Auckland, New Zealand, March 28 - They became the chosen ones, the first 17 players selected to bring the original Auckland Warriors to life in the club’s debut match against the Brisbane Broncos at Ericsson Stadium on Friday, March 10, 1995.
Now 20 years and 19 days later the modern-day Vodafone Warriors will celebrate the club’s first two decades in existence with tomorrow’s 20th anniversary clash against the Broncos at their beloved home ground (2.00pm kick-off; match day sponsor: Vodafone).
There to join in the celebrations will be a number of players from the original side and also some who missed the opening night but featured in the inaugural campaign.
The originals were (official club number in brackets):
FULLBACK | PHIL BLAKE (#2)
Now 51 (born in London on November 24, 1963), Blake brought plenty of first-grade experience to the club and he also had stints with Warrington and Wigan. He has a special place in the club’s history as its first try-scorer, ending his first-grade career after his final season with the Warriors in 1997. He was among the originals on hand for the 10th anniversary match against the Broncos in 2005. Later he was involved in rugby union coaching, spending time working with Robbie Deans when he was coaching the Wallabies while he also worked with the Leicester Tigers in England.
NRL career: 265 games (1982-1997), 574 points (138 tries, 8 goals, 15 field goals).
Warriors: 37 games (1995-1997), 17 tries.
WING | SEAN HOPPE (#3)
The now 44-year-old Hoppe (born in Auckland on January 19, 1971) spent 1992 and 1993 with Canberra after being signed from the Northcote club. Had one season with North Sydney before taking up his contract with the Auckland Warriors. A try scorer in the debut match against the Broncos he scored 19 tries in the club’s first season; he played 88 times for the Warriors before taking up a contract with St Helens. A long-time Kiwi international, he has lived in Australia for several years now. He works on gas plant in Gladstone in Queensland. This weekend he’s playing in a charity nines tournament in Rockhampton.
NRL career: 152 games (1992-1999), 324 points (81 tries).
Warriors: 88 games (1995-1999), 176 points (44 tries).
CENTRE | DEAN BELL (#1) CAPTAIN
Born on April 29, 1962 in Auckland, Bell (52) finished his playing days with a one-off season as Warriors captain. He returned home after an exceptional career with Wigan in which he made 253 appearances including seven Challenge Cup final wins at Wembley from 1986-1994. A Manukau junior, his other successes including winning the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the Challenge Cup final while he also won the Man of Steel accolade. After making his Kiwi debut in 1983 he went on to captain his country in the 1988 World Cup final. He later spent several years in Wigan’s management team before returning home to join the Vodafone Warriors in 2007. Bell is now general manager football for the club.
NRL career: 59 games (1985-1988 & 1995), 44 points (11 tries).
Warriors: 19 games (1995), 12 points (3 tries)
CENTRE | MANOA THOMPSON (#4)
Thompson (born on June 11, 1968) was signed for the Auckland Warriors’ debut season from Western Suburbs having previously played for South Sydney. He had just one campaign with the club but will always be remembered for the role he played in the club’s first try, his superb pass setting Whetu Taewa free to create Phil Blake’s touchdown. Thompson signed with Warrington in 1996 and also played in France. He has since become better-known as the great Jarryd Hayne’s father (Jarryd was seven when his father was with the Auckland Warriors). Thompson, a truck driver in Sydney, has a strong association with Fijian rugby league.
NRL career: 75 games (1989-1995), 118 points (29 tries, 2 field goals).
Warriors: 7 games (1995), 0 points.
WING | WHETU TAEWA (#5)
Hailing from New Zealand’s rugby league heartland on the West Coast, Taewa (born on October 19, 1970) impressed on the Canterbury scene to win a place in the Kiwis’ touring team to Britain and France in 1989 when he was only just 19. He was signed by the Warriors after appearing for Counties Manukau in the Lion Red Cup in 1994 and went on to claim a spot on the left wing for the club’s Winfield Cup debut. The 1995 season was Taewa’s only campaign with the Warriors before he joined North Queensland and then signed with Sheffield for the 1997 season. He won a Challenge Cup final medal when Sheffield stunned Wigan 17-8 at Wembley in 1998. Taewa now lives in Cromwell where he’s a builder. He’s also a speedway driver.
NRL career: 23 games (1995-1996), 12 points (3 tries).
Warriors: 11 games (1995), 4 points (1 try).
STANDOFF | GENE NGAMU (#6)
Born in Auckland on January 27, 1974, Ngamu played for Marist and Northcote in Auckland before being signed by Manly, then coached by Graham Lowe, in 1992. He made his first-grade debut and nine appearances in all in 1992 and 1993, signed with the Warriors and then spent 1994 with South Sydney before returning home. Having made the Kiwis in 1993, he established himself with the Warriors from the outset going on to form a superb partnership with Stacey Jones; he still shares the club record for most points in a match (28). He finished with the club in 1999 to take up a contract with Huddersfield before later playing club rugby union in Sydney and club rugby league in Auckland. Ngamu is now back in Sydney where he works as a groundsman.
NRL career: 91 games (1992-1999), 287 points (12 tries, 118 goals, 3 field goals).
Warriors: 81 games (1995-1999), 283 points (11 tries, 118 goals, 3 field goals).
HALFBACK | GREG ALEXANDER (#7)
The gifted Alexander (born on March 4, 1965) was one of the Warriors’ key signings for their debut campaign, joining the club after a glittering career to that point with Penrith, his 196 games including premiership success in 1991. He was one of the game’s best playmakers having played Origin football for New South Wales as well as representing Australia. Alexander was elevated to the captaincy in 1996, his second and last season with the Warriors before he rejoined Penrith to see out his career. He has gone on to become a highly-regarded radio and television analyst and commentator as well as being on Penrith’s board of directors. When he attended the 2014 NRL Nines it was the first time he had been back in Auckland since leaving the Warriors in 1996.
NRL career: 264 games (1989-1999), 1160 points (111 tries, 351 goals, 14 field goals).
Warriors: 37 games (1995-1996), 60 points (11 tries, 8 goals).
PROP | GAVIN HILL (#8)
While the honour of being Warrior No 1 belongs to foundation captain Dean Bell – the first man to take the team on the field in 1995 – Hill, the goal-kicking front rower, was actually the first player signed by the club. Born in Okato on December 11, 1965, he had a background in rugby union playing for Taranaki, Wellington and Canterbury as well as representing New Zealand Maori. He was among the wave of rugby union players who switched to rugby league in the early 1990s, signing with Canterbury-Bankstown in1992. He was almost immediately selected in the Kiwis and later had a stint with Featherstone Rovers in 1993 and the Waikato Cougars in the Lion Red Cup in 1994 before linking up with the Auckland Warriors. He later played rugby union again and has more recently gone home to Taranaki where he is an ambassador for Duffy Books in Homes and is also involved coaching rugby league at club level.
NRL career: 47 games (1992-1996), 168 points (1 try, 82 goals).
Warriors: 14 games (1995-1996), 18 points (9 goals).
HOOKER | DUANE MANN (#9)
The well-travelled Mann was nearing the end of his top level playing career when he joined the Auckland Warriors for their debut campaign. Now 49 (born on June 28, 1965), the Glenora Bears product made his Kiwi Test debut against the Kangaroos Australia in 1989, toured England and France at the end of that season and landed a contract with English club Warrington. He went on to make more than 120 appearances for the club before returning home after signing with the Auckland Warriors. The long-time Kiwi hooker captained his country in 1994 and later captained Tonga at the Rugby League World Cup . He also captained Glenora to success in Auckland’s Fox Memorial premiership as well as coaching at club level before taking on roles with the New Zealand Rugby League and the Auckland Rugby League. He is now working for the Vodafone Warriors as the club’s academy and pathways manager.
NRL career: 13 games (1995), 12 points (3 tries).
Warriors: 13 games (1995), 12 points (3 tries).
PROP | HITRO OKESENE (#10)
When it came to the mullet, few players wore it better than Okesene (born on September 22, 1970). Few players ran the football harder than he did either. He was a product of the Manukau club in Auckland – the same club that produced Dean Bell – standing out as a hooker or prop. He signed with Carlisle in England in 1989, spending four seasons with the club before returning home to play for Counties Manukau in the Lion Red Cup in 1994, the year he also made the Kiwis. Signed by the Auckland Warriors, he stood out in the trials to claim a starting spot for the opening match against Brisbane when big signing Andy Platt was out with injury. His head-down-run-it-straight approach – and his big shots on defence – made him a cult figure from the outset. With his locks flowing he made a huge impact in the first season and represented the Kiwis at the 1995 World Cup. By 1998 he was back in England where he was equally popular for his approach to the game. He played for Hull, Featherstone Rovers, les Catalans in France and then Workington Town. He also coached. He, his wife Donna and their three daughters live in the north of England where Okesene works in the construction industry.
NRL career: 22 games (1995-1997), 8 points (2 tries).
Warriors: 22 games (1995-1997), 8 points (2 tries).
SECOND ROW | STEPHEN KEARNEY (#11)
Born on June 11, 1972 in Paraparaumu, the Kapiti Bears junior was one of the Auckland Warriors’ key signings, recruited when he had only just started his first-grade career with Western Suburbs. By the time he joined the newly-formed club he had 46 games to his name and had also started out on what would be a long career as a Kiwi international. He went on to play 79 times for the Auckland Warriors and was named player of the year in 1996. He opted not to stay on after the 1998 season, signing with Melbourne where he enjoyed a grand final win in his first campaign with the Storm. He finished his NRL career with 264 appearances before closing off his playing career with Hull FC in the English Super League. He ended his Kiwi career in 2004 after playing 45 Tests. Kearney immediately moved into coaching as an assistant to Storm coach Craig Bellamy and in 2008 was named Kiwi coach. He has just had his Kiwi contract extended by another two years having so far guided New Zealand to its first World Cup title in 2008 followed by Four Nations successes in 2010 and 2014. After a coaching stint with Parramatta, he took on assistant coach’s role with Brisbane.
NRL career: 264 games (1992-2004), 148 points (37 tries).
Warriors: 79 games (1995-1998), 44 points (11 tries).
SECOND ROW | TONY TATUPU (#12)
A tall ball-playing back rower, Tatupu, now 45 (born on July 26, 1969), was signed by the Auckland Warriors from the local football scene. Out of the Mount Albert club, he played for North Harbour in the Lion Red Cup in 1994 and also won Kiwi selection that year. He earned selection for the start of the Warriors’ debut campaign with his preseason efforts earning a place in club folklore as one of the club’s try scorers in the debut match against Brisbane. At the end of the 1996 season Tatupu took up a contract with Warrington in the English Super League in 1997 but was back at the Warriors for the 1998 and 1999 seasons. In 1998 he had the distinction of scoring the try after the final siren which gave the Warriors a remarkable 24-21 win over Melbourne. He ended his playing career with Wakefield in England and then joined the police. Tatupu twice represented Samoa at the Rugby League World Cup. His son Shem is on Hawthorn’s books in the AFL.
NRL career: 67 games (1995-1996 & 1998-1999), 40 points (10 tries).
Warriors career: 67 games (1995-1996 & 1998-1999), 40 points (10 tries).
LOOSE FORWARD | TONY TUIMAVAVE (#13)
‘The Chief’ (born in Apia on April 24, 1969) had a reputation as one of the toughest forwards in the game and with good reason. He was a feared defender who regularly shook up attacking players with his big hits. A second rower or loose forward, he was another of the Auckland Warriors’ signings who gained recognition through his deeds on the local scene. While he had a stint with Sheffield in England it was his efforts for the Mount Albert and Northcote clubs and especially the Auckland representative team which earned him a contract with the Warriors. In 1994 he also played for Waitakere in the Lion Red Cup. Tuimavave became a first-choice player in 1995, missing just one match. A one-off Kiwi in 1995, he represented Samoa at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup. His brother Paddy played for the Kiwis, too, while nephews Evarn, also a Kiwi, and Carlos have played for the Vodafone Warriors while North Queensland wing Antonio Winterstein is another nephew.
NRL career: 78 games (1995-2000), 36 points (9 tries).
Warriors: 78 games (1995-2000), 36 points (9 tries).
INTERCHANGE | SE’E SOLOMONA (#14)
From Auckland rugby league’s well-known Solomona clan, big Se’e (born on March 9, 1965) came through the club system with Richmond and Glenora and also impressed for the Auckland representative team for several seasons before playing professionally in England with Sheffield, Widnes and Oldham. He was also called up to represent the Kiwis in four Tests in 1993 setting him up to become part of the Auckland Warriors for their debut season. He came off the bench in the opening match against Brisbane on March 10, 1995, going on to make nine appearances that season before moving to North Queensland in 1996. His nephew Malo also played at NRL level for the Vodafone Warriors. Se’e Solomona still lives in Townsville.
NRL career: 13 games (1995-1996), 0 points.
Warriors: 9 games (1995), 0 points.
INTERCHANGE | TEA ROPATI (#15)
Born on September 7, 1964, the now 50-year-old Ropati brought high-end professional experience to the Auckland Warriors. His brothers Joe, Peter, Iva and John all played rugby league to international or provincial level. Out of the Otahuhu club, Tea had a stint with Newcastle under the New Zealand Rugby League’s short-lived rookie scheme and then had an impressive term with St Helens from 1989-1994 during which time he was signed by the newly-formed Auckland Warriors. Coming off the bench he scored a try in the debut match against the Broncos and was named the club’s player of the year that season. A New Zealand and Samoa international he retired at the end of the 1998 season.
NRL career: 74 games (1988 & 1995-1998).
Warriors: 72 games (1995-1998), 106 points (26 tries, 1 goal).
INTERCHANGE | JASON MACKIE (#16)
Out of the Takahiwai Warriors in Northland, Mackie (born on December 25, 1968) had a truly meteoric rise. He had played for the Northland representative side and New Zealand Maori when he was selected for the Kiwis’ tour to Wales, England and France. He appeared in four Tests and then joined the Auckland City Vulcans in the Lion Red Cup in 1994. As a loose forward he made a big impression to earn a contract with the Auckland Warriors, securing a spot on the bench for the club’s opening match against Brisbane in 1995. The 1995 season was his only one in the NRL. Mackie now lives in Queensland.
NRL career: 5 games (1995), 0 points.
Warriors: 5 games (1995), 0 points.
INTERCHANGE | MARTIN MOANA (#17)
Born in Huntly on August 13, 1973, Moana came through the Huntly South club and the Waikato representative side to earn a contract with the Auckland Warriors and ultimately a place on the interchange for the debut match against Brisbane. His Warriors stint was a brief one but he went on to fashion a long professional career in England making more than 200 appearances in all for Halifax as well as having terms with Huddersfield, Doncaster, Wakefield, Salford and finally Swinton. He retired with a total of more than 300 top level games. Moana represented Aotearoa Maori at the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
NRL career: 5 games (1995), 4 points (1 try).