A who’s who of rugby league – including Kiwi and Vodafone Warriors great Ruben Wiki – will feature in the Rugby League World Cup’s opening ceremony at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Friday night.
In celebrating the 14 nations set to contest RLWC2017, rugby league royalty including Wiki, Johnathan Thurston (Australia), Petero Civoniceva (Fiji), Hazem El Masri (Lebanon) and Garry Schofield OBE (England) will be among those carrying their country’s flag.
The ceremony will be held before the opening game between Australia and England, and will celebrate the world’s best converging for the tournament.
Headlining the entertainment will be homegrown talent Casey Donovan, one of the country’s most versatile indigenous entertainers. The youngest ever winner of Australian Idol at 16 years old, Donovan will be joined by performers and traditional dancers representing the three host nations – Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
“It’s great to have so many rugby league icons representing all 14 nations as part of the opening ceremony,” said RLWC2017 CEO Andrew Hill.
“We are so pleased to have each country represented by a past player and/or coach that has a genuine connection to that country.”
The pre-game show will also celebrate the grassroots connection of the game with children from Victorian Rugby League junior clubs walking hand in hand with the country ambassadors. Each junior player will walk out with a player from a country that has a connection to their own family.
Australia Flag Ambassador – Johnathan Thurston
Two-time premiership winner with the Bulldogs and the Cowboys, Thurston has played 39 Tests for the Kangaroos and played in two World Cups. He has played as part of the Indigenous All Stars six times.
New Zealand Flag Ambassador – Ruben Wiki ONZM
The first New Zealander to play more than 300 NRL matches, Wiki also played a then-world record 55 Tests for the Kiwis (still the New Zealand record).
Papua New Guinea Flag Ambassador – Ray Thompson
Retired Cowboys player, born in Cairns and of indigenous and PNG heritage. Thompson represented the Kumuls in four Tests for PNG and has played for the Indigenous All Stars.
England Flag Ambassador – Garry Schofield OBE
Played 49 Tests for Great Britain between 1984-1994, his first as an 18-year-old and several as captain. Won the Golden Boot in 1990 (voted the world’s best player) and had three seasons with Balmain and one with West Suburbs in Australia between English seasons.
Fiji Flag Ambassador – Petero Civoniceva
Born in Suva Fiji, Civoniceva played six Tests for Fiji and captained the Bati at the 2013 World Cup. He played 45 tests for Australia and 33 State of Origins for Queensland.
France Flag Ambassador – Louis Bonnery
French legend of rugby and rugby league, Bonnery is a former French coach and player. He is a member of the commentary team for BeIN Sports at RLWC2017.
Italy Flag Ambassador – David Riolo
After representing Italy at the 1999 Mediteranean Cup, Riolo was captain-coach of the Azzurri during the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup and played for the Steelers and the Eels.
Ireland Flag Ambassador – Pat Richards
Born in Australia to Irish parents, Richards played seven Tests for Ireland and was the first Australian to score more than 1000 points for Wigan, winning two premierships. Also a member of the 2005 Wests Tigers grand final-winning team.
Lebanon Flag Ambassador – Hazem El Masri
Born in Tripoli, Lebanon, he played in the premiership-winning Bulldogs in 2004. Played eight Tests for Lebanon and also represented Australia in one Test. Holds the record for most points in the ARL/NRL competition with 2418 points.
Samoa Flag Ambassador – Tony Puletua
Puletua played nine Tests for Samoa, as well as 22 for New Zealand, and was a key member of Penrith’s 2003 premiership winning team.
Scotland Flag Ambassador – Ben Fisher
As well as his 15 Tests for Scotland, Fisher played for North Sydney, Sydney Roosters, Halifax, Hull Kingston Rovers, Les Catalans and London Broncos.
Tonga Flag Ambassador – Solomon Haumono
Born in New Zealand of Tongan parents, Haumono played two Tests for Tonga while enjoying stints with Manly, Canterbury, Balmain Tigers, St George and London Broncos.
United States Flag Ambassador - Clint Newton
Born in South Carolina, USA, Newton played four Tests for the United USA and was a senior member of their 2013 World Cup campaign, while also playing for Newcastle Knights, Melbourne Storm, Penrith Panthers and Hull Kingston Rovers.
Wales Flag Ambassador – Ollie Olds
Represented Wales in eight Tests and played for Leeds, York City and South Wales as well as South Logan in the Queensland Cup.