A who's who of rugby league will feature as part of the Opening Ceremony for the Rugby League World Cup Opening Ceremony tonight at Melbourne Stadium.
In celebrating the 14 nations from across the globe set to contest the Rugby League World Cup, rugby league royalty including Johnathan Thurston (Australia), Petero Civoniceva (Fiji), Ruben Wiki (New Zealand), Hazem El Masri (Lebanon) and Garry Schofield OBE (England) are among those that will carry their country's flags.
The Opening Ceremony will be held in Melbourne as the curtain raiser to the first game, Australia v England, and will celebrate the world's best converging for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, through the stories of the different cultures, different countries and different tribes that make up the players and fans participating in the Tournament.
Headlining the entertainment will be homegrown talent Casey Donovan, one of the country's most versatile indigenous entertainers. The youngest ever winner of Australian Idol at 16 years old, Donovan will be joined by performers and traditional dancers representing the three host nations – Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
RLWC 2017 CEO, Andrew Hill, said the opening ceremony was all about celebrating the world's best coming together to enjoy the game they all love, rugby league.
“It's great to have so many rugby league icons representing all 14 nations as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Rugby League World Cup.
“We are so pleased to have each country represented by a past player and/or coach that has a genuine connection to that country.
“We are proud to have Australian talent such as Casey Donovan along with performers from our host nations Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, celebrating the host nations, teams, players and fans that all make the Rugby League World Cup such a unique Tournament,” he said.
The pre-game show will also celebrate the grassroots connection of the game with children from Victorian Rugby League junior clubs walking hand in hand with the country ambassadors. Each junior player will walk out with a player from a country that has a connection to their own family.
Australian Flag Ambassador – Johnathan Thurston
Two-time premiership winner for Canterbury Bulldogs and Cowboys, Thurston has 39 Australian caps and played in two World Cups. He has played as part of the Indigenous All Stars six times.
New Zealand Flag Ambassador – Ruben Wiki ONZM
The first New Zealander to play more than 300 NRL matches, Wiki also played a record 55 Tests for the Kiwis.
Papua New Guinea Flag Ambassador – Ray Thompson
Retired Cowboys player, born in Cairns and of indigenous and PNG heritage. Thompson represented the Kumuls in four Tests for PNG and has played for the Indigenous All Stars.
English Flag Ambassador – Garry Schofield OBE
Played 49 Tests for Great Britain between 84-94, his first as an 18-year-old and several as captain. Won the Golden Boot in '90 (voted the world's best player), 3 seasons with Balmain and one with Wests in Australia between English seasons.
Fiji Flag Ambassador – Petero Civoniceva
Born in Suva Fiji, Civoniceva played 6 Tests for Fiji and captained the Bati at the 2013 World Cup. He played 45 tests for Australia and 33 State of Origins for Queensland.
French Flag Ambassador – Louis Bonnery
French legend of rugby and rugby league, Bonnery is former French coach and player. He is a member of the commentary team for BeIN Sports at RLWC2017.
Italian Flag Ambassador – David Riolo
After representing Italy at the 1999 Mediteranean Cup, Riolo was captain-coach of the Azzurri during the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup and played for the Steelers & the Paramatta Eels.
Irish Flag Ambassador – Pat Richards
Born in Australia to Irish parents, Richards played 7 Tests for Ireland and was the first Australian to score more than 1,000 points for Wigan, with whom he won two premierships. Also a member of the 2005 Wests Tigers grand final winning team.
Lebanese Flag Ambassador – Hazem El Masri
Born in Tripoli Lebanon, he played in the premiership winning Canterbury Bulldogs team (2004). Played 8 Tests for Lebanon and also represented Australia in one Test. Holds the record for most points in the ARL/NRL competition with 2418 points.
Samoa Flag Ambassador – Tony Puletua
Puletua played 9 Tests for Samoa, as well as 22 tests for New Zealand, and was a key member of Penrith's 2003 premiership winning team.
Scottish Flag Ambassador – Ben Fisher
As well as his 15 Tests for Scotland, Fisher played for North Sydney, Sydney Roosters, Halifax, Hull KR, Catalans and London Broncos.
Tongan Flag Ambassador – Solomon Haumono
Born in New Zealand of Tongan parents, Haumono played 2 Tests for Tonga while enjoying stints with Manly, Canterbury, Balmain Tigers, St George and London Broncos.
USA Flag Ambassador – Clint Newton
Born in South Carolina, USA, Newton played 4 Tests for USA and was a senior member of their 2013 World Cup campaign, while also playing for Newcastle Knights, Melbourne Storm, Penrith Panthers and Hull KR.
Welsh Flag Ambassador – Ollie Olds
Represented Wales in eight Tests and played for Leeds, York City, South Wales as well as South Logan in the Queensland Cup.