When it comes to overseas recruitment, Super League’s Class of 2020 is one of the most impressive in its near 25-year history.
But it got us wondering, who else almost made the move, but didn’t?
We put the feelers out and after extensive research and hours on the phone, the results left our minds well and truly blown.
So here are the names and the stories behind the overseas superstars that nearly came, but didn’t.
THE EARLY YEARS
We’ll start off with a bang.
The year is 1995. Super League is just about to explode into life. Gary Hetherington is the general manager of Sheffield Eagles and is heading out to South Africa to complete a deal for a young New Zealand winger about to take part in the rugby union World Cup.
He went by the name of Jonah Lomu.
“Mike Burton had alerted me to this phenomenal Maori playing and strongly advised us to sign him.
“We’d actually just missed out on signing an Irish centre called Jonny Bell. We also had a very near miss with Gary Armstrong, who was playing rugby union for Scotland but he decided to join Newcastle Falcons, and the Wales goal-kicker, Neil Jenkins. He’d agreed to sign, he and his family came to watch us play against Halifax at Thrum Hall and long story short, I think that put him off. I believe he went on to become Wales’ highest ever points scorer.
“But Jonah Lomu was certainly the biggest name. Me and Kath travelled to South Africa. We knew Super League was on the horizon. We met his manager called Phil Kingsley Jones. Our offer was £1m over five years. We were going to be part of this Super League revolution and receiving large sums of money. Maurice Lindsay was the chief executive of the RFL at the time and I put a proposal to him through News Corp. I put a proposal to him to sign Lomu on £200,000 a year, which at the time was very good money, and that money would be paid by News Corp and deducted from Sheffield Eagles’ money over the next five years. He would become an asset of the Super League that way.
“Anyway, the following day he destroyed England. He ran over the top of Underwood several times. He was already a big name but that propelled him to a different stratosphere.
“Apparently, Leeds had entered the frame too and had made offers. Once I took over at Leeds, one of the first things I discovered in the inner sanctum was the Jonah Lomu file. At the end of the day, I think a sportswear firm, I believe it was Adidas, made a mammoth deal to keep him in rugby union, because the All Blacks couldn’t afford to lose Lomu, certainly not to Rugby League.
“But he was very serious about coming to Rugby League, very serious. But once he exploded to new heights that was it. That was a disappointment.”
Sticking with rugby union and, specifically New Zealand, Halifax were very close to securing their own All Blacks Test star. To be precise, the former New Zealand captain, Tana Umaga.
“We had signed Mike Umaga who was his brother,” the club’s former football manager Robert Atkinson explained.
“When we signed Mike it was agreed verbally that we would sign Tana too. But a day after we got a phone call from the agent saying he had decided he didn’t want to come because his ambition was to play and captain New Zealand. To be fair to him, he went on and did that. But overnight, we thought we were getting him.
“We spoke to Trevor Gillmeister for quite a bit as well. He was called The Axe if you remember. But we decided after the event that he was just using us to get his contract up with Brisbane, because it was in the Sydney newspaper that he’d been in discussions with us so we thought he’d leaked it. I think he was just having us on.
“We had actually signed Tea Ropati. Peter Brown was his agent who used to play for us. We had a contract which was signed, but a few weeks after Peter rang to say he had changed his mind and they asked us to scrub the contract and we did.
“In the end, Peter signed us Martin Moana instead and he was good value for us over the years, he still lives in Halifax now.”
Remember the outrage when the likes of Denny Solomona, Chris Sandow and James Segeyaro all royally shafted their clubs a few years ago? Well, it isn’t a new craze. Just ask Wigan.
In 1998, the Warriors had a deal signed and sealed for the iconic Australian Test winger Wendell Sailor, they even unveiled him at a press conference. However, Sailor had a major change of heart, which saw him drop a court case against the Brisbane Broncos relating to his release and signing a two-year deal with the NRL club instead.
Instead, Wigan signed Australian playmaker Greg Florimo, who had almost joined Bradford.
“We certainly worked hard on a number of deals that didn’t quite come off,” said Stuart Duffy, an institution at Bradford Bulls who has done practically every job there is to do at a rugby club in over two decades of service, including player negotiations.
“Greg Florimo was one of the first ones I recall. I remember sending him a package of Bulls gear when Matthew Elliott was in charge. We sent him polo shirts, tracksuits and everything like that. Eventually he signed for Wigan.”
If you rewind the clocks even more and head back to 1992, how could you forget that one of the all-time greats, Laurie Daley, almost joined Wakefield? Daley was in the prime of his career when he signed a one-year deal with Trinity. A current New South Wales representative and Australian international, Wakefield’s capture was deemed one of the greatest in the clubs history.
But he never played. A severe knee injury saw him unable to play for Wakefield, and he also missed out on the 1992 World Cup Final as a result. He went on to play his entire career at Canberra and go down as one of their all-time greats. Shame.
THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM
As the world entered the 00s, Super League started to attract some global superstars. Andrew Johns (briefly), Lesley Vainikolo, Jamie Lyon and Michael De Vere were among those who tried their hand in Super League. But some decided against making the plunge. Perhaps the most well-publicised snub was felt by Wigan. In 2004, the Warriors made Mark Gasnier their number one target, with the Australia international the focal point of Wigan’s ambitious plans for the future. Gasnier was on his way to stardom. Still only 23 years of age, he’d already established himself as a New South Wales and Australia representative. But that, certainly early on, didn’t deter him from leaving for the Warriors.
Negotiations went on for over 12 months and at one point, Gasnier was on his way.
“I went to Australia and met Mark and his wife,” said Maurice Lindsay, who had returned to Wigan from the Rugby Football League.
“He was totally committed. I kept exchanging phone calls with him. But as the Australians say, we got dudded.
“Mark rang me himself and said ‘I’m so embarrassed, but they’re saying they won’t let me go.’ “I kept ringing his agent as we were waiting for the paperwork which wasn’t being signed and he wasn’t responding. What had happened was that Gus Gould, who is now at Penrith, had a column in the Sydney Morning Herald and was very influential. He’s a friend of mine now but at the time he was never keen on England, he used to bag you know what out of the English. Gus wrote an article saying the NRL should do everything they could to keep Mark and I think they convinced him.
“I’ve never been more gutted. I’d offered Mark top dollar, I’d gone to Australia and done the deal. For some reason I could never put my finger on why the deal got turned over.
“Two years later we’d agreed to sign Matt King. But at the last minute the same agent said not to forget his fee. We knew his fee, it was 2%, but he insisted it was 3%. All the agents charged 2%, but he said they were the best and the biggest so he charged 3%.
“I put the phone down, thought this is the man who turned me over with Gasnier. So I rang Matt and told him we couldn’t sign him because his agent was too greedy. He was dumbfounded. He signed for Warrington instead.”
Reports in Australia suggested Gasnier was effectively talked out of signing for the Warriors by his peers, who warned him that by leaving the NRL, his representative career would practically be over.
He wasn’t the only one who avoided Super League to try and secure their international future. In his autobiography, Darren Lockyer revealed how he almost signed for Leeds in 2004.
“We never really went too far with Darren,” insisted Hetherington, who by this point was at Leeds.
“We may have spoken to his manager, we had a good relationship with Brisbane, but it was never too serious.”
That money was instead invested into the great Ali Lauiti’iti. Two years later, and it was Salford’s turn to try and lure an Australian international in the shape of Craig Gower.
“We thought we had him,” said Karl Harrison, who was the coach of the then-titled City Reds.
“I met him, I’d picked him up from training while he was over here with Australia and showed him around Salford. I was pretty certain that we’d be getting him.
“Then it just never happened. I don’t know why we didn’t get him.”
During this decade, Huddersfield had landed a fair few high-profile stars. The aforementioned De Vere spent two years with the club, while the likes of Robbie Hunter-Paul, Brad Drew and Brett Hodgson also donned the claret and gold.
Nathan Brown was instrumental in bringing Hodgson over. However, he had plans to bring over a star known around the world.
“He mentioned Sonny Bill-Williams,” said Huddersfield’s Managing Director, Richard Thewlis.
“I seem to recall he was in trouble at the time for something or other and Browny was adamant that we could get him on a short stint, maybe four to six months.
“Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but it was something discussed at the club and we tested the waters.”
But perhaps the most random, most outrageous signing of the decade came from a club that no longer even exists.
The Rugby Football League would most probably like you to forget about Celtic Crusaders. The Welsh club was the experiment that ended in disaster. Founded in 2003 and fast-tracked to Super League during the licensing era, once they were given approval, they quickly went to throw their weight around and targeted the biggest poster-boy in recent Welsh rugby history – Gavin Henson.
“It was a double whammy actually as we also got really close to Andy Powell and Gavin Henson,” said Brian Noble, who had become the head coach of the Crusaders in 2009.
“We were really going to kick on, we’d agreed terms with their agents and everything. We thought it would be massive for us as they were two British Lions and we had Gareth Thomas as well.
“But that was when things went pear-shaped. The people who were backing us dried up on the money and I personally had to ring up and give back word. It was a real shame as those two would have been a massive, massive boost for Super League and the sport in that area.”
THE MODERN ERA
Our journey into the present decade stars with Bradford. By 2010, Bullmania was over and the club was gradually on the decline.
They’d seen efforts a year earlier to sign Greg Bird thwarted due to visa issues, but it didn’t stop them trying to sign one of the most iconic players of his era.
“The biggest name was probably Petero Civoniceva back in 2010,” Duffy recalls.
Civoniceva is regarded as one of the NRL’s all-time greats, having won three Premierships during his time at Brisbane. A mainstay in the Queensland side for over a decade, Civoniceva played his part in numerous State of Origin victories and is Australia’s second all-time capped forward behind Cameron Smith.
“He was still playing at the top level at the time, even though he was coming to the end of his career.
“I think the problem was that we had too many overseas players at the time. It was something to do with the fact he’s Fijian and if he could get a Fijian passport he’d count less on the overseas quota. He had an Australian passport, but if he applied for a Fijian passport he’d lose his Australian passport. So it fell down in part on his inability to get that passport. But we had that done and ready to go. It was disappointing.
“There was Adam Mogg too. It’s a funny story actually, Steve McNamara flew out to Perpignan to go and meet him. He went to get his plane but Steve then realised he hadn’t changed his clock, so missed the flight. Adam, in the end, decided he wanted to stay in France, he liked the lifestyle.”
During our investigation, we rang Paul Cullen. As our enquiries unfolded, we were somewhat disappointed with a lack of stories from Warrington, given their ambitious recruitment over the years.
So you can imagine our dismay when Cullen insisted the Wolves hadn’t missed out on any top players during his time as head coach between 2002 and 2008.
“But there was one that got away,” he remarked. OK, we’re onto something.
“I tried to sign Darren Lockyer while I was at Widnes in 2011.” Wait, what?
A bit of context here. Cullen was at Widnes while they were in the Championship. Lockyer was the current Australia test halfback. Surely this is codswallop.
“He was at a point where he was finishing his career with Australia and the Brisbane Broncos. He never actually played after the conversation we had.
“It was a meeting set up by Andrew Johns at my request. He set me meetings up with the previous four Grand Final winning coaches, which were Wayne Bennett, Des Hasler, Tim Sheens and Craig Bellamy. ”
At the time Widnes were ticking boxes so we could apply for the Super League franchise. We’d just won the Northern Rail Cup if my memory is correct. We were looking for a statement and to sign marquee players.
“Andrew set me those meetings up as well as with Darren Lockyer who was the current Australia, Queensland and Brisbane captain. I met him in a hotel in Sydney because he was there with the Australia side at the time; I’d met Tim around the same time as he was the Australia coach at this point.
“It was a fantastic conversation with a brilliant player and a gentleman. It was clear to me he wasn’t particularly keen on playing on, but he listened to what I had to say. He was very respectful and eventually, he politely declined the offer.
“I don’t think anyone really knows about that, but there’s a spanker for you.”
Of course, this was the decade that saw many Championship clubs flex their financial muscle in a way not seen for a long, long time. The trendsetters were Leigh, who splashed the cash to secure their return to Super League. On their way, they came ever so close to signing the one and only, Jarryd Hayne.
Hayne had just tried his hand at American football but was looking for a way back into Rugby League. Of all places, he nearly ended up in the Championship. The foundations of the move were built in bizarre circumstances.
Hayne had been contacted by the club to video a tribute to friend and former team-mate Reni Maitua, who was retiring. From there, the rest was history.
“At first I thought that it was a crazy idea as the man has been playing American football so why would he want to come to little old Leigh,” Derek Beaumont revealed at the time.
“I sat back that night and thought, you know what you can’t take it with you, and I can afford the English equivalent of what had been offered to him. I then started to really think about it and the focus it would bring to Leigh the increased gates fans from other clubs coming to watch him play, and then of course the pure skill.
“The following morning I again spoke to both Fui (Fui Moi Moi) and Reni who had both had long chats with Jarryd and he had said he was going to speak to his manager Wayne Beavis.
Paul Anderson sent me Jarryd’s email address so I put an email together to him outlining our ambitions and the concept of the 8s, stating that I wasn’t fazed by the figures involved in bringing him.
“I sent the email and got an immediate reply from Jarryd stating he was with his manager and would I call straight away to discuss.
“Needless to say I made the call immediately and it soon became apparent that there was mileage in this and it could be made to work.
“All the paperwork was done and sent over to me and on Tuesday night and I sent over the contract from my office that effectively matched the offer he had from Parramatta.
“It was on Jarryd meeting his manager and when I woke up in the morning everything should be good to go.
“Upon waking there was no text and no email. I waited in anticipation as it was only 8am. Whilst driving to the office the call came on my screen – it was Wayne Beavis. I immediately answered and had the usual opening chat. I was buzzing inside thinking that was it.
“Mate it’s bad news I’m afraid. I met with Jarryd and had everything printed off and filled in, good to go but unfortunately he can’t make the dates due to commitments.
“He would only make four games and that wasn’t something he wanted to do.”
Devastating. Of course, Toronto would soon follow in their footsteps. The Wolfpack have already signed two players to marquee contracts in Darcy Lussick and Ricky Leutele.
While nobody at the Wolfpack would go on record about their recruitment talks over the years, a number of names were thrown into the mix. The nearest who came was Ryan Hoffman, who retired at the end of the year after ending his career in Melbourne. However, he nearly finished his career with the Wolfpack last year. The deal was as good as done before being pulled at the last minute. In recent times, David Argyle has revealed aspirations to sign a top-five rugby union international. If rumours are to be believed, they did hold talks with Quade Cooper, the Australian halfback, last year. And one final tidbit, Kyle Eastmond did hold talks with the Wolfpack too.
Of course, Super League clubs have been throwing their weight around too. Sadly, due to sensitivity issues, many clubs declined the opportunity to reveal players they had missed out on (they probably didn’t want their egos knocking), but insisted it wasn’t fair on players currently playing the game.
But the likes of Cooper Cronk, Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis all fall into the ‘close but no cigar’ category, as does Kyle Eastmond, who decided to stay in rugby union rather than return to the 13 man code.
While we don’t have the full inside scoop on those guys, let’s end on perhaps the most bizarre of all, and with the club we started with.
20 years on from their audacious plans to sign Jonah Lomu, Sheffield were at it again when they made an offer for Australian superstar Greg Inglis in 2015.
Sheffield were all business. They’d starting putting plans together to go full-time – and they’d targeted one of the world’s greatest players as the man to guide them to glory alongside Dom Brambani and Eddie Battye, although we reckon he’d have struggled to budge Menzie Yere out of the side.
“I was driving into work and the guy who was funding Sheffield at the time was a bit of a fantasist for the want of a better word,” explained Ken Jones, who was the club’s chief executive at the time.
“He rang me up and told me he’d spoken to Greg Inglis’ agent. I nearly crashed on the motorway. I asked him if he was being serious and he said yes and that he’d made him an offer.”
“He said he’ll fund it. I told him he might be able to fund it for a week.
“He was explaining how it would help in the new stadium and everything but I just told him he’s crazy and it wouldn’t work. ”
Anyway, I got into work and someone had picked up the phone. Someone said “Ken, we’ve got Fox News Australia on the phone, they want to speak to you.”
“Anyway this Australian was on the phone and said I was live on the radio and wanted to ask me about Greg Inglis.
“He asked me if it was going to happen and I told him there were two chances of it happening – none and bugger all.
“But then all the media stuff came out and I thought at the time it was worth keeping going as long as we could to keep the media interested in Sheffield Eagles.
“I was just gobsmacked that the guy had the balls to get in touch with his agent and make an offer!”