Warriors coach Stephen Kearney pinpointed young second-row pairing Isaiah Papali’i and Joseph Vuna as his standout performers in a dismal loss to Gold Coast on Sunday. Papali’i, who was blooded off the bench in 2017, has been a revelation in his first full season of NRL football, while fellow 19-year-old Vuna has looked the goods so far in four first-grade outings.
This week we take a look at the best and most memorable campaigns by Warriors rookies.
TWL TOP 10 – WARRIORS ROOKIE SEASONS
10. Odell Manuel (1999)
Otahuhu Leopards product Manuel won a wing spot in new Auckland Warriors coach Mark Graham’s squad for Round 1 and held his place for the entire season, scoring nine tries in 24 games to win the club’s Rookie of the Year award.
New Zealand Test honours beckoned for the former Junior Kiwi rep but his follow-up season was less impressive and, after turning out for NZ Maori at the 2000 World Cup, he linked with Canberra in 2001 for an underwhelming two-year stint.
9. Sonny Fai (2008)
Mangere East Hawks junior Sonny Fai was destined for rugby league’s heights, debuting just three days after his 20th birthday and showing massive promise as a second-rower/centre in 15 NRL outings, in which he crossed for five tries.
Fai could not force his way into the Warriors’ 17 for their finals campaign but he was named in both the New Zealand and Samoa training squads for the World Cup at the end of the year.
Fai tragically drowned after being caught in a rip while trying to save his brother and cousins at Te Henga (Bethells Beach) on January 4, 2009.
8. Brent Webb (2002)
Unheralded Cairns product Webb was an outstanding ‘Mr. Fix-it’ during the Warriors’ 2002 minor premiership-winning campaign. The 21-year-old started games at hooker, five-eighth, centre and fullback, scoring nine tries in his first 12 appearances – including a vital double off the bench in a historic defeat of the Broncos in Brisbane.
With versatile types Lance Hohaia and Motu Tony also in the squad, Webb was unluckily left out of the line-up during the finals but assumed the No.1 jumper vacated by the retired Ivan Cleary in 2003.
7. Solomone Kata (2015)
Kata bagged a hat-trick and man-of-the-match honours in the Warriors’ 2014 NYC grand final win and was one of just three players to feature in all 24 NRL games for the club the following season.
The nuggetty centre powerhouse scored 11 tries in his first 13 games in the top grade and earned a Test debut for Tonga after just a handful of NRL appearances.
The tries dried up for the 20-year-old as the Warriors’ finished the year on an eight-match losing streak, but his tally of 12 touchdowns was enough to end Manu Vatuvei’s run of 10 straight seasons as the club’s top try-scorer.
6. Motu Tony (2001)
Marist Saints product Tony debuted for the Warriors as a 19-year-old and filled a number of roles with the expertise of a veteran as the club surged to a maiden top-eight finish in 2001. Initially used as a bench utility, the versatile livewire scored four tries in four games at fullback before settling in as Stacey Jones’ halves partner.
Tony was selected as New Zealand’s fullback for the mid-season Test against France after just eight NRL appearances, while he wore the No.6 jumper in the Warriors’ first-ever finals match, scoring a try in the 56-12 loss to Parramatta – his 10th four-pointer of the season.
5. Konrad Hurrell (2012)
After dominating the NYC competition as the Warriors made it back-to-back premierships in 2011, centre tyro Hurrell became an immediate crowd favourite at Mount Smart during his 2012 rookie campaign. The Tonga-born wrecking ball debuted off the bench in Round 1 against Manly and scored a try in his maiden start a week later against Parramatta.
In a spectacular mid-season streak, Hurrell crossed the try-line in seven consecutive games – including doubles against Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers, and a hat-trick at Gold Coast’s expense. He finished the year with 12 touchdowns from 17 NRL appearances.
4. Elijah Taylor (2011)
Taylor captained the Warriors NYC side to a maiden premiership in 2010 and was the first to graduate to NRL level, debuting in Round 4 of the following season. The 21-year-old quickly cemented a second-row spot alongside Simon Mannering and finished his rookie season with 21 appearances.
The Otahuhu junior featured prominently throughout the Warriors’ finals campaign and scored a try in the club’s grand final loss to Manly after switching to centre as injury cover. Taylor capped a remarkable rise by making his New Zealand Test debut during the subsequent Four Nations tournament.
3. Lance Hohaia (2002)
When a season-ending injury to captain Monty Betham saw PJ Marsh switch from five-eighth to hooker, 18-year-old Huntly product Hohaia was tossed the No.6 jumper and immediately formed a superb combination with Stacey Jones.
Debuting in Round 4, Hohaia scored seven tries in his first 10 NRL games and was hailed as one of the leading contenders for the Dally M Rookie of the Year award, which instead went to another Kiwi, Bulldogs winger Matt Utai.
Hohaia dropped back to the interchange late in the season for the minor premiers with Motu Tony promoted to starting pivot, but he came off the bench in all three of the minor premiers’ finals matches – including the grand final loss to Sydney Roosters – and made his Test debut at five-eighth against Australia at the end of the season.
2. Stacey Jones (1995)
Penrith legend Greg Alexander and New Zealand Test star Gene Ngamu seemed locked in as the Auckland Warriors’ halves pairing for 1995, with mercurial veteran Phil Blake a standout choice at fullback. But the prodigious talent of teenager Jones forced coach John Monie into a rethink.
After making a tryscoring debut off the bench against Parramatta in Round 7, Jones was handed a starting role three weeks later – starring in a 23-18 win over Cronulla – and played all 13 remaining games. A dominant display in arguably the Warriors’ best win of ’95, a 29-8 demolition of eventual premiers the Bulldogs, announced Jones as a future superstar.
Mat Rogers and John Hopoate scooped the major rookie awards that year but Jones was only a whisker behind, while he usurped Kiwis great Gary Freeman as Test halfback at the World Cup at season’s end.
1. Shaun Johnson (2011)
The linchpin of the Warriors’ maiden NYC premiership success in 2010, Johnson made his NRL debut in Round 13 of the following season after an injury to regular halfback Brett Seymour. He scored six tries in his next nine appearances in the top flight, including one of the all-time great individual touchdowns against Brisbane and sizzling long-range efforts against North Queensland and Penrith.
Johnson had just 12 first-grade games under his belt heading into the 2011 finals but handled the playoffs stage like a seasoned veteran. His cross-field kick produced the match-winning try for Krisnan Inu in the 22-20 semi-final defeat of Wests Tigers, while his mesmerising run to set up Lewis Brown’s sealer in the preliminary final boilover against Melbourne grabbed an immediate place in finals folklore.
The 21-year-old capped an amazing four months by laying on two tries in the Warriors’ late comeback in the grand final against Manly, which ultimately fell short 24-10.