The NYC premiership-winning Vodafone Junior Warriors were back together again last night for a special season-ending family night at Mount Smart Stadium.
Together with team-mates from the wider NYC squad, the grand finalists and staff were joined by their families, sponsors and Vodafone Warriors management to reflect on an extraordinary season that delivered the club’s third NYC premiership in five years.
It was extraordinary on any number of levels, not least the achievement of becoming the first side in either the NRL or the NYC to come all the way from eighth spot to win the grand final.
Arguably more exceptional was how the Vodafone Junior Warriors made the top eight in the first place. It produced the moment that moved coach Stacey Jones to make a Play of the Year Award at last night’s function.
It came in the final match of the last round of the regular season against Penrith. The two teams were locked on the same points (27), the Vodafone Junior Warriors needing to win – or draw – to claim eighth spot.
Heading into the final minutes the prospects didn’t seem too bright with the Panthers leading 18-12 but then a goal-line dropout followed by a penalty gave the Vodafone Junior Warriors repeat sets and one last shot at a possible escape. They hammered at the line with Toafofoa Sipley and Sam Lisone both close to scoring before slick hands to the left put Ngataua Hukatai over wide out.
It was 18-16. Time was definitely up now and it was all over to co-captain Mason Lino who had to convert from centimetres inside the touchline on the left edge. All around them there was a crazy din with Penrith fans, booing, hissing and banging hoardings doing all they could to put Lino off.
It didn’t work. Lino’s aim was true and the Vodafone Junior Warriors had the 18-18 draw they needed to snare eighth spot.
In the following four weeks there would be any number of memorable plays including the critical last-gasp effort against Parramatta when Lino was involved in Tuimoala Lolohea’s match-winning try.
For Jones, though, Lino’s kick against the Panthers was unquestionably his choice as the Play of the Year (see video above). Everything else in the next four weeks was made possible by that one moment.
In another award hooker Kurt Robinson was named the NYC team’s Club Person of the Year. Robinson, who was forced to leave the field with concussion in the first half of the grand final, went into the match mourning the loss of his grandmother late last week. He returned to Wellington this week for her funeral.
Newly-appointed Vodafone Junior Warriors coach Kelvin Wright, collecting the award on Robinson’s behalf, could speak highly enough of his contribution in all areas. After being barely used last year – he made just six appearances – Robinson was all but ever-present this season missing just one of the side’s 28 games. Every game he never allowed his effort levels to drop. While he finished up with only one try in the campaign it was one of the most vital, the first of the two tries the Vodafone Junior Warriors scored in the last two minutes to eclipse Parramatta 29-26 to reach the grand final.
Also acknowledged last night were the players who have finished their NYC careers this year – Katamiro Atera, James Bell, George Edwards, Alamoti Finau, David Fusitu’a, Ngataua Hukatai, Solomone Kata, Viliami Kaveinga, Michael Ki, Mason Lino, Metia Lisati, Sam Lisone, Ken Maumalo, Kurt Robinson, Kouma Samson and Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard. Fusitu'a, Kata, Lisone and Maumalo all have NRL contracts next year and beyond; Lolohea and Brad Abbey, still eligible to play in the NYC next year, also have fulltime NRL contracts.
Vodafone Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah, academy and pathways manager Duane Mann and general manager football Dean Bell were among the speakers.
About 30 development squad-contracted players and their families were also in attendance gaining inspiration from the NYC team’s success as they bid to become Junior Warriors in future years.
Another feature was a presentation by brothers Rene and Joe Naufahu who spoke about their path to success as they overcame challenging expectations and before following their passion; actor Rene has directed the recently-released movie ‘The Last Saint’ while Joe has established the popular gym Ludus Magnus.