THREE All Blacks rugby union stars hit the headlines during the tumultuous 1995 Australian Rugby League season when loyalties were divided between the ARL, and those who had signed with the proposed rebel organisation, Super League.
Craig Innes (Western Reds) had been signed by the ARL, while John Kirwan (New Zealand Warriors) and Shane Howarth (North Qld Cowboys) were Super League men.
Kirwan was the most high profile signing, but Innes was regarded as the best ‘get’, given he was at the peak of his powers, whereas Kirwan was in the veteran category.
Innes had played brilliantly against Manly’s Australian Test centre, Terry Hill in late June, and then early in July scored the try which broke a 16-all deadlock in a match against Gold Coast Seagulls at Tweed Heads.
Kiwi league international, Brendan Tuuta put the Reds out of reach of the Seagulls with another try, before Ricky McGrady scored a consolation try for the home side, his second try of the night.
Following the 28-20 win, Reds’ coach, Peter Mulholland said he could not understand how the Kiwi league Test selectors could overlook Innes. (They had opted for
Jarrod McCracken and Ruben Wiki).
Kirwan’s switch to league was greeted with scepticism by Kiwi supporters. They are hard markers over there when it comes to union converts.
“They (league fans) thought John wouldn’t have the heart or be tough enough,” said Warriors’ football manager, Laurie Stubbings. “He improves with every game and has been a superb asset because of the way he gets on so well with everyone – from the senior players down to the kids.
“He has a professionalism about him that league people didn’t think rugby players had. It’s not surprising really, because he played rugby as a professional.
“John’s father, Pat played rugby league and he comes to our team barbecues each week to help with the cooking. The first thing he said was:’ It’s great to be back”.
Howarth’s signing was announced on July 28 by Cowboys’ coach, Graham Lowe, the former New Zealand league Test coach.
Lowe compared Howarth to Manly’s former All Blacks’ fullback, Matthew Ridge.
“I’ve been watching Shane for the last three years and I’m very selective when looking at union players,” Lowe said. “I think in Shane we have a player who can adapt to the game. He has the mental and physical toughness.”
Innes proved the outstanding buy of the three, winning a premiership with Manly in 1996. Kirwan was solid, rather than spectacular, while Howarth did not live up to Lowe’s praise, and went back to union, representing Wales under the grandparent provisions. Now that’s another story.