Akarana and Counties-Manukau split the honours in this year’s expanded Ruben Wiki Shield.
The Vodafone Warriors introduced the under-16 and under-18 competitions last year to provide an improved pathway for promising players.
In the under-16 grand final, the Akarana Falcons continued their unbeaten streak throughout the tournament overcoming the Counties-Manukau Stingrays 20-16 to claim the title.
Akarana halfback Nathaneal Sasagi led the team around well and was named as the MVP in the finals. He and loose forward Caleb Pese were standouts for the Falcons side.
Counties-Manukau’s spine players Te Napi Waipouri, Kaya Cuthers, Paea Fotu and William Fakatoumafi worked hard to create opportunities but they were unable to capitalise.
For Akarana, the result avenged its loss to Counties-Manukau in the 2016 final.
It was also a Counties-Manukau v Akarana match-up in the under-18 grand final.
Both teams were unbeaten in round-robin play having drawn 18-18 when they met in the first round.
As the teams took the field it was evident how big and athletic the Counties-Manukau side was with big Kakoi Togoiu in the centres alongside fellow Vodafone Warriors development player Uenuku Malesala.
Akarana was missing key playmaker Regan McClennan alongside Vodafone Junior Warriors NYC squad member Javvier Pitovao. While the Falcons tried they were unable to match it with the firing Counties-Manukau side.
Counties-Manukau second rower Nitoa Kairau finished off a good Ruben Wiki Shield campaign with another strong performance featuring some rampaging runs and offloads after the line to put his team-mates over for a few tries.
Vodafone Junior Warrior in-waiting Israel Ogden was dominant from fullback throughout the game and was named finals MVP. Israel is due to turn 17 in May and will be eligible to play in the NYC then.
Vodafone Warriors recruitment and development manager Tony Iro said the competition had been improved through the addition of teams from Wai-Coa-Bay (Waikato-Bay of Plenty), Northern Swords (Northland) and the Auckland Vulcans.
“When you combine it with the highly successful Pasifika Youth Cup launched in late January, it has allowed players to be engaged in rugby league from January through to the end of March,” he said.
“We know these players have worked hard and developed in this time and they will be better placed to start the club season and do well at the upcoming NZRL high performance camp.
“From a pathways perspective, there have been a number of players who have been given further opportunities through these tournaments.
“For us it also means our Vodafone Junior Warriors squad members are engaged in a high-level competition before their club seasons.”
Akarana Falcons loose forward Tyler Slade (17) is one player who has benefited. Consistent performances during the Ruben Wiki Shield competition have seen him included on the extended bench for the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ NYC match against Gold Coast this Sunday.
Players like Paul Turner (Vodafone Warriors Invitational) and Israel Ogden (Counties-Manukau) were stand-outs during the competition and will likely to push for NYC selection once they are eligible.
“We were also pleased with our Vodafone Warriors Invitational teams as well,” said Iro.
“Both our sides pushed the eventual champions with the under-18s going down by just two points to the Counties-Manukau.
“With the under-18s, we used players not on the local league radar as well as having guest players from around the country.
“Paeroa, West Coast, Taranaki, Palmerston North, Tauranga, Rotorua, Wellington, Tokoroa, Ngaruwahia, Whangarei were Christchurch were among the centres represented by our guest players.”
RUBEN WIKI SHIELD | GRAND FINALS
Akarana Falcons 20 (T Kalepo, S Kamu, C Tuipolotu, N Sasagi tries; T Tepulolo 2 goals).
Counties-Manukau Stingrays 8 (T Salima, M Talagi tries).
Finals MVP: Nathaneal Sasagi.
Counties-Manukau 24 (S Togoiu, I Ogden, R Toai, T Mikaele, N Kairau tries; K Togoiu goal; S Togoiu goal).
Akarana 10 (V Tevaga 2 tries; J Onyeke goal).
Finals MVP: Israel Ogden.
RUBEN WIKI SHIELD | MERIT TEAMS
UNDER-16 MERIT TEAM
1 William Fakatoumafi (Counties-Manukau)
2 Marco Talagi (Counties-Manukau)
3 PJ Palota-Kopa (Akarana Falcons)
4 Christian Tuipolotu (Akarana Falcons)
5 Semisi Sikei (Counties-Manukau)
6 Nathaneal Sasagi (Akarana Falcons)
7 Sione Moala (Auckland Vulcans)
8 Jyris Glamuzina (Akarana Falcons)
9 Temple Kalepo (Akarana Falcons)
10 Trent Leach (Wai-Coa-Bay)
11 Semisi Tapa (Counties-Manukau)
12 Taniela Otukolo (Vodafone Warriors Invitational)
13 Caleb Pese (Akarana Falcons)
14 Kaya Cuthers (Counties Manukau)
15 Te Napi Waipouri (Counties-Manukau)
16 Connagh Takairangi (Auckland Vulcans)
17 Nokisi Kaiarake (Northern Swords)
UNDER-18 MERIT TEAM
1 Israel Ogden (Counties-Manukau)
2 Uenuku Malesala (Counties-Manukau)
3 Vito Tevaga (Akarana Falcons)
4 Matthew Timoko (Akarana Falcons)
5 Cohen Vazey (Auckland Vulcans)
6 Regan McClennan (Akarana Falcons)
7 Paul Turner (Vodafone Warriors Invitational)
8 Lewis Afeaki (Akarana Falcons)
9 Sam Lauhingoa (Counties-Manukau)
10 Taylor Fiu (Counties-Manukau)
11 Dredin Sorensen-McGee (Counties-Manukau)
12 Nitoa Kairau (Counties-Manukau)
13 Tyler Slade (Akarana Falcons)
14 Lewis Sio (Akarana Falcons)
15 Kakoi Togoiu (Counties-Manukau)
16 Kobe Rodgers (Waicoa Bay Stallions)
17 Te Kahi Nathan (Northern Swords)