Not all that long ago, a Kiwi and an Englishman, a couple of Indigenous blokes and maybe a few Queenslanders was about as diverse as grand final line-ups got.
New Zealand Test great and NRL Education and Wellbeing Manager Nigel Vagana’s first grand final memory emphasises how narrow the base of backgrounds was in the premiership only a couple of decades back.
“The first grand final I watched on TV in New Zealand, the first one they showed live, was the Canberra-Balmain one in 1989,” Vagana, who played 240 games for the Warriors, Bulldogs, Sharks and Rabbitohs, recalls.
“Everyone was split, because the Raiders had one Kiwi player, Brent Todd, and ‘Whiz’ (Gary Freeman) on the other side.”
The ’89 decider – arguably the greatest of all time, won 19-14 by the Raiders in extra-time – also featured a pair of Englishmen, Andy Currier and Shaun Edwards, and Lebanon-born Ben Elias in the Tigers line-up.
The Raiders had Indigenous stars John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson, Laurie Daley (whose Indigenous heritage was not widely known at the time) and Paul Martin, while skipper Mal Meninga is of South Sea Islander descent.
Pretty diverse for the time, but distinctly Euro-centric by today’s standards.
Players from Pacific Island backgrounds feature prominently at every NRL club, yet back in 1989 St George cult hero John Fifita and Kiwi Test players Darrell Williams and Mark Elia were among only a handful of notable players with Pacific heritage.
Ironically, Vagana is one of the best and longest-serving players (240 first-grade games) to never appear in a grand final.
His tally of 140 tries is third in premiership history – behind Souths stalwart Nathan Merritt (159) and Glebe legend Frank Burge (146) – among players that have not turned out in a decider.
But the veteran of 37 Tests for the Kiwis, who also captained Samoa at the 2008 World Cup, is revelling in the sheer volume of his compatriots that feature in the NRL grand final every year.
“Now, there’s Kiwis everywhere – (this weekend) you’ve got the Bromwich boys, Tohu Harris, Kevin Proctor, the two Fijian boys on the wings,” the former centre ace says.
“Sosaia Feki, he’s an Old Boy from St Paul’s (College) in Auckland, where I went.
“Plus the Samoan boys, Ricky (Leutele), Sammy (Tagataese) and Joseph Paulo, so it’s interesting to see how far the game has come in that regard.
“But it’s great that a lot of the Pacific players and the Kiwi boys have taken to the top level and are really kicking arse at that level.
“It’s awesome to see.”
In the Cronulla side, Leutele and Tagataese are both Samoan Test players, while Feki has represented Tonga. Joseph Paulo, named on an extended Sharks bench for Sunday’s decider but unlikely to play, is of American Samoan and Nieuan descent, and has represented Samoa and USA at international level.
Queensland Origin hopeful Valentine Holmes, born in Townsville, is of Cook Islands and Maori descent, while Brisbane-born teammate Gerard Beale is a Kiwi Test rep with Maori heritage.
— Gregg Porteous (@SkipperAust) September 23, 2016
Sharks interchange forward Jayson Bukuya is a Fiji Test teammate of Melbourne winger Marika Koroibete, while Storm rookie sensation Suliasi Vunivalu is likely to make his debut for Fiji later this year.
Storm prop and Country Origin rep Jordan McLean also has Maori heritage, and clubmates Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Tohu Harris and Kevin Proctor are New Zealand Test players.
On a nine-man Melbourne bench but not expected to make the final cut, Young Tonumaipea was born in Samoa, while Felise Kaufusi is Auckland-born with a Tongan background.
Meanwhile, the grand final will see four Indigenous All-Stars reps in the starting line-ups: Ben Barba, Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham for the Sharks, and Storm centre Will Chambers. Chris Heighington has played Test football for England to round out the cosmopolitan feel of the decider.
— Cronulla Sharks FC (@Cronulla_Sharks) May 10, 2016
In terms of birthplaces, there are just as many New Zealand-born players as there are players born in Sydney (eight), while 10 players were born in NSW country regions and 10 were born in Queensland.
BIRTHPLACES OF 2016 NRL GRAND FINAL PLAYERS
(Includes all players named on extended benches)
Coffs Harbour: 1
Wagga Wagga: 1
Glen Innes: 1
Auckland (NZ): 5
Lower Hut (NZ): 1
Hastings (NZ): 1
Te Kuiti (NZ): 1