A strong New Zealand and Vodafone Warriors flavour runs through not only Cronulla’s inaugural premiership-winning side but also right through the club’s history starting with Dane and Kurt Sorensen.
Of the 17 players involved in last night’s pulsating 14-12 win over Melbourne – the Sharks’ first title win in their 50th season – seven boasted links with New Zealand, the Kiwis or the Vodafone Warriors.
Halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend developed into established NRL players during their stints at Mount Smart Stadium.
Maloney had seen next to no first-grade time when he joined the Vodafone Warriors in 2010 before going on to make 75 appearances before returning to Sydney to link up with the Roosters for the 2013 season. The Vodafone Warriors made a big offer to retain him but Maloney turned it down, making it clear he and his wife Jess wanted to return to Australia to be close to their families.
Townsend had been given just 19 first-grade games over three seasons by the Sharks when he joined the Vodafone Warriors but immediately became a first-choice player making 41 appearances in 2014 and 2015. The club had an option to retain him in 2016 but Townsend asked for a release so he and his partner Marissa Sorensen – granddaughter of the late 1953-1960 Kiwi Bill Sorensen – could return to Sydney to be near Marissa’s terminally-ill mother.
The other players with links to both clubs in the final were wing Sosaia Feki and interchange forward Jayson Bukuya. Feki clocked up more than 40 NYC appearances for the Vodafone Junior Warriors in 2010 and 2011 before signing with the Sharks in 2012; he made his NRL debut in 2013. Bukuya joined the Vodafone Warriors from Cronulla in 2014, featuring in 18 NRL games before returning to the Sharks for the 2015 campaign.
The other New Zealand links in the Sharks’ squad last night were wing Valentine Holmes, Gerard Beale and Sam Tagataese.
Holmes, of Cook Islands-Maori descent, has opted to make himself eligible for Australia although he qualifies for the Kiwis through his New Zealand-born father.
Kiwi international Beale, also of Maori extraction, was born in Australia but has New Zealand heritage through his parents while Tagataese was born and raised in Lower Hutt. Like Vodafone Warriors prop Ben Matulino he’s a St Bernard’s College product; he played First XV rugby union before embarking on a rugby league career which included stints with Melbourne and Gold Coast before he joined Cronulla in 2011.
Four other New Zealand-born players have played for the Sharks this year in halfback Fa’amanu Brown, hooker Matt McIlwrick and forwards Joseph Paulo and Jesse Sene-Lefao
While there was cause for special New Zealand interest in Cronulla’s performance last night, the trailblazers linking New Zealand with the Sharks were unquestionably the outstanding Sorensen brothers Dane and Kurt.
Dane caused a stir when he signed for the Sharks for the 1977 season at a time when players were bound by international transfer fees and routinely blocked from representing the Kiwis if they chose to play overseas. However, he had negotiated a clause in his contract allowing him to play for New Zealand if selected, which he did that season and through until his last Test in 1985. He finished his career with a then club record 217 first-grade appearances for the Sharks.
Younger brother Kurt wanted to join Dane at the Sharks but had to buck the system to do so. To avoid a transfer fee being paid he sat out the entire 1978 season in Sydney before being able to sign for Cronulla in 1979. An absolute weapon who struck fear into opponents, Kurt was unable to play for the Kiwis again until 1983 when the way was cleared for all players – regardless of where they played – to represent their country. He went on to play 124 times for the Sharks and then carved out a long and illustrious career with Widnes in England before finishing up with more than 400 top-level games.
The Sorensens’ former Mount Wellington team-mate Mick Rasmussen joined them at the Sharks in the late 1970s, making one first-grade appearance.
Thereafter so many players of New Zealand extraction have gone on to play for Cronulla at some stage of their careers while a number have also travelled across the Tasman to represent the Vodafone Warriors (Blake Ayshford, Jeff Robson and Jonathan Wright were all with the club this season).
The Sorensens apart, Beale has been a Kiwi since 2011 while Feki was in in New Zealand’s 2014 Four Nations squad but didn’t play a Test.
Other ex-Kiwis on Cronulla’s books have been Tawera Nikau, Richie Barnett, Nigel Vagana, Andrew Lomu, Luke Covell, Bryson Goodwin and Sam Moa while another notable signing at the time was ex-Bay of Plenty and Southland rugby union fullback Eion Crossan, who spent the 1994-1995 seasons with the Sharks.
Players who have appeared for both Cronulla and the Vodafone Warriors have been Maloney, Townsend, Bukuya, Feki (at NYC level for the Vodafone Warriors), Ayshford, Robson, Wright, Dane Nielsen, Brett Seymour, Misi Taulapapa, Vince Mellars, Henry Perenara, Tevita Latu and Richard Villasanti. Bryan Laumatia and Toshio Laiseni were on the Vodafone Warriors’ books before having brief first-grade careers at Cronulla.
Foundation Auckland Warriors coach John Monie played three seasons with Cronulla from 1968-1970.
Other players with New Zealand connections who have appeared for the Sharks include Fraser Anderson, Jeremy Smith, Tinirau Arona, Bronx Goodwin, Matthew Wright, Jack Afamasaga, Karl Filiga, Tupou Sopoaga, Taulima Tautai, James Stosic, Hutch Maiava, Karl Lovell, Leo Tanoi, Terence Seuseu, Phillip Leuluai and Jason Williams (the front rower, not the ex-Kiwi winger).