Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: Building The Farm vs Sexy Signings

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Prior to an impressive win over Manly Sea Eagles on Friday night, it had been written that the Aotearoa Warriors were stuck in a little roster building hole. As it stands now, the Warriors have Issac Luke and Ligi Sao coming off contract, Blake Ayshford's set to retire and Chris Satae has already signed with Hull FC. Chuck in Solomone Kata making a mid-season switch to play reserve grade footy in Queensland for Easts Tigers (Melbourne Storm's feeder club) and there's not much wiggle room to re-fresh what could be viewed as a stagnant Warriors roster.

No new signings either. The Warriors signed Kodi Nikorima and Josh Curran mid-season, while also being mentioned as possible suitors for any NRL player who is on the market. This has been an odd wrinkle added to the Warriors situation over the past 18 months as they themselves have made it known that they want this player and that player, making offers to anyone who might be keen.

None of the noise about who the Warriors might sign has actually led to an actual signing though and to add to the confusion, most of the Warriors legit signings have come via very little news, whispers or rumours. Under the current management, the Warriors have been far more undercover in recruiting various players and this leaves doubt in my mind about the intentions that the Warriors put out in the public. It's all a bit confusing and my advice is not to expect anything, don't hunt for the rumours and whispers about who the Warriors are chasing.

There is definitely room for the Warriors to sign an established NRL players, most notably a hooker given that the Warriors don't seem to like Issac Luke. I'm not here to rule out signing someone who immediately adds value to the Warriors roster and the Warriors can very easily re-shape their roster in doing so; contracts mean nothing in the NRL.

Signing players feels similar to the Warriors firing the coach however. The Warriors have consistently switched coaches, hence nothing substantial can ever be established and this has been a superficial fix to deeper problems. The Warriors have steadily been able to sign players to come to Aotearoa, whether big recruits or solid job-doers and apart of patches of success, the status-quo has remained. Signing players could definitely be the answer, yet it doesn't seem as though it's the path the Warriors are heading down.

Watching Penirth Panthers defeat Cronulla Sharks on the weekend, only two Panthers in their team of 17 did not come through the Panthers system; James Tamou and Viliame Kikau. The rest of the Panthers, 15 players have either come through the Panthers junior system and even in the case of James Fisher-Harris, the Panthers signed him as a teenager from Northland and then brought him across the ditch to embed him in the Panthers system.

James Maloney wasn't playing on Friday night and because another Panthers junior Jarome Luai was injured, the Panthers handed a debut to 19-year-old Matt Burton (from Dubbo but in the Panthers junior system). Also making his debut in that game was centre Stephen Crichton, another product of the Panthers system and the Panthers also had Spencer Leniu make his debut in the forwards - another product of the Panthers farm.

The Warriors have decent development numbers with 10 of the 17 that played vs Sea Eagles starting the footy journeys with the Warriors. Of those 10 players, Peta Hiku, Agnatius Paasi, Leeson Ah Mau and Ligi Sao had to move to other NRL clubs either after Under 20s or after a few games of NRL with the Warriors, to start to blossom into their careers. Adding David Fusitu'a and Nathaniel Roache into the equation can be countered by adding Issac Luke and Kodi Nikorima; two local juniors vs two recruits.

With the success of the Warriors Under 20s team, we have seen the Warriors usher in their prospects in the past. This was kinda successful, although many of those players were eventually deemed to not be up to NRL standard and are no longer in the NRL. Then there are other players like Marata Niukore who has established himself in the Parramatta Eels team since leaving Mt Smart, dig deeper and you'll find someone like Sio Siua Taukeiaho who has flourished with Sydney Roosters.

The Warriors have brought players into the NRL and had success with those players, while also seeing some leave and manifest their own success. Many have left the Warriors and done absolutely nothing in the NRL as well, making it difficult to come to one conclusion other accepting that sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Something has changed though and the Warriors have established a strong farm system, with strong footy people, thus laying the pipelines down to possibly move into a Penrith Panthers type of set up.

Don't stress about folks like Dylan Brown (Eels), Braden Hamlin-Uele (Sharks), Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Storm), Joseph Tapine (Raiders) or any other talented footy player from Aotearoa by-passing the Warriors. There is enough talent in Aotearoa, from rugby league or rugby union backgrounds, to fill the Warriors cups and also NRL clubs cups. Abundance, not lack or scarcity. The Warriors have however made major moves to lock in more talented prospects and I view this as the most exciting and effective way to shape their roster moving forward.

I've documented the moves the Warriors have made in recruiting juniors at length over the past 12 months. From recruiting a kid named Rocco Berry to having seven players from the Aotearoa Residents Under 18 wider squad on their roster and then even the odd little nuggets like establishing connections with Rotorua Boys' High School, or continuing to enjoy the rewards of 1st 15 rugby schools; the Warriors have made moves to ensure that they at least have something close to the best rugby league farm in Aotearoa with tentacles now genuinely spreading throughout all of Aotearoa.

This season we have already seen Patrick Herbert move up from reserve grade. While Herbert isn't a product of the Warriors system, he came to the Warriors to earn a debut and the same applies to Adam Pompey. Along with Chanel Harris-Tavita, they have generally looked comfortable at this level. Ken Maumalo and Bunty Afoa have been standout performers in terms of development and while Isaiah Papali'i hasn't been at that Maumalo/Afoa level, Papali'i has settled into the grind of NRL footy.

Folks like Hayze Perham (already made his debut), Paul Turner, Lewis Soosemea, Setu Tu, Tyler Slade, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard, Phillip Makatoa, Sean Mullany and Preston Riki could all step up to NRL over the next season or so. All of those players apart from Mullany (returned to Auckland from Cowboys ahead of this season) and Makatoa (spent time with Roosters but returned mid-way through last season), have come through the Warriors and could contribute to the NRL team if they continue to develop as prospects.

Jackson Frei and Josh Curran were signed from Roosters, now sitting in the same category as those named above. While Leivaha Pulu will be eager to ensure that his NRL career doesn't sizzle out and demand selection in the NRL team. By leaning more heavily into promoting this young wave, the Warriors will be able to better absorb the ins and outs of NRL footy as well as better managing their salary cap.

It remains to be seen how the transition away from Jersey Flegg (U20) to SG Ball (U18) impacts the Warriors farm, however there is no shortage of players in the Warriors Flegg team who will kick on and step up to reserve grade next season. The Warriors defeated last-placed Sea Eagles this weekend 46-6 and did so with what has to be considered their 5th-6th tier halves combination in Brody Tamarua and Casey Smith; Tamarua is a skillful forward and Smith dabbled in halves footy earlier this season but has recently been playing centre.

That's because Sione Moala, William Fakatoumafi and Paul Turner were unavailable. Turner, Slade, Makatoa, Mullany and Tom Ale have all played reserve grade this season despite being Flegg eligible and while it's impossible to predict who from the Flegg squad is going to step up and become NRL players for the Warriors, there ain't no shortage of options. Factor in 24 players being part of that Future Warriors game vs Newcastle Knights, after 23 players were named for a previous game vs Auckland Vulcans earlier in the year.

I'd suggest that there are probably 30-ish players in that Future Warriors bracket. Then you have the Flegg team and reserve grade team and as you learn more about the talent in those respective teams, their pedigree and where they have come from, a large footy farm becomes visible. That is how I'd like the Warriors to move forward and based on the club's investment in this farm, or pathways, I believe that the Warriors are laying the foundations to be a top-tier development club.

As it should be. Sure, signing players from Australian clubs or bringing players back to Aotearoa gets the headlines and gets folks talking. The Warriors may still plug holes by making signings over the summer, however they have all the tools and pieces in place to promote from within and no one should be surprised when the majority of a Warriors team has come through the Warriors system.

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Peace and love 27.