Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: Who Is The Nek Big Improver?

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Imagine going from being a promising NRL winger still sussing out this professional rugby league stuff in 2017, to then being so damn good that you are one of the few players to start all five Tests for Aotearoa Kiwis in 2018. That was Ken Maumalo, my trusty example of the immense improvements in player development since Stephen Kearney came in as coach and starting tinkering with the Aotearoa Warriors staff.

There's no need to break down Maumalo's improvements in any other fashion that the fact that he started all five Kiwis Tests in 2018, mainly because I've discussed them at length in previous scribbles. What interests me heading into the 2019 season isn't about any further improvements for Maumalo, it's all about which players are going to level up like Maumalo did.

This is perhaps my most undercover idea to watch out for 2019, as the mainstream media tend to focus on new recruits, the need to spend money and the players who have departed Mt Smart. Given what we have seen specifically in Maumalo, then factor in even further enhancement of the coaching staff; I'm fairly confident that we will see numerous players take major steps forward in their development.

Isaiah Papali'i leads the group of lads who I've got noted down as possibly showcasing their development. Last year, Papali'i earned an Aotearoa Kiwis call up through consistently doing his job as an edge forward and I'm intrigued to see how that taste of the nek level has influenced a youngster who already has a reputation for his training ethic.

Any Papali'i thoughts need to also focus on what position he plays, because I have a sneaky suspicion that we could see Papali'i play through the middle this season. Tohu Harris has his right edge spot locked down and last season we saw Adam Blair spend a lot of of time at right edge, when Harris and/or Simon Mannering was out injured. Blair then spent a bit of time on an edge for Aotearoa Maori, which is kinda interesting.

In the Junior Warriors, Papali'i primarily played through the middle and his first two years in the Junior Kiwis (2016, 2017) saw him play through the middle. Roger that; 2016 saw Papali'i played 1st 15 rugby and cracked Junior Kiwis ... in the same year!

The combination of development and maybe a change in roles, could see Papali'i shine in very different ways to what we saw last season. There could also be some growing pains in a move to the middle, either way though I'm banking on Papali'i doing a Maumalo.

What's most exciting for Warriors fans is that almost half the squad could do a Maumalo. I highlighted Papali'i to start with because the clear evidence of Warriors player development combines with clear evidence of Papali'i being an impressive young professional athlete. That's undeniable and the combination has me fizzing about Papali'i in 2019. Extrapolate that out to Solomone Kata, Agnatius Paasi, Bunty Afoa, Leivaha Pulu, Peta Hiku, Sam Lisone, Tevita Satae, Ligi Sao and Jazz Tevaga.

Most of those players were better in 2018 than they previously had been, others lacked consistent game time via injuries and others got a kick up the bum in not really playing too much ... because others were simply better via that player development. We can expect all those guys to improve to varying degrees and if their contributions get better/more efficient, then obviously the team hits a nek level. Not to mention someone like Nathaniel Roache coming back into the mix and we can safely assume, again based on what we know about Roache as a young athlete and the Warriors system, that Roache will come back better than he was.

I'm interested in all those guys I highlighted and how they improve this season, making it difficult to single out anyone as being especially funky. Greater competition for top-17 spots and with rather clear weak areas to improve on, make Hiku one of my funkier selections. Hiku has shown that he's got all the tools to be a low key weapon and - based on what we know about the Warriors - it's basically a certainty that Hiku's going to unleash a more well-rounded game in 2019.

Any incremental improvements from Paasi and Afoa, will have a dramatic impact on the Warriors up the guts. I wouldn't say Paasi improved upon arriving at Mt Smart as he was a monster for Gold Coast Titans and he merely carried that into his work with the Warriors last season. Afoa did shine as an improver, almost to the extent of Maumalo after shifting from edge to middle and adding a glug of intensity to the middle.

The vigour Paasi and Afoa run the footy with, as well as their mobility and offloading ability were foundations for their strong work last season. I look forward to seeing how they have added to their respective games over the summer and their collective development could not only fill a void in the middle of the park, but perhaps enhance that middle also.

Expcetations and Aotearoa Warriors aren't exactly best mates. We now have blatant evidence that Mt Smart is a place where you can improve and develop as a player, even as a young man, to the point where we should expect individuals to improve from season to season. That's never a certainty though and as the season approaches, we get closer to finding out who is desperate for game time, demanding selection.

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Peace and love 27.