David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

Rugby: Huge Kiwi presence keeps rookie playmaker close to home

Te Maire Martin says his decision to join Penrith was a no-brainer. Photo / Getty Images
Te Maire Martin says his decision to join Penrith was a no-brainer. Photo / Getty Images

Manly became a favourite club for many New Zealand league fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of the strong Kiwi influence and Penrith could soon become the modern-day equivalent.

Incredibly, the Panthers have 18 Kiwi-born players on their books.

It's enough for them to lay claim to being a contemporary Manly Warringah, with the Sea Eagles having developed a cult following here during the Winfield Cup era, thanks to the presence of former Kiwis coach Graham Lowe, and players like Darrell Williams, Tony and Kevin Iro, Matthew Ridge and Craig Innes.

The strong Kiwi flavour at Penrith played a big part in them securing boom rookie playmaker Te Maire Martin ahead of reigning premiers North Queensland.

A rising star at Wests Tigers over the past two years, Martin was tempted to sign with the Cowboys this season, where he could have learned under Queensland and Kangaroos halfback Johnathan Thurston.

However, the prospect of more game time and the chance to join a large contingent of New Zealand-born players made his decision to join Penrith a "no-brainer".

"It's good to have that bond with a few Kiwis around and that's sort of why I didn't end up going up to the Cowboys," said Martin. "We've got Corey Harawira-Naera and James Fisher-Harris. Also we've got Peta Hiku and Dean Whare, two international centres. And Zach Dockar-Clay is one of my good mates, so it was a no-brainer there.

"It's good to have mates and feel more comfortable staying around people who are kind of like a family."

Almost half of Penrith's Kiwi contingent are currently playing in the wider NRL squad while, at the other end of the scale, 16-year-old Hayze Perham was last year plucked from Rotorua Boys High's first XV to join Penrith's under-18s SG Ball side on a two-year deal.

Former Warriors back-rower Elijah Taylor, who was enticed to Sydney's west by former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary, is among the elder statesmen of the New Zealand tribe even at 26.

"It's great to see young Kiwi players coming through the system," he said. "There's a lot in the 20s, and Te Maire and Zach have come to the club and gelled right in.

"Fisher-Harris and Harawira-Naera, two Maori boys from Northland, they've been killing it."

Despite strong competition, Martin was a big chance of forcing his way into the Tigers' line-up this year, but was desperate to further his football education under some senior guidance.

The fact Thurston still has years left in the game, and the appeal of training alongside veteran Panthers' halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, were also factors behind his move.

"That's exactly what I said to the [Wests Tigers] CEO and [coach] Jason Taylor," he said. "I said, 'I want to learn from experienced halves that have been around for a while' and [Tigers' halves] Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses are my age.

"With Thurston being the best player in the world, I was really close to going there. But then I thought, 'he's got a few years in him, and Soward and Wallace are just as good'."

Martin's live-wire running game saw him dominate the under-20s competition and his promising form earned him a place in the Kiwis' train-on squad ahead of last year's tour of England.

He did not make the final squad but lived up to the hype in his NRL debut against Brisbane two weeks ago, scoring an important try and calmly slotting the match-winning field goal.

The Tokoroa-born 20-year-old says Soward and Wallace are helping him hone his game management skills and develop greater poise.

"That's exactly what they're doing. What I need is that control and the ability to grind a team out with good kicks and basic stuff.

"Soward's got a gun kicking game and Wallace just does freakish stuff himself. I'm just trying to take in stuff from both of them and it's just going to make me a better player."

- NZ Herald

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