Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

NRL: Team out of the box gave Wellington a year never repeated.

Daniel Richardson looks at golden period in rugby league with talent pool that sent NRL some of its best

Warriors captain Simon Mannering was in the 2004 team that produced many famous names. Photo / Greg Bowker
Warriors captain Simon Mannering was in the 2004 team that produced many famous names. Photo / Greg Bowker

New Zealand has long been seen as a rich talent pool for NRL teams, although Wellington has more often than not been considered a vastly shallower pool than Auckland.
Except in 2004.

Seven members of the Wellington under-18 side from that year went on to play in the NRL - Simon Mannering (Warriors), Sika Manu (Storm and Panthers), Isaac Luke (Rabbitohs), John Te Reo (Broncos), Tim Natusch (Knights), Alan Shirnack (Tigers) and Marvin Karawana (Knights) - while a handful of others played for the Junior Kiwis or in reserve grade.

They easily won the under-18 national championships in 2003 and 2004, the first time a Wellington side had won such a title.

Josh Davis and Wiremu Weepu eventually turned out in the NSW Cup, while Manu Weepu has since played league for Canterbury and provincial rugby for West Coast.

Joseph Parekura was a Junior Kiwi in 2004, Hanan Laban - son of rugby commentator Ken - played Jersey Flegg for the Newcastle Knights and had a stint playing in France, while Tuwharetoa Whakatihi and Julian Enoka both went on to play in Australia with limited success.

Manu Leiataua also found a home playing ITM Cup rugby for Harbour.

Tokai Nohotima, Hayden Magele, Ben Taraeka and Desta Buchanan all turned out for club sides in Wellington after their junior rep days were over, while the whereabouts of a handful of others couldn't be traced.

It's unlikely such a strong team will surface again from Wellington, with most of the city's best talent now signed to NRL clubs at 15 or 16.

Leighton Karawana, who coached the side in 2003 and 2004, knew it was a special group of boys when he helped out a couple of years before when son Marvin was in the side.

This group of players set the tone for the likes of Warriors prop Ben Matulino, Panthers second-rower Matt Robinson and Storm forward Tohu Harris to push into the NRL.

Usually, age-group league in New Zealand is an Auckland benefit, the other regions providing teams to try to test sides north of the Bombay Hills. But for a couple of years after the turn of the millennium, Wellington broke the mold.

"A lot of those [NRL] scouts were starting to talk to our players back in '04 once they found out we were winning pretty consistently ... in some of those games and so whispers started filtering through," Karawana Snr said.

"Before it was just them going to Auckland picking all the Auckland players. That '03 side made those scouts from Australia think 'oh shit, is this a one-off or what?'. But when the '04 team started dominating those Auckland teams, obviously they started looking a bit more closely at these Wellington boys."

The 2004 team was one out of the box and Mannering fondly recalled his brief stint in Wellington.

"I came up from Nelson as a bit of an outsider. It was pretty much my first real crack at rugby league. I played a bit in Nelson. The coach from Nelson [Paul Bergman] went over to Wellington and told me to come along," Mannering said.

"When I started training with the team, I was new to the game but I was like, 'man, these guys are pretty sharp'. I knew a couple of them already had NRL contracts but were still finishing school. That was my first taste of rugby league, with this team of guys who ended up being great players. I really enjoyed my time. We went on to win it pretty easily. I was pretty lucky to be a part of it."

And in what will likely be an amusing anecdote in Mannering's book, if he ever writes one, he slept on Bergman's couch when he arrived in Wellington. "Paul's couch? [I was there for a] couple of months. Doing a bit of work, playing footy ... I was pretty young and living away from home for the first time.

"I owe a lot to Paul. He was really good to me. It's fair to say I probably wouldn't be here now if he didn't go out on a limb and give me a crack."

Mannering went on to make his Warriors debut in 2005 and now captains his club and country.

He will lead the Warriors out on to Westpac Stadium to meet the Bulldogs tonight in their round nine NRL clash and that venue also holds special significance for that 2004 Wellington under-18 side.

It was there they captured the national crown as they beat an Auckland team that included Manu Vatuvei and Cooper Vuna in a curtain-raiser to a Warriors versus Bulldogs NRL game on April 16, 2004.

Marvin Karawana, who played 34 games for the Knights from 2007 to 2011 before returning to Wellington last year to make his provincial rugby debut for Hawke's Bay in the ITM Cup, said that 2004 side was a special lot.

"It was a pretty good side and I don't know how many teams, especially from Wellington, have had that sort of success with converting over to the NRL and over to Aussie. And being able to win two national championships too, so it was a pretty fair side."

Manu spent time in Brisbane before making his 2007 NRL debut with the Storm but is with the Panthers this year and said he would always remember his first encounter with Luke, who used to play in the backs before switching to dummy-half.

"He came down from Taranaki and we didn't know him and he came in to the trials and I think one of my first runs I ran in to him and he put me on my back. I was like 'I'm not running at him again'," Manu laughs.

"He was the best tackler in our team ... . he's the smallest bloke but he's a real bully on the field."

Luke is of course now the starting hooker for the Rabbitohs and Manu, Mannering and Luke were all part of New Zealand's World Cup-winning campaign in 2008.

The final word goes to the team's coach, Leighton Karawana. "I think Ken Laban summed it up well when he [said] the '04 team would be probably the strongest Wellington team ever in the history of Wellington Rugby League."

Wellington U18, 2004
Simon Mannering, Marvin Karawana, Sika Manu, Isaac Luke, Hanan Laban, Josh Davis, Tim Natusch, Alan Shirnack, John Te Reo, Manu Leiataua, Wiremu Weepu, Manu Weepu, Tuwharetoa Whakatihi, Joseph Parekura, Hanan Laban, Julian Enoka, Pita Kemp, Kurt Samuels, Lale Ausage, Tokai Nohotima, Hayden Magele, Ben Taraeka, Desta Buchanan


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