The Warriors are back in New Zealand and soon enough, when the reality of another grueling NRL season sets in, memories of the chaos the pandemic caused the club will begin to fade.
While life will pretty much go back to normal for the club’s Telstra Premiership side in 2023, the damage will take a little longer to recover from in their junior ranks, with the pathways system effectively needing a reboot.
Since early 2020, travel restrictions meant the Warriors couldn’t field their own SG Ball Cup (NSW U-19) or reserve grade side, and with the exception of a handful who headed to Australia to play for Redcliffe in the Queensland reserve grade or U-21 competitions, most players outside of the top 30 squad haven’t played competitive matches in Australia since then.
That has seen some talent leave in search of more opportunities, while development was stunted for many who remained in New Zealand.
Now Andrew McFadden, in a new job in his second stint at the Warriors, is tasked with trying to get the club’s junior pathways back on the right track.
A familiar face to navigate a changing landscape
In the role of’ general manager of recruitment, development and pathways at the Warriors, McFadden brings the unique experience of having been the club’s NRL head coach between 2014-2016.
Before that he was an NRL assistant when the Warriors were dominating the U-20 National Youth Competition.
Holden Cup GF: Broncos v Warriors (Hls)
Across the first seven seasons of that competition, the club made four Grand Finals, winning three of them, with what seemed at the time to be an endless conveyor belt of outstanding athletes coming through.
Shaun Johnson, Ben Matulino and Jazz Tevaga are among the talent who stayed to become NRL regulars, while others such as Peta Hiku and Sio Siua Taukeiaho kicked on after moving across the Tasman.
But McFadden says things have changed now due to the Warriors' backyard being littered with scouts from rival NRL clubs.
“When I first got here the under 20s was booming and largely there wasn’t a huge presence from other NRL clubs," McFadden says.
“We had so much talent back then, it may have bred some complacency because there seemed to just be talent coming from everywhere. Now I think it’s a bit more challenging because obviously everyone knows about it.
A lot of NRL clubs have a strong presence over here. We can’t do a lot about that other than get our own backyard right and make sure there is an opportunity here for kids in New Zealand to develop just like at any other NRL club. They can do it at home.Andrew McFadden
A focus on strategic relationships
Earlier this month, the Warriors announced a partnership with the Pasifika Aotearoa Collective in New Zealand - the umbrella organisation for the New Zealand arms of the rugby league bodies for Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga and the New Zealand Māori.
Between them they run some of the biggest junior rugby league competitions in the country, which the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Jordan Riki and Matthew Timoko all passed through.
The partnership won't give the Warriors exclusive rights to players from those competitions, but it does offer a valuable opportunity to showcase their club and what it can offer, with all parties committed to trying to keep players at home in New Zealand.
“Every other club wants to take the kids out of New Zealand. We are the only club with the same mandate, the same aspirations (as PAC), and that is to keep anyone and everyone who wants to be involved in rugby league in New Zealand," Warriors CEO Cameron George says.
We all want the one New Zealand club to be front and centre when this talent is starting to shine through.Cameron George
“What we want to do through this partnership is grow the game of rugby league and grow good people within the sport. In doing so the connection with our footy club becomes generational, and we want to be their first choice of footy club.
“With that, naturally we will get some fantastic kids coming through.”
The Warriors have also been working closely with the New Zealand Rugby League and Auckland Rugby League on pathways in recent years, which has included launching new pre-season representative U-16 and U-18 competitions in Auckland.
The new pathways vision
The Warriors will return to the SG Ball Cup in 2023, as well as fielding their own reserve grade side in the NSW Cup for the first time since 2020.
New NRL head coach Andrew Webster knows well the benefits of a thriving pathways system, having last worked at the Panthers.
In recent years Penrith have set the standard in that area, culminating in them winning the NRL, SG Ball, Jersey Flegg, and NSW Cup titles last year, and Webster says having full control of an age grade and reserve grade team again at the Warriors is significant.
"It’s huge. To get that continuity where your players go back to (a junior team or) NSW Cup and it’s your own," he says.
"They are the same play calls, the same defensive structures, the same attacking structures."
In December, the club also entered two teams in the rugby union World Sevens tournament held in Auckland, with a boys' side made up of players too young or not selected in the SG Ball squad, and a girls' side formed with an eye on developing talent for a return to the NRL Telstra Women’s Premiership in 2025.
While playing a rival sport under the Warriors brand will raise more than a few eyebrows, McFadden said it was a way to get players some valuable game time in an environment with pressure.
Looking further ahead, McFadden confirmed the club's intention to have a side in the Jersey Flegg Cup (NSW U-21) in 2024, while at under 16 level the Warriors have a system running as well, which will include taking teams on tours across the Tasman to play Australian opposition.
While it will take some time, the vision is there for a holistic pathways system. One the Warriors hope will ultimately mean they keep more future Kiwi NRL superstars at home.