You will not find many wingers with as much speed as Lome Fa’atau, who became synonymous with blistering pace and evasiveness in his short professional stint in New Zealand. The Samoan representative lit up the flanks for nine years playing for the Hurricanes, Chiefs, Wellington and Taranaki.
Fa’atau’s story is one of the more interesting, with there being a genuine argument his late arrival to the game limited what he could achieve. He specialised in basketball at St. Patrick’s College in Wellington, and did not take the pill seriously until after education with Marist St Pats rugby club. Fast forward to 1999 at the age of 23, Fa’atau was part of the Wellington Lions for the NPC.
The Samoan’s maiden season in Super Rugby came in 2002 at the age of 26 with the ‘Canes. From 2003 until 2006 he appeared in four consecutive semi-finals – three with the Wellington club and one with the Chiefs, who he played for in 2004. Across six seasons Fa’atau crossed for 26 tries, including a competition-high 10 in the 2006 Super 14, where the ‘Canes finished runners-up to a dominant Crusaders outfit.
In and around club rugby, Fa’atau also played in 35 internationals for Manu Samoa, scoring 14 tries.
Fa’atau followed the blueprint of a typical 31-year-old in 2007, departing for Europe after the Rugby World Cup, and joining Glasgow before time with Nice.
Potential was written all over Robbie Fruean when he began his rise in the latter 2000’s. Nicknamed ‘The Champion’, he boasted huge size for a centre which gave him as much power as pace, and made him a real challenge to bring down on defence – just ask Stephen Brett and Piri Weepu.
Fruean started off his career with his home province of Wellington in 2007, and in the same 12 months was named IRB under 19 Player of the Year.
It was not until 2010 when Fruean moved south to red and black country, the world saw his potential begin to flourish. He became a stalwart in the midfield for both the Crusaders and Canterbury, and was the joint-top try scorer in the 2010 ITM Cup with 10.
He continued his upward trend despite falling short of a place in the All Blacks. At 24 years of age he garnered his biggest honour, being named ITM Cup Player of the Year, and helping Canterbury to a fifth consecutive provincial title.
But heart complications began to hinder Fruean’s career, resulting in a major fall in form. Stints with the Chiefs and Hawke’s Bay did little to his stock, and he opted for club rugby in Europe.
By the age of 29, Fruean already had three heart surgeries and ultimately called it quits at the end of 2017.
Hosea Gear was a tad unlucky to hit his peak in an era of good wingers for New Zealand. Though one thing that can never be denied is his exceptional combination of speed and strength (much like his predecessor on this list), which made him a menace on attack as well as a capable big-hitter on defence.
Gear made his professional debut with Poverty Bay in 2002 at the youthful age of 18, before spending time with North Harbour and Wellington in years to come. In 2003 he made his Super Rugby debut with the Hurricanes, as well as his first hit outs for both the New Zealand under 21’s and the Māori All Blacks.
2008 proved to be a special year – as well as assuming a full-time starting role with the ‘Canes, he had a record-breaking season in the Air New Zealand Cup scoring 14 tries, leading to a maiden call-up to the All Blacks.
Two years later featured Gear’s best performances in a black jersey, playing five tests and scoring five tries, including two against Scotland and England in the end of year tour. He mustered a further six test caps in 2012, but made little impression to maintain a spot ahead of Julian Savea and Cory Jane who took over the starting wing positions.
Like many others, Gear headed overseas once his time in New Zealand appeared up, and aside from a short stay with the Chiefs in 2015, that is where he stayed until retirement.
The New Zealand openside flanker battle in the early stages of the 21st century was all but won by Richie McCaw, and it came down to who was second best. For the most part that honour was claimed by Marty Holah.
Hailing from the mighty Waikato, Holah’s 1.84 metre, 101 kg frame, slightly smaller than most loose forwards, had an uncanny ability to scrap for the ball both in tackle and at the breakdown, a skill you could argue he was better at than McCaw in his prime. On top of that he was well-known for his crunching tackles on defence.
Holah became a talisman for the red, yellow and black faithful, playing for Waikato in two tenures from 1999 until 2007, and 2011 until 2014, gaining 87 caps. He also ran out for the Chiefs 81 times from 2001 to 2007.
His first year in the Super 12 coincided with his All Blacks test debut which came against Samoa in 2001. Despite missing out on a good chunk of action, Holah ended up with 36 test caps, mainly coming off the bench as McCaw’s understudy.
Holah departed New Zealand for Ospreys in 2007, where he became a club legend.
James Ryan was regarded by many as the next best lock in the world when he burst onto the rugby scene. But much like Robbie Fruean, other factors took over and cut his career short.
Originally from Christchurch, the tall ginger moved south to attend Otago University and subsequently began his rugby career with the Razorbacks in 2002.
With just nine provincial caps to his name and representation the year prior with the New Zealand under 21’s, Ryan joined the Highlanders in 2005 and was an integral piece of the club’s minor resurgence at the time. Such success resulted in a surprise All Blacks call-up at the age of 22, debuting against Fiji.
He played a further six tests in the black jersey in 2005, placing himself alongside Chris Jack and Ali Williams as New Zealand’s premier locking trio. But his career took a hit – the first of many – in 2006 after suffering a shoulder injury that put him out for six months, and missing the Tri Nations series. He played his final two games in the end of year tour against France and Wales.
The injuries escalated when Ryan suffered a serious knee injury in early 2007. He required three surgeries in the next year, virtually ending his rugby career and forcing him into a break from the game in 2008.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.