SIX AOTEAROA WARRIORS JUNIORS TO LEARN ABOUT
Aotearoa Warriors are grinding through their summer training and as folks enter the festive period, there are six local juniors to learn about ahead of the 2023 NRL season. This starts with twins Otukinekina (Kina) and Valingi (Lingi) Kepu who are Manurewa/Otahuhu juniors and currently sit in the top-30 squad. Warriors have also listed Ali Leiataua (Papatoetoe), Demitric Sifakula (Otahuhu), Jacob Laban (Randwick) and Zyon Maiu'u (Te Atatu) as players on 'Development Contracts'.
All six have endured immense niggle via the pandemic, specifically the Warriors-Redcliffe era. Both Kepu twins, Leiataua and Maiu'u played in the 2020 SG Ball team, while Laban was too young for that team but featured in Future Warriors footy around the same time. Sifakula made the 2020 NZRL Under 16 Residents team and the first major note about him with Warriors was a yarn late last year about him training with the NRL squad.
The niggle of the Warriors-Redcliffe era can't be understated. No other team had their non-NRL teams swiped away and Warriors went from a NSW Cup team full of Warriors to sprinkling Warriors into a Redcliffe Queensland Cup team. The SG Ball squad vanished and with fewer spots up for grabs, juniors had to leave while others were shipped over to Redcliffe.
Sifakula for example, finished school and moved to Brisbane to join the wider Warriors whanau. The Kepu twins, Leiataua and Maiu'u were cruising with Warriors SG Ball, suddenly their choice to be 'Warriors players' meant moving to Brisbane. Laban shifted from Wellington to Auckland where he joined Maiu'u in the Kelston Boys High School 1st 15, only to then have to move to Brisbane.
While folks were moaning about Warriors juniors, this group of lads endured the Warriors-Redcliffe era and also played key roles in taking the Redcliffe Under 21s team to a final against Townsville. The Kepu twins also made the semi-finals of Hastings Deering Colts in 2021; the Kepu twins featured in consecutive finals campaigns for Redcliffe U21s.
That phase should develop some grit in these Warriors juniors. Folks also moan about how easy things can be for Warriors juniors as they don't have to endure the journey of moving to Australia, living away from home and grinding in the Aussie system. These juniors embraced the Warriors-Redcliffe era and finished that phase as some of the best U21 players in Queensland.
Prior to moving to Brisbane, these lads were all operating as high performance footy youngsters. Leiataua played 1st 15 at King's College, Sifakula played 1st 15 at De La Salle College along with Maiu'u and Laban in the KBHS 1st 15. These four and the Kepu twins have a bunch of NZRL rep honours and featured in various NZRL development camps, providing extra mana to their teenage years.
By nature of their contract situations, the Kepu twins are closest to NRL footy of these six lads. Both are middle forwards and while they dabbled in Q Cup footy for Redcliffe, there were signs of the Warriors-Redcliffe niggle in the Kepu twins not gaining consistent opportunities at Q Cup level. This flips into near-certainty that they will start the season in NSW Cup and their NRL opportunities will like come in 10-20 minute stints off the bench.
Tom Ale (Mt Albert) will add oomph through the middle for Warriors and he sits ahead of the Kepu twins in the depth chart. These lads will need to churn out big minutes in NSW Cup, while building towards their NRL roles where injuries and suspension will ensure opportunities. If the Kepu twins can do their defensive mahi while averaging 10m/run in limited opportunities, this will be an exciting boost for them and the Warriors forward pack.
NRL is kinda silly and there is no salary cap in place for the 2023 season, let alone clarity on the many salary cap details. This means that wahine have no certainty around their NRLW careers and the status of players on 'Development Contracts' remains unclear. The premise of this development bracket in recent years has been six players outside the top-30 who earn a lower wage (reported as $60,000 in previous seasons) and can play NRL after a designated date such as June 30 or round 11.
None of that is sorted for next season and it's easy to see how bonkers this is.
Based on previous years, the four players with development deals for Warriors are likely to be available later in the season. As members of the top-30, the Kepu twins can play round tahi.
Warriors are currently operating with an Under 19 SG Ball team and NSW Cup, meaning that Leiataua, Sifakula, Maiu'u and Laban are likely to settle into the reserve grade grind.
Sifakula, Maiu'u and Laban all forecast as forwards. Their opportunities will be influenced by what positions Mitch Barnett, Dylan Walker, Marata Niukore and Jackson Ford play as this will filter down to NSW Cup.
Sifakula transitioned from 1st 15 midfield to middle forward with Redcliffe U21s. Sifakula was also listed at fullback in an Auckland Vulcans team that played Future Warriors in 2019 which adds further clutter to Sifakula's best role. The yarn about Sifakula training with Warriors NRL late last year described him as a 'utility/ball-playing lock' and his mahi early next season will be crucial to track as we learn about how coach Andrew Webster views Sifakula's best role.
Maiu'u and Laban have primarily played as edge forwards, until dabbling in middle forward mahi with Warriors-Redcliffe. Maiu'u played edge forward for Warriors SG Ball and Auckland Blue in the 2021 NZRL Under 20s competition, then he came off the bench for most of the Redcliffe U21s season. Maiu'u was a loose-forward at 1st 15 level and his power/mobility combo is different to Sifakula's style.
Laban is more likely to focus on edge forward and there is obvious class in his development journey. Laban started in Wellington and featured in various Future Warriors stuff while in Wellington, then he moved to Auckland and KBHS. Then Laban started getting middle forward minutes with Redcliffe U18s which suggests he was big enough and hearty enough to play through the middle for his age-group. Laban finished up U18s and moved into Redcliffe's U21s team, starting on an edge in the final.
If Laban played Mal Meninga Cup this year (U18), he may still be eligible for SG Ball (U19) next year and yet Laban has an NRL development contract. Laban and Sefanaia Cowley-Lupo (Bay Roskill - named in SG Ball squad) are the only Warriors juniors who played U18s and U21s for Redcliffe this year.
Leiataua has all outside back positions covered, although he forecasts as a centre. Leiataua played fullback for Warriors SG Ball and he then played fullback for Auckland Blue U20s while still at school. Leiataua played midfield for King's College 1st 15 and was a consistent presence at centre for Redcliffe U21s this year.
NRL opportunities require outside backs to plug a hole, which often means fullbacks or centres starting as wingers. Leiataua is at the bottom of the depth chart and will have space to develop in NSW Cup. It is worth noting that he played centre in most of his junior rugby league. This is different to Vailea and Berry who didn't have league backgrounds, moving from 1st 15 rugby to a role that requires nuance in defensive reads, spatial awareness and even the simple draw-pass/offload.
Regardless of how much NRL footy these lads play next season, learning about them is crucial to understanding Aotearoa Warriors mahi. Players on development contracts are far cheaper and can offer greater value than top-30 players. Top-30 lads on their first or second full-time contract such as the Kepu twins have a smaller salary cap hit than new signings - or those on their third/fourth contracts who want more money.
Managing the (unknown) salary cap requires players out-playing their salary cap hit and the best way to do this is promoting from within. These six lads aren't regular Warriors juniors, they were forced to move to Australia to keep representing Aotearoa Warriors and performed at high levels against Australian juniors. They provide value to Warriors in building their roster, as well as being the local juniors who will help Warriors re-establish their turangawaewae.
The Six Aotearoa Warriors Juniors To Learn About — The Niche Cache
Aotearoa Warriors are grinding through their summer training and as folks enter the festive period, there are six local juniors to learn about ahead of the 2023 NRL season.
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