year, delivering plenty of impact with his ferocious carries of the ball. His aggressive streak continues to be both his greatest strength and weakness in many ways, but ‘Frank Paul the Wrecking Ball’ is one heck of a scary customer.
39. Tim Simona – Heading into his sixth season of first-grade footy the speedy Simona shapes as one of the Tigers’ key attacking weapons. Comes off a strong 2015 season which saw him included in the wider training squad for the Kiwis at the end of the year.
38. Antonio Winterstein – In the toughest year of his life – following the tragic loss of his 19-year-old brother Francis – Winterstein had one of his best seasons in the NRL as his Cowboys went all the way. He scored 16 tries across the season, and crucially was accurate on defence for North Queensland, making 102 tackles with only 11 misses in 26 games.
37. Jason Nightingale – Frequently selected for the Kiwis ahead of more dynamic wing options for a simple reason; Nightingale doesn’t let you down. Reads the defensive side of the game well, nails all the fundamentals and is still capable of the athletic finishes which are basically a prerequisite to being a winger in the NRL these days.
36. Steve Matai – One of rugby league’s most-feared hitmen in defence, despite his body appearing to cop more damage with every game he plays. Matai understands his role as a centre and has some classy touches out wide which have made him a fan favourite at Brookvale Oval.
35. Iosia Soliola – Returned to the NRL last year after five seasons with St Helens in the Super League and hardly missed a beat. His 36.6 average tackles and 101.7 average run metres not only made him a key member of the Canberra pack, but also an NRL Fantasy star.
34. Kenny Bromwich – Does a good job coming off the bench for Melbourne and delivering impact with his mobility and speed in attack. It’s hard to avoid living in your brother’s shadow when he is arguably the best prop in the world, but Kenny brings plenty to the contest in his own right and is highly-rated by Craig Bellamy.
33. Leeson Ah Mau – Continues to grow as an NRL player, finishing 2015 on a high with 11-consecutive games with over 100 running metres. The former Warrior has plenty of dynamic attributes and with just six errors and eight missed tackles in 25 games is an economical man in the middle for the Dragons.
32. Lewis Brown – With the interchange being reduced from 10 to eight, players like Brown will become even more valuable in 2016. He can play centre, hooker, second-row or lock confidently and just gets the job done every time. Is sitting right on the edge right now when it comes to Kiwi selection, but a good start at Manly could see him in the frame for the mid-year Test.
31. Dean Whare – Restricted to just 13 NRL games in 2015, Whare still managed six tries, seven line breaks and 15 offloads. His footwork makes him tough to tackle one-on-one, and he has refined his craft as a centre in recent years.
30. Kodi Nikorima – For most of the year he had limited minutes on the field, usually coming on late in games to relieve Andrew McCullough at hooker. But Nikorima showed enough to suggest he has a big future, possessing a good turn of pace and vision for the game. His debut tour with the Kiwis saw him play all four games, including two starts at halfback in the final two Tests against England.
29. Bodene Thompson – Found a new level at the Warriors playing on the right edge, combining a high workrate with plenty of ball-playing ability in attack. Thompson had 16 games where he clocked up 35 or more tackles, and he proved a success in the crucial role as Shaun Johnson’s bodyguard in defence.
28. Manu Ma’u – Really starting to come into his own as a first-grade player. A damaging force on the edge of the field, Ma’u has now added the ability to play big minutes – staying on the field for the entire game on 15 occasions last year – to become an important piece of the puzzle at Parramatta.
27. Greg Eastwood – Continues to be a mainstay of the Bulldogs’ pack, offering up the occasional piece of attacking brilliance which defies his 112kg frame. These days his performance changes very little from game-to-game, which is a huge reason why Des Hasler and Stephen Kearney make Eastwood among the first men picked in their sides.
26. Isaac Liu – The loss of Sonny Bill Williams saw Liu play a bigger role in the Roosters’ side last year, and following a strong season he was rewarded with selection in the final Kiwi squad. Has a great chance to make a strong early claim this year as well with Boyd Cordner set to miss the first two months with injury.
25. Jordan Kahu – After a torrid time with injuries Kahu had his best year as a professional player, slotting in to play a couple of different positions in the Brisbane backline. Scored nine tries in 22 games, but it was in defence that he really added value for Brisbane, producing a couple of game-saving tackles late in matches through 2015. Was duly rewarded with a spot in the Kiwis at the end of the year.
24. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – Injury cruelled the back end of his season, but with seven tries and nine line breaks in 16 games ‘DWZ’ did nothing to discredit the claims that he is a future star. Only suspension stopped him from making his Kiwis debut in the mid-year Test, and had it not been for injury he would probably have been part of the end-of-year tour.
23. Sio Siua Taukeiaho – The Otara Scorpions junior played 27 games for the Roosters, performing well when coming off the bench or starting. Combined clever pre-contact footwork with his sheer size to cause plenty of trouble for opposing defensive lines, averaging 119 run metres per game. A call-up to the Kiwis capped off a breakout year for the 23-year-old.
22. Alex Glenn – Fought his way back into the Kiwis squad with a big year for the Broncos, guiding his edge well as they pushed through to the 2015 decider. Glenn has plenty of tricks up his sleeve with ball in hand and also averaged 28 tackles across the season.
21. Tuimoala Lolohea – Playing just his second season of NRL footy Lolohea made a booming start to the year playing across numerous positions in the Warriors’ back five, scoring eight tries. From Round 21 onwards he was burdened with the pressure of replacing Shaun Johnson in the no.7 jersey for the club, but still finished the year with 70 points, eight line breaks and an average per game of 106 metres gained.
20. Adam Blair – Looked rejuvenated under Wayne Bennett despite copping some heavy criticism in the opening weeks of his career as a Bronco. Impressed Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney enough to be named as co-captain of New Zealand, and Blair now looks to have fully recovered from three disappointing seasons at the Wests Tigers.
19. Peta Hiku – Being let go by Manly ahead of the 2016 season was no reflection on Hiku’s ability as a player. Last year there were only three matches where he failed to run for more than 100 metres, while he backed that up with 11 line breaks and eight four-pointers.
18. Manu Vatuvei – At 29 years of age he is already destined to go down as a Kiwi great. In 2015 Vatuvei managed only 16 games due to injury, but that was enough to see him score 11 tries and become the first player in the history of the Australian game to score 10 or more tries in 10 consecutive seasons.
17. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – A torn ACL in Round 24 robbed him of a trip to the finals and probably a recall to the Kiwis, but ‘JHW’ had an impressive 2015 nonetheless. In 19 games he averaged 122 metres, while his 33 offloads were enough to put him in the top 14 in the competition for that category.
16. Shaun Kenny-Dowall – Had some issues off the field in 2015 but that didn’t stop him from finishing the year with an impressive strike rate of 17 tries in 20 matches. Appeared in every game for the Kiwis last season and continues to be a strong presence out wide, whether playing in the centres or on the wing.
15. Curtis Rona – Came within a try of topping the NRL in four-pointers, clocking up 23 in 25 games. His combination of speed over the short distance and athletic ability to finish makes him a valuable commodity in the NRL. Toured the UK with the Kiwis at the end of the year without getting any game time, but looks a good long-term prospect for New Zealand.
14. Elijah Taylor – Continues to be a defensive wall for the Panthers in the middle of the park, along the way clocking up some impressive numbers – none more so than his 77 tackles in 80 minutes against the Cowboys last year – which set a new NRL record.
13. Sam Moa – Has been solid since reviving his NRL career over the last few years. Moa is most dangerous coming off the bench where his barnstorming runs can change the tempo of a game. Has a good offload on him and doesn’t make many errors.
12. Kevin Proctor – Proctor has developed into a class act on the edge, combining hard-hitting forward play with good vision when it comes to passing and offloading. One of the top players on the books at Melbourne these days and a sure thing anytime a Kiwi team is named.
11. Jason Taumalolo – Lost some momentum compared to his 2014 season, with his defensive deficiencies seeing coach Paul Green reduce his minutes in club matches. Still, there are few more damaging ball carriers in the competition, and in 26 matches Taumalolo had just one where he failed to run for over 100 metres. His total run haul of 4007 for the season was the fifth highest in the NRL and his impact had plenty to do with why the Cowboys won the Premiership last year.
10. Benji Marshall – In a world where representative teams were picked solely on playing ability Marshall would have resurrected his Kiwis career last year. We aren’t in that world and he didn’t feature in Stephen Kearney’s plans, but the former New Zealand captain is nonetheless deserving of a place in the top 10 of this list. Only Johnathan Thurston assisted more tries than Marshall’s 22 last season, and despite lacking the razzle dazzle he once had a trademark on, 2015 was one of Marshall’s better years in the NRL.
9. Martin Taupau – Even if you avoid being buried initially by his fend, the 112kg frame of Martin Taupau will probably get you. The 26-year-old Auckland native is a player who can genuinely shift the momentum of a match with the way he runs the ball, averaging 109.6 metres per game last year. Joins the Sea Eagles on a four-year deal where he is sure to benefit off players like Daly Cherry-Evans.
8. Ben Matulino – Matulino has grafted his way onto the list of the world’s top 10 front-rowers, evolving his game drastically after debuting as a hard-hitting back-rower in 2008. One constant through that period has been his dangerous offload, and last year he finished second in the NRL with 53 of them. You wouldn’t pick a Warriors or Kiwi team without this guy in it these days.
7. Issac Luke – Season 2015 didn’t bring out his dynamic best in terms of dummy-half running, but Luke proved once again that he is among the best all-round hookers in the game right now. Solid decision making when it comes to pass or run situations and a tenacious competitive attitude are his major boasts. An 80-minute player with a hunger for defensive work, he averaged 30 tackles per match last year and was awarded co-captaincy of the Kiwis for the tour of the UK.
6. Tohu Harris – Many thought his omission from the 2013 World Cup squad to accommodate Sonny Bill Williams would be the major talking point of his career. No chance. The rugged boy from Hastings can now be counted among the best players at the Storm, and last year was shortlisted for the Kiwis Player of the Year Award. He averaged 32 tackles across 26 games – the 19th highest total tackle count in the NRL – played the full 80 minutes in all but six games and made just five errors all year at club level. Rest assured the next time a player has to be sacrificed for another in a Kiwis squad it won’t be Tohu Harris making way.
5. Kieran Foran – You know you are doing something right when your contract comes to an end and more than half the competition pursues your signature. The Ellerslie Eagles junior directs traffic well and heads to Parramatta as one of their biggest signings in recent times. Looks set to wear the no.7 this season and will take his next step as a player by captaining the Eels.
4. Jesse Bromwich – A machine in the middle of the park with an exceptional workrate. Bromwich finished second in the NRL last year for total runs (435), hit-ups (366) and total run metres (4118). Played every single club and international game through 2015 in what is a testament to his durability, while he was deservingly awarded the Kiwis Player of the Year Award in January.
3. Simon Mannering – Mr Reliable for club and country. His 1092 tackles were the third most in the NRL, but more impressive is the fact that he missed just 27 all year. Mannering spent most of the season playing injured but still delivered the same unfailing performance in the middle of the park every week. Of the 1925 minutes of rugby league the Warriors played last year the second-rower missed just 65 of them, while at international level he led the Kiwis to the top of the world rankings with victory over the Kangaroos in the mid-year Test.
2. Shaun Johnson – Before he suffered a season-ending injury in Round 20 last year Johnson had scored more points, set up and made more line breaks, and created more tries than any other member of the Warriors. Those still persisting with questions about how effective he really is need only look at the how both the Warriors and Kiwis stuttered their way through games without him. An undisputed star of world rugby league on the field, and one of the game’s most marketable stars off it.
1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – A revelation in his first full season as an NRL fullback last year, ‘RTS’ reached levels no other player in 108 years of Australian rugby league had managed previously, becoming the first man to run for 6000 metres in a single season. On route to that he ran for 200 or more in 23 of his 27 games, including three where he eclipsed 300 across the 80 minutes. His footwork before contact is top-class, he’s safe under the high ball and has underrated defensive ability close to the line. Inclusion as the Dally M and World XIII Fullback of the Year are the final pieces of proof that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the best fullback in the world right now.