Opinion: The five(ish) best Kiwis to play for the Canberra Raiders

Ruben Wiki
Ruben Wiki in action for Canberra. Photo credit: Photosport

OPINION: Incredible as it is to think now, there was a time when it was rare to find a New Zealander playing rugby league in Australia.

Among the first, was a bloke named Albert  Baskerville, who took up the 13-a-side game not long after it split from rugby union, represented his country in the first ever trans-Tasman 'Northern Rules' test and scored what turned out to be the winning try in the historic one-point victory.

Sadly, poor 'Bert', died of pneumonia just 11 days later, before the second test in Brisbane. Talk about your unsung Kiwi legends.

From the days of Baskerville and his fellow pioneers, a steady stream of players were signed by Aussie clubs and as the game became more professional, coaches discovered that, hey, these blokes from NZ can play a bit.

When I was an impressionable young league nut growing up in Canberra, the feats of 1980s superstars like Olsen Filipaina, Mark Broadhurst, Clayton Friend, Hugh McGahan and Mark Graham sounded both exciting, and frightening at the same time. Without pay-TV or the internet, and just one live game a week beamed into my living room, I had to rely on listening to the radio for my footy fix, making the Kiwi players sound even more exotic.

And then, in 1987, someone at the Raiders decided to sign a young front-rower named Brent Todd. I didn't have to read the papers or listen to my little transistor radio anymore - I could watch a Kiwi superstar up close in an actual game!

Todd started a club tradition of signing New Zealanders, that I'm happy to say continues today. Many Kiwis have now worn the lime green jersey, including current first graders Joseph Tapine, Iosia Soliola, Jordan Rapana, Charlie Gubb and Siliva Havali.

But who has worn the Viking badge the best? Who do Raiders supporters rate the highest of all the Kiwis that have played with them?

Out of a quality field, these are my top five 'Canberra Kiwis'.

5. Lesley Vainikolo/Sean Hoppe

I can't split these guys - two great wingers, but very different.

Vainikolo, nicknamed 'The Volcano', joined Canberra in 1997, so he could be coached by his idol, Mal Meninga.  Six foot two inches (1.88m) tall, built like a tank, with speed to match his size, he only played two seasons with the Raiders.

He was named Rookie of the Year in his first year and scored at about a try every second game.

Hoppe had matinee-idol looks and speed to burn. He was a great finisher and scored 88 points in just 39 appearances.

Both players left the club all too soon, but are fondly remembered.

4. Jordan Rapana

A current player and not just one of the best Kiwis to play for Canberra, but also one of their best wingers EVER.

He's kept the Raiders in the hunt so many games, busted tackles in situations he had no right to escape from and, like big Lesley, brings the grandstand in the Aussie capital to life.

He's also a really great bloke and loves the city, as well as playing for the Kiwis. His heart is in the right place.

3. Brent Todd

A few years ago, I picked up Toddy's autobiography League, Lies and Alibis from a school fete for a dollar. The book was a game of "pick the mistake", with the front rower getting scores wrong, players mixed up and generally making a meal of his memories.

Nonetheless, he won two titles with the Raiders, played in three Grand Finals and lined up 91 times for Canberra. He was instrumental in their first premiership in 1989, despite throwing a famous intercept in the decider.

The fact he fought back from that blunder makes us love him even more. He ended his career with the Gold Coast Seagulls, which he didn't deserve.

2. John Lomax/Quentin Pongia

Another pair I can't decide between - Lomax played four seasons in Canberra, Pongia, five.

Lomax was named Player of the Year in 1994, but famously missed the Grand Final through suspension. Pongia played in the 1994 title win and went on to work as a coach with the club.

Like Todd, they were players in the Raiders' 'golden age' and as a result, are remembered with reverence by fans.

1. Ruben Wiki

In 1994, when Wiki was a raw-boned young centre, he and Mal Meninga formed a lethal midfield combination at Canberra. Imagine having to defend against them when the ball was spun out wide. 

After the Raiders beat the Bulldogs to win their last premiership, I was sent out as a young reporter to track down Wiki and interview him. I managed to find him, but he wouldn't speak.

He told me he did all his talking on the field and he was right. He played 224 games for the Green Machine, moving from the centres to the forwards.

Supporters wept when he left the club and did his final lap of honour at Canberra Stadium. A no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners colossus, who is as much a legend at the Raiders as with the Warriors.

And both clubs still miss him.

Craig Norenbergs is a multi-platform journalist/producer at Newshub (and big Canberra Raiders fan).