I was there when Ruben Wiki arrived.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon at Bruce in March 1994. The Raiders we’re hosting the Knights, and an 11 year old version of your humble correspondent sat on the hill that would years later become Bay 72, hoping to see evidence that the promise of 1993 would be fulfilled in 1994.
It’s odd to think now, but Wiki wasn’t a sure thing when his career began. The Raiders were a star studded outfit to be sure. There were 12 current or future internationals in the side that day (and more on grand final day). But funnily enough there were questions in the back five at that point of the season, none more important than who would be Mal Meninga’s long-term partner in the centres. Mullins, Croker, Albert Fullivai, Nagas, and Nadruku (then injured) all figured to be part of the mix. A young Ruben Wiki had made three appearances in 1993, none which I remember. Could Wiki be the permanent partner Meninga had been searching for since Daley moved up to the fancy end of town?
That question was decided when Wiki found the try-line on four different occasions that day. Memory is funny, but I still can see him stepping off his left back into the middle, obliterating tacklers on his way to the try line that day; a turn of pace, a slab of power, impossible to bring down. It was reminiscent of what would occur so many times throughout his career.
Bruising runs, pace and agility, not to mention simply terrifying defence. It was quite a mix. Wiki took off where Meninga’s career was ending. There were so many commonalities. Both had physical power that outgunned anyone that played opposite. And like Meninga, Wiki had an amount of pace that was almost never seen in a man his size. If Mal was the ideal for what the centre would become in the modern game, Wiki was the new version. The idea of them playing on the same side of the field (as centres often did back them) must have given defenders cold sweats. It probably still does.
There would be a fight for his signature early on. Well that’s not quite accurate – both the Raiders and the incoming Warriors got his signature, and Wiki had to fight in the courts to stay in Canberra. For a man that had barely established himself in the first string team, it was a battle royale to keep him in Canberra. As a child at the time, I didn’t understand how this mess had been created, but I was desperate for him to stay. It was already clear he would be important to Canberra. How right that turned out to be.
Wiki stayed, and cemented himself as a legend in Canberra, ending up playing 224 games for the Raiders (312 all up). What started as a nice to have, a additional benefit on top of a roster full of stars became more and more important. As the times changed his importance to Canberra grew, a symbol of a time when the Raiders were giants, evidence that greatness was still present in Canberra. But because he played for a Canberra side that were no longer the game-changing world-beaters of years past, he was sometimes forgotten by a rugby league public more focused on the the next thing rather than what already was.
He transitioned to the forwards in an attempt to get closer to the ball (it’s never a bad idea to get your best players the ball more often). He played in the middle with the same ferocity he played on the edge, tearing through any defender that didn’t have the desire to tackle and running bag of bricks.
And he was consistent. When people talk about consistency sometimes it can be a backhanded compliment, recognition that you did the boring things well for a long time. But Wiki was consistently brilliant. Even in his later years in Canberra and New Zealand he was still laying out attackers, still able to step around and run over defenders seemingly at will. I mean just check out what he did to Sia Soliola.
I never felt he got his due during his playing days, and to be honest, sometimes I even failed to give him appropriate due for his greatness. He was a man who was consistently great over 15 years of football, dominating in multiple positions for over 300 games. He won a premiership, made a mediocre side competitive and captained his country to a tri-series victory over the always favoured Australians. There was little that could be done on the rugby league field that he didn’t do.
I was also there the day Ruben Wiki left.
I don’t actually remember the game at all that night (though apparently the Raiders put 60 on Souths). I do however remember being one of the many that stood around the edge of Bruce as Wiki did a lap of honour. The emotion in his face was obvious, struggling to hold back tears as he moved on from the Canberra phase in his career. The Warriors’ fight had taken ten years but he’d eventually agreed to go home. It was devastating for Raiders fans to see him go and on Wiki’s face that night you could see it wasn’t a decision he made easily.
On Wednesday the National Rugby League will put Ruben Wiki in the hall of fame. When Wiki left Canberra he was already a legend. I’m glad to see this being recognised by the rest of rugby league.