Warriors debutant Isaiah Papali'i could have chased an All Blacks jersey but the talented teenager knew before leaving high school that his future lay in rugby league.

The 18-year-old back-rower enjoyed his first taste of NRL football when he replaced Warriors vice-captain Simon Mannering early in the second-half of Sunday's 26-22 win over Newcastle at Mt Smart Stadium.

Papali'i's first grade initiation was a difficult one, with Knights forward Jack Stockwell powering through his combined tackle with Bodene Thompson to score as the visitors launched a spirited comeback, but he enjoyed three touches and made 13 tackles in a solid 21 minute outing.

"It was a dream come true," said Papali'i.


"I grew up watching the NRL and to get on the field and actually get a crack at it was definitely a memory to cherish forever.

"It was another step up from the trials and definitely a step up from the under 20s.

"I'm keen to get more of a taste of it and keep on getting more experience and game fitness."

He looks set to enjoy a long career in the 13-man code but could easily have pursued a Super Rugby contract and All Blacks selection after spearheading Mt Albert Grammar's National First XV championship victory last year and winning the schoolboy Player of the Year award.

The multi-talented athlete also turned out for the Warriors NYC side last season before winning selection for the Junior Kiwis, and that success followed two gold medal winning efforts at the 2014 Oceania Power Lifting Championships in New Caledonia.

Rugby scouts were certainly keen on securing his services and he was shoo-in to make the New Zealand Schoolboys rugby side but was ruled ineligible once the Warriors signed him to a three-year deal.

However, rugby was never his main passion and more of a way for the aspiring Personal Trainer to stay busy, in between workouts at his parents CrossFit gym in Avondale.

"I managed to have a big season last year," he said. "Just because of the school I went to, I got put into a rugby program, but I knew coming out of that I wanted to play league.

"I wasn't too torn between the two (codes), I was more ready for league straight out of school.

"Signing with the Warriors before I started my last year, kind of undercut everything. They (scouts) knew what I was doing so I didn't get too much hassle about it but my school supported me well so it was a good year."

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney was pleased with Papali'i's first-up performance and rapid progression through the preseason.

Together with 19-year-old five-eighth Ata Hingano, who looked right at home in just his third first grade appearance, the pair are examples of what Kearney hopes the Warriors development system will continue to produce.

"It was a tough one to throw him in there for," said Kearney.

"Along with Ata, it was a real pressure cooker out there for them, but he did really well.
"I know there was a mistake he made down on the try-line but he's done wonderfully well during the preseason and trials.

"For us as a football club that's what we want to encourage, these young kids that are coming through our club, is to give them the opportunity to be better NRL players."