Stacey Jones and rugby league history were inextricably linked throughout his playing career and now he’s in line to achieve a first as a coach when the Vodafone Junior Warriors face Brisbane in Sunday’s NYC grand final at ANZ Stadium in Sydney (1.50pm local time; 3.50pm NZT).
In his rookie year as Vodafone Junior Warriors coach he has already broken new ground by guiding the side from eighth spot all the way to the grand final.
And if the Vodafone Junior Warriors can ice their exceptional late-season run with success on Sunday, Jones will achieve a far more significant breakthrough as the first former Vodafone Warrior to coach the club to a premiership (and do so in the Vodafone Warriors’ 20th season in existence).
Jones (#24) is only the second ex-Vodafone Warrior to coach one of the club’s own teams, the first being Ivan Cleary (#73) who led the Vodafone Warriors to the NRL grand final in 2011 before falling to Manly.
Until now there has been only one other instance of a team outside the top four reaching the NYC decider; that was the Vodafone Junior Warriors last year when they progressed to the grand final after finishing sixth but lost to Penrith.
It would be rather apt if Jones should become the Vodafone Warriors’ first old boy to coach a club side to a title. After all he has been involved with the club in 15 of its 20 seasons; a foundation player in 1995 he had 12 first-grade seasons and has since added another three in coaching roles. The only Jones-less years for the Vodafone Warriors have been 2006 and 2007 when he was in France and 2010-2012 when he pursued business interests, coached the Point Chevalier Pirates in the Auckland Rugby League competition and then worked for the ARL.
In his playing days Jones nailed one first after another for the club – the first to 100 appearances, the first to 200, the longest career with club (12 first-grade seasons which has since been matched by Jerome Ropati) and the first to 500 points being just some of them.
He still owns the club records for most appearances (261), most points (674), most field goals (14), most consecutive appearances (100 from 1995-1999) and he had most tries (77) until a winger known as The Beast ran over the top of him.
As a coach Jones’ journey to the NYC’s top eight – never mind the big dance – has been an exacting one this year.
For much of the season he was forced to subsist without several of the club’s best eligible players; in line with the philosophy to develop NRL players they were used at a higher level.
Winger David Fusitu’a (19) had just two NYC appearances in a year when he made his NRL debut (12 games in total) and also played for the club’s New South Wales Cup side. Tuimoala Lolohea had one NYC game early in the season before returning to the fold just before the finals; the rest of his year has been split between his first three NRL games and 14 outings in the NSW Cup.
Ngataua Hukatai, Solomone Kata, Michael Ki, Mason Lino, Metia Lisati, Sam Lisone and Ken Maumalo have also had NSW Cup experience at some stage this season.
The knock-on effect of losing those players resulted in Jones not only using more players – 39 in all (34 last year) – but also being forced to hand out 20 debuts, many to players who were 17 (even 16 in one case) at the start of the year or when they made their debuts.
Fullback Brad Abbey doesn’t turn 18 until December 30 while, of the other players in the grand final squad, Nathaniel Roache was 18 in April, Bunty Afoa turned 18 last month, Ata Hingano had his 17th birthday just before his debut in March and Ofahiki Ogden was 18 in June. Marata Niukore, who played the first two finals matches, turned 18 in July. Two others – Mattais Heimuli and Joseph Price – were 17 at the start of the year.
At the top end of the age scale a number of players in the grand final squad are all preparing for their last outings in the NYC – Lisati, Hukatai, Kata, Lino, Lisone, Ki, Maumalo, Kurt Robinson, Kouma Samson, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard and James Bell.