Cantabrians In The NRL Grand Final
Ahead of Sunday’s night’s NRL grand final between Melbourne and Sydney Roosters, we recognise the 11 players from the Canterbury region that have previously featured on the game’s biggest stage.
Bill Noonan – Canterbury-Bankstown (1974): Simultaneously becoming the first New Zealander to play in a Sydney grand final along with teammate Henry Tatana (who came off the bench), front-row hard-man Noonan played in Canterbury-Bankstown’s 19-4 loss to Arthur Beetson’s Eastern Suburbs side in the 1974 decider. Noonan, a Linwood product and a two-Test Kiwi in 1969, played 197 first grade games for Canterbury and Newtown from 1970-80.
Brent Todd – Canberra (1987, 1989-91): Another former Linwood prop, Todd helped the Raiders reach their first grand final in his initial year with the club, going down to Manly 18-8 in the 1987 decider. He became just the second Kiwi to win a Sydney grand final (Sea Eagle Darrell Williams was the first in ’87) when he featured in Canberra’s epic 19-14 extra-time defeat of Balmain in 1989, widely regarded as the greatest grand final of them all. The Raiders surged to an unforgettable triumph despite Todd throwing an intercept pass to gift the Tigers the opening try.
The New Zealand Test star added a second premiership medal in 1990 after the Raiders’ 18-14 defeat of Penrith, but finished on the wrong side of the ledger again in the ’91 decider, a 19-12 loss to the Panthers in his 91st and last game for the club. Todd finished his career with two seasons for the Gold Coast Seagulls.
Quentin Pongia – Canberra (1994): Bruising West Coast prop Pongia represented Canterbury in the early-1990s and followed Todd’s path, becoming a Kiwi Test player in 1992 from Linwood before linking up with Canberra. Pongia starred in the Raiders’ 36-12 thrashing of Canterbury in the 1994 grand final, picking up the slack left by the suspension of fellow Kiwi bookend John Lomax. His 11-season career with the Raiders, Warriors, Roosters and Dragons was peppered by injury and suspension, playing just 137 first grade games, but he notched 34 Tests for New Zealand before finishing his career at Wigan.
Jason Williams – Canterbury-Bankstown (1994-95): Christchurch-born Williams moved to Australia at the age of 15 and debuted for Western Suburbs in 1987. After short stints with Easts and Souths – the latter garnering a Kiwi Test debut in 1991 – the wiry winger found his niche at the Bulldogs. He was in the side defeated by Pongia’s Raiders in the ’94 decider, scoring a memorable 80-metre intercept try during the first half. Williams helped the Bulldogs atone a year later, replacing injured Australian Test winger Brett Dallas during the finals to grab a spot in the team that downed Manly 17-4 in one of the great grand final boilovers, celebrating alongside compatriots Daryl Halligan and John Timu. The journeyman flyer finished his 145-game premiership career in 1998 after three seasons at Penrith.
Tonie Carroll – Brisbane (1997-98, 2000, 2006): Born in Christchurch before moving to Beenleigh in Brisbane’s south as a youngster, Carroll became a Broncos legend in 218 games from 1996-2009. The centre/back-rower came off the bench in the 1997 Super League decider triumph over Cronulla, while he was unlucky to miss out on the Clive Churchill Medal after scoring a try in the Broncos’ 38-12 thrashing of the Bulldogs in the 1998 NRL grand final.
Carroll featured in the 2000 defeat of the Roosters before embarking on a two-year stint with Leeds, but returned to play a key role as a back-row hit-man in the Broncos’ 2006 grand final upset of Melbourne. The Queensland Origin veteran controversially represented both New Zealand and Australia at Test level.
David Vaealiki – Parramatta (2001): A Linwood High pupil and Sydenham junior, long-striding outside-back Vaealiki was a centre in the Parramatta side that stormed to the 2001 minor premiership, playing all 28 games. But the Eels were stunned in the grand final by Newcastle’s first-half onslaught, eventually succumbing 30-24. A seven-Test Kiwi rep from 2000-03, Vaealiki played 92 games for the blue-and-golds before a three-season stint at Wigan (2005-07) and a brief stay with Manly in 2008. He later switched to rugby union with French club SC Albi.
David Kidwell – Melbourne (2006): Following stints with Adelaide and Parramatta – featuring in a preliminary final loss in 1999 with the latter – Hornby Panthers junior and former Canterbury Country Cardinals player Kidwell was unlucky to miss out on a premiership ring after appearing 19 games for eventual champs Sydney Roosters in 2002. But the hard-hitting second-rower made a career-defining switch to Melbourne the following season, playing 103 games for the Storm – the last of those being the 15-8 loss to Brisbane in the 2006 grand final. Kidwell wound up his 209-game NRL career with three years at South Sydney.
Jeremy Smith – Melbourne (2006-08), St George Illawarra (2010): Born in Christchurch, Smith played his junior footy with Altona in Melbourne and Runaway Bay on the Gold Coast and came to the attention of Melbourne Storm after blitzing the Queensland Cup competition with Norths Devils. The aggressive lock made his NRL debut as a 24-year-old in 2004, before featuring in three straight grand finals for the Storm – losses to Brisbane (2006) and Manly (2008) either side of a victory over the Sea Eagles (2007).
He joined Wayne Bennett at St George Illawarra in 2009 and helped drive the club to two straight minor premierships and a grand final triumph in 2010. The 22-Test Kiwi spent two years with Cronulla and retired after four seasons with Newcastle, passing the 200-game barrier during 2015.
Lewis Brown – Warriors (2011): Riccarton Knights junior Brown represented Canterbury Bulls before embarking on a quest to crack the NRL that eventually saw him debut with the Warriors in 2009. Two years later, Brown scored a famous preliminary final try against Melbourne that propelled the Warriors into the grand final, where he played in the centre in a 24-10 loss to Manly.
After 84 games for the Warriors, Brown spent three seasons at Penrith and racked up 66 appearances. The 11-Test Kiwi linked with the Sea Eagles in 2016.
Kodi Nikorima – Brisbane (2015): Brisbane Broncos utility Nikorima was born in Palmerston North but played some junior footy for Burnham Chevaliers. An exciting attacking dynamo at fullback, hooker or in the halves, Nikorima starred alongside brother Jayden in the Broncos’ NYC team that went down in the 2014 grand final to the Warriors, and featured in the Broncos’ golden-point loss to the Cowboys in the 2015 NRL decider. The youngster’s disappointment was eased somewhat by making his Test debut on the Kiwis’ subsequent tour of England.
Slade Griffin – Melbourne (2017): West Coaster Griffin took the opportunity to play age-group representative football for Canterbury as a teenager, making the six-hour round trip from Greymouth to Christchurch twice a week to pull on the red-and-black jumper. Snapped up by the Storm, Griffin made his NRL debut in 2013 but endured a string of season-ending knee injuries and played just one game in the top flight from 2014-16.
But he made a spectacular resurgence in 2017, firstly as a No.9 replacement for Cameron Smith during the Origin period, then as a permanent interchange fixture. Griffin came off the bench in Melbourne’s 30-6 drubbing of North Queensland in the grand final before taking up a deal with Newcastle. Ousting countryman Danny Levi for the Knights’ starting hooker role, Griffin earned a Kiwi Test debut in Denver midway through 2018 but another ACL injury cut his NRL campaign short.