Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Departure marks end of era

John Ackland. Photo / Sarah Ivey
John Ackland. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Though their season rolls on for another week, it's the end of an era for the Junior Warriors.

The impressive 58-6 win over the Roosters on Friday night keeps their 2013 season alive but the impending departure of coach John Ackland, after four years at the helm of the National Youth Cup side, will break the last strand going back to the inaugural Toyota Cup season in 2008.

Ackland's shift from Mt Smart follows Tony Iro's exit at the end of last season and Ivan Cleary's move to Penrith in 2012 and means most of the brains trust that guided the Juniors through this successful period is no longer at the club.

Iro was the foundation coach of the NYC team (2008-09) while Cleary had been at the club since 2005.

It can't be underestimated how important the under-20s competition has been for the Warriors, and league in this country as a whole. Twenty-five players have graduated from the NYC to the NRL with the Warriors, from the the early days of Ben Matulino, Russell Packer and Kevin Locke, to the grand final alumni of Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor and Ben Henry and recent arrivals Ngani Laumape and Konrad Hurrell.

The team has built a culture of success, being the only side to reach the finals in all six years of the competition, and the 2010 and 2011 grand final wins were the first trophies brought to the club.

"The competition has given the game here a great belief in its own talent," says Ackland. "To play well with just our guys - just Kiwis - has been a shot in the arm for the sport."

The NYC competition has also created pathways that didn't previously exist. Before the under-20s competition, it wasn't always easy for the Warriors to convince talented youngsters to stay on these shores. Often they would be lured across the Tasman, where they could sign for Australian clubs and get game time in the age group SG Ball and Jersey Flegg competitions.

The Warriors still produced plenty of homegrown players; Simon Mannering, Jerome Ropati, Sam Rapira and Lance Hohaia graduated from the Bartercard Cup competition but it wasn't a clear-cut process.

"The NYC competition gave us a place where we could place our kids," remembers Iro. "We had our development squads, we had the Auckland Lions and we had Fox [Memorial] footy but it was still difficult to keep kids here. It also got young players used to the travel demands and gave us a measuring stick; we always had the athletes, now we had a genuine benchmark against the Australians."

It enables more players to have a shot at an NRL career - although less than 15 per cent of NYC players make the step up - as they can test their skills and be in the shop window for a prolonged period. It has also proved an attractive vehicle in attracting young rugby union talent, with the likes of Laumape, Hurrell and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck making the switch soon after leaving school.

But will the success continue? Indications are that it should. Almost all of this year's team will be available in 2014, giving rookie coach Stacey Jones a smooth transition into the role. Auckland, as it has done for over a century, will continue to produce top league players for the club.

Matt Elliott has put an increased focus on the Vulcans since he arrived, but the results and performance of the Juniors will remain vital.

During his tenure, Ackland has often been criticised for a simplistic gameplan, which, so the theory goes, has meant players arrive at the higher levels physically ready but lacking game smarts and skills. Still, he has achieved great results in a competition that gets more difficult every year.

The ultimate judgment will remain how many players can successfully progress to the top level. For players coming into first grade, often it depends on who is around them; players like Matulino, Locke and Packer were fortunate to have the experienced Steve Price and Ruben Wiki alongside them, while Hurrell and Ben Henry had a tougher initiation in an inexperienced squad last year. It's also important that the club continue to back the right horses. Since 2008 they have got most of the calls right - keeping the majority of the players that they wanted.

Peta Hiku, now thriving at Manly, was a major misjudgment. He finished last season as the Junior Warriors player of the year but the club had been slow to offer him a senior contract and the Sea Eagles swooped. Hiku would be invaluable to the squad with his ability to play across the backline. Sosaia Feki has blossomed since he joined Cronulla while Matt Robinson has done well at the Panthers under Cleary.

Apart from that trio, few other former Junior Warriors have stood out at other clubs while the likes of Siuatonga Likiliki, Nafe Seluini, Ligi Sao and Constantine Mika have yet to make a sustained impact at NRL level.

The Junior Warriors play the Bulldogs on Friday night (7.45pm) in the first preliminary final. If they win, they will play the Panthers or Raiders in the Grand Final on October 6.

- Herald on Sunday

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