Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: Where The Warriors Are Heading

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Lost in all the mangroves of Aotearoa Warriors shenanigans of the past few months has been the shifting sands of salary cap management. Of course, this is was highly evident in the Shaun Johnson saga as the root of that was to offer a splash more efficiency in their top-end spending and that idea got plenty of attention, yet it was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of greater changes at lower levels.

I dubbed this interview with new reserve grade coach Nathan Cayless as a Christmas present to Warriors fans, because it relayed a message of strong foundation being built. Perhaps these foundations are unseen to many who only view the Warriors as an NRL team and while the attention has been zoned in on that top-end, as Cayless says; "the way the club has set themselves up over the last couple of years has been very interesting".

Prior to that, Cayless rattled off a couple names in the coaching staff and as Niche Cache readers know all too well the Warriors have assembled a staff that can best be described as 'really good people'. Then Cayless goes to on say that athletically, kids coming through the Warriors and in Aotearoa are fantastic, but don't quite have the rugby league nous that those in Australia have. Completely understandable given that kids in Australia come through far more established rugby league pathways, thus better preparing them to perform at the highest level.

What Cayless wouldn't say, is that he's been brought over to help change that. I won't go on my big yarn about why the coaching appointments are splendid, but with those above ideas from Cayless in mind, bringing over Cayless and Greg Boulous (also from the Parramatta system) to guide the younger players through their development is clearly a move to build stronger foundations. Chuck in all the other appointments like Peter O'Sullivan who has the job of recruiting the kids and we now have a very serious development pathway system being built, if not already in action.

Those are foundations - the iceberg beneath the surface. How does that then apply to the salary cap then and how has establishing those foundations influenced in parting ways with Shaun Johnson? This is a fairly simple shift that is most evident in what Penrith Panthers have done under Phil Gould and while I'm not sure that it's a like for like case, the same overall theory of genuinely making the most of the large junior base that the Warriors have access to and managing their salaries to counter the top-end spending applies.

Every season, the Panthers usher in young players to fill the spots of players who have departed for more dosh. This summer, it's no different as Tyrone Peachey was lured to Gold Coast Titans who had money to spend and Trent Merrin was lured to the Super League with a long-term deal. Not to mention Corey Harawira-Naera and Christian Chrichton who are off to the Bulldogs, while Adam Keighran left the Panthers reserve grade team to link up with the Warriors.

The Panthers have recruited players from other clubs, but not exactly guys who will fill the boots of Peachey, Merring or Harawira-Naera. What the Panthers will instead rely on is everyone moving up a level, with juniors taking up the lower-end positions and this results in the Panthers not having to spend money on like for like replacements. The bulk of their salary cap is spent on re-signing their local juniors and the key here is to make the most of players while they are on their initial contract; before they earn new deals.

Rewarding those local juniors breeds a wholesome culture, a sense of loyalty and good vibes. Not only do you have more players in the NRL squad who have grown up at the club, but you may save some a wee bit of money in keeping those local products at the club. The key factor here is having the player base feeding into the club and then, strong structures and systems in place to ensure that those juniors can actually step up to NRL.

The Warriors are only starting out on this journey. They had to lure veterans and good culture fits to Aotearoa, or back to Aotearoa, to help in building the foundations and now we are seeing very specific pieces being put in place to strengthen the pathways.

Last season we saw the likes of Bunty Afoa, Isaiah Papali'i, Ken Maumalo and Jazz Tevaga show incredible value for money as the were consistently in the top-17 and performed at a high level. The leaps forward in player development made with regards to these lads helped their play, exceed their salary cap value and this is the core fundamental idea that these foundations are built around.

Agnatius Paasi also exceeded his financial value and had it not been for injury, Leivaha Pulu probably would have as well. Given that Peta Hiku probably wasn't on big money, I'd suggest that his versatility and job-doing nature also fits this mould. With this in mind, it's all about finding the balance between hitting the mark with the top-end players and then getting the most out of players coming through the club at the lower-end.

Right now, the top-end is fabulous. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck isn't just the 2018 MVP, he's also the club captain and a model leader, a bargain on any deal less than a milly. Tohu Harris, Blake Green and Adam Blair along with Tuivasa-Sheck are not only being paid for their on-field exploits, they are being paid to lead the playing group; what's the value of playing a major role in helping to shape the future of a club?

There are many moving parts to this and as we've seen with the old Warriors, you can't take this approach if your younger players can't contribute strongly at NRL level or better still, contribute past their value. Quite simply; you can't tell Shaun Johnson to test the market unless you have everything set up to find value within the club and as I said at the time, it's all about leverage.

The Warriors have leverage now because like the Panthers, if a player gets a better offer elsewhere, it's all good. You either match that offer because that player is worth it, or you give yourself some salary cap wiggle room knowing that your systems will produce someone to step up. Up until this point, we've never seen an Aotearoa Warriors club that has (at the very least) the mindset of knowing that they can produce players who will step up.

While names like Mitchell Moses, Corey Norman and Kodi Nikorima were mentioned as replacements for Johnson, none have been signed for 2019. Someone may still be signed, however I'd suggest that this is the next level after the likes of Afoa, Papali'i and Maumalo exceeding their salary cap value, of having supreme confidence in the system to produce a replacement. As long as you have everything in place, why spend the money elsewhere other than upgrading the local juniors?

We have become so accustomed to the Warriors having to spend big on getting players to Aotearoa, making the tip of the iceberg look lovely and inviting because beneath the surface, that iceberg was weak. Now, there is a supreme focus on building the lower levels up to ensure that every year, someone or a few players step up to fill a hole in the NRL team. A cycle of development that further entrenches the idea of the Aotearoa Warriors, being the Aotearoa Warriors.

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Peace and love 27.