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What historic pathways expansion means for the Warriors

On the side of a field in Auckland on a winter morning prior to the pandemic, a talent spotter aligned to the Warriors could be overheard lamenting the loss of a young prospect to a rival NRL club.

In this case the player lived on a road bordering the club's headquarters at Go Media Stadium and their backyard had, almost literally, been robbed in front of them. Yet again. 

It's an issue that has plagued the Warriors throughout their 30-season history, with the lack of a high-quality and complete junior pathway meaning they were always at a disadvantage compared to clubs located in New South Wales and Queensland.

It left some local teenage talent with a fairly simple equation: go to Australia and play with and against the best of your peers each week in age-group teams that sit under an NRL club's banner, or stay in New Zealand and risk missing out on those valuable development opportunities.

History shows plenty opted for the former. 

But now things are changing thanks to the biggest pathways development the Warriors have ever undertaken, which will see them field teams in the New South Wales Rugby League’s renowned Harold Matthews Cup (under-17) and Jersey Flegg Cup (under-21) for the first time.

It adds to their existing involvement in the NSW SG Ball Cup (under-19) and NSW senior reserve grade competitions and finally gives the Warriors a complete pathway from the early teenage years through to the NRL. 

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Andrew McFadden, who has the experienced the aforementioned struggles both as a coach of the Warriors and now as the manager of recruitment, development and pathways, tells it's a game-changer that will give the Kiwi club parity at junior level. 

“We are on the same playing field as all the other clubs now,” McFadden says. 

“We were losing kids because other clubs could provide better opportunities. We actually lost players that we had contracted because we couldn’t offer them what other clubs could.

“But that’s all gone now, we have got exactly the same pathways as other clubs. [Strong pathways] probably hasn’t been something we have been noted for, but it is definitely something we want to change.”

Attracting and keeping talent is just the start of course, and ultimately it needs to contribute to the club enjoying sustained success in the NRL and winning premierships. 

With that in mind McFadden and co have set targets for the future which are aligned to what has worked for the Warriors in the past. 

"We recognised that in 2002 and 2011 [when the club made its only two grand final appearances to date], those two teams were made up of nearly 70 percent New Zealand born and developed players," McFadden says. 

So what it should look like down the track is that our NRL side is predominantly homegrown and developed. We think that’s our best chance of success."

Andrew McFadden

"It will take a few years – maybe five years or more – but we are also ambitious about how quickly we can increase that NZ flavour in our squad.

"We are doing very little scouting in Australia and it’ll be very targeted if we ever do. Predominantly we want to look after our backyard.

"You’re always more connected to home, aren’t you? It’s a really important part of our philosophy and plans.

"We have got the players here in NZ, we have just got to get our pathways programme right."

The Warriors 2011 grand final team was made up of a stack of homegrown talent including Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor and Lance Hohaia.
The Warriors 2011 grand final team was made up of a stack of homegrown talent including Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor and Lance Hohaia. ©NRL Photos

The growth in teams means this pre-season period has been much busier than usual in Auckland, with a glut of players from various age groups and a range of new staff members passing through the doors each week. 

It's seen the club set up new sites for some of their activities, which has included forming a partnership with neighbouring high school One Tree Hill College, where they have a full-sized pitch to train on and are able to use classrooms for video analysis and presentations.

An additional off-site gym has been set up near Go Media Stadium too. 

Warriors coach Andrew Webster addresses a group of young players.
Warriors coach Andrew Webster addresses a group of young players. ©Supplied

Outside of Auckland there's plenty of activity happening when it comes to the new teams as well, with satellite training programmes being run in Canterbury and Waikato and further plans in place to have a presence in Wellington and Otago.

These are significant moves for a club that for the most part has only run two teams at any given time in Australian competitions and it's only become a reality thanks to Warriors owner Mark Robinson's willingness to reach into his pockets. 

"There are lots of hidden costs when you are setting up these teams, so we are lucky our owner has elected to invest in these areas," McFadden says. 

"He is a New Zealander and a rugby league man, and he knows what this club means to people.

The club's new off-site gym was officially opened at the end of 2023.
The club's new off-site gym was officially opened at the end of 2023. ©Supplied

"In terms of us having any [NRL] success and being able to sustain it, this is very important."

The historic season for the club begins on the first Sunday of February, with the Harold Matthews Cup team lining up against the Eels at Eric Tweedale Stadium, ahead of the SG Ball side facing Parramatta at the same venue later in the day. 

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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