13 of the best Overseas players pre-Super League era to grace British rugby league

Zach Holland

If we look back over the years it is fair to say that ever since the start of the Super League we have seen a great number of players come over from the huge heights of the NRL to test their hand within
Super League.

But how about before 1996 and the start of the countries now premier division? Who were some of the international stars to light up British rugby league throughout the 20th century?

In answer to this we look at 13 overseas players who certainly made their impressions felt…

Dean Bell
What more can be said about this man? A character like no other in the history of rugby league, one who was certainly as tough as they came and certainly hard to keep quiet. The former Wigan chairman Maurice Lindsay, who first signed Bell back in 1986, said that Bell was “one of the most important signings the club had ever made” and when you think back to his time there, it is hard to argue that point. In an eight-year stint with the Cherry and Whites, Bell compiled a list of accolades of impressive magnitude, with seven Challenge Cups, six RFL Championships, four Regal trophies and four Lancashire Cups all to his name.

Len Kileen
The first of two South Africans on this list. Kileen was an ever-present danger to sides who would
come up against him during his time with the Saints in the 60s. A winger by trade and an exceptional
ball handler with great speed but had that one extra feather in his cap. The South African’s effortless
goal-kicking became one of his most prized assets.

Frano Botica
In his five-year stint with Wigan, the former New Zealand and Croatian rugby union international became a point scoring machine, surpassing 1,000 points in only his 93 rd game with the club and became the fastest British based player to do so. An extremely versatile player who was fun to watch and famed for his outstanding goal-kicking, becoming one of Wigan’s main centre pieces in a dominant era for the Cherry and Whites in the early to mid-90s.

Brett Kenny
The former Australian international was seemingly a man who could create something out of nothing. Now, even despite only one season with Wigan, it was all that was needed to showcase why Kenny was one of the best in the world at the time. That 1984/85 season with the Lancashire side even proved to be his best yet as a professional, displaying all the class and skill which made him a bonafide star in Australia and the Golden Boot winner for that year.

Graham Eadie
Eadie spent the majority of his career in Australia before coming out of retirement to join an ever-progressive Halifax side in 1985. In three seasons with the West Yorkshire outfit, ‘the Wombat’ helped lead the rough and tough bunch of renegades to Challenge Cup glory. Even with his chunky frame it completely contradicted his ability, showcasing a certain attacking brilliance and solid defensive play that made him one of the sports great fullbacks. The Manly legend’s spell in England showed just why Eadie was the true definition of work hard and play hard. He may have been one great character who loved to live life, but once on the field he laid it all out there.

Mal Meninga
One of the games most iconic and finest ever stars. The ‘Manu Mountain’ was the complete centre, blessed with a size and strength that made coaches drool and his opponents look foolish. The former Souths and Canberra star’s one season showcase in 1984-85 for the Saints saw him tear apart the likes of Wigan and Hull KR in the Lancashire Cup and Premiership finals respectively. Similar to Kenny, Meninga may not have been at St. Helens long but his contribution and impact are still spoken of today.

Tom Van Vollenhoven
Kileen’s partner in crime during their time together at St. Helens in the 50s and 60s. If Kileen was the creator this man was the finisher. The former South African star became the sides greatest try-scoring threat during those eras and by the end of his career with the Merseyside team, Vollenhoven had notched over 300 tries with ease.

Brian Bevan
There are just those certain records in sport that just seem impossible to ever be broken and the Australian’s try-scoring exploits whilst at Warrington could probably be proven to be just that. The record-breaking Warrington legend made his presence felt on the platform of British rugby league during the 40s, 50s and 60s and throughout his time in England became an all-out try scoring freak show. The ‘Wing Wizard’ set the mark for years still to come as he tallied 796 tries in an astonishing 16 years with the Wire.

Wally Lewis
Now, with only ten games under their belt you would think there was no way someone could make the list but the Aussie legend’s short and sweet spell with Wakefield will go down in history as one of sheer quality. After a ban had been lifted on signing Australian players during the 1980s, it was not before long that some of the crème de la crème of the rugby league world would venture over to England. ‘The King’ was no exception, joining Wakefield during the 1983-84 season. It may have been short and sweet, however his creativity, playmaking ability and overall on-field contributions was there for all to see.

Jack McLean
McLean was a former New Zealand rugby union international before switching codes to play for Bradford Northern in 1950. Like Eadie, one should not have been fooled by his size as McLean possessed all the quickness and finishing ability which made him one of the league’s top wingers. In six seasons with the West Yorkshire outfit, his strike rate for the club was more than they could have of asked for, scoring 261 tries in 221 appearances and overall stating his case as one of Bradford’s greatest ever players.

Peter Sterling
Garry Schofield said that Sterling was the best player he ever played with and it is easy to understand why. Although, not blessed with an incredible size or a god given pace, he more than made up for it with his unfathomable organisation and ability to control and dictate a game. The Parramatta and Hull FC legend was the complete workhorse, spending two seasons in England between 1983 and 1985 and led the Airlie Birds to the Challenge Cup final as well as a Yorkshire County Cup win in 1984.

John Ferguson
All you need to do is think to the 1985 Challenge Cup final and how the former Wigan winger was able to just effortlessly glide around Hull FC’s Dane O’Hara to score a remarkable try just tells you what kind of player he was. Despite one season with Wigan, he almost came out with a 100% strike rate, scoring 24 tries in 25 games.

Cliff Lyons
A strong case could be made that Lyons is one of Leeds’ best overseas signings to date. The Indigenous former Australian international is regraded by many as one the sports most natural ever talents. While the Australian league had its off season in 1985, Lyons had stays with both Leeds and Sheffield and made a total 35 appearances and 22 tries in the process. Whilst there, his skill and elusiveness were undeniable, and he certainly made sure his times there were ones the fans would never forget.

Who would make your list of top 13 overseas players pre-Super League era? Let us know in the comments and on social media.