As Warriors fans scream out for some of the club’s emerging tyros to get a go in a make-or-break 2020 season, TWL highlights the youngest-ever players to pull on the jumper at NRL level.
TWL TOP 10 – YOUNGEST WARRIORS DEBUTANTS
10=. Jerome Ropati (2003) – 18 years and 281 days
St Paul’s College product Ropati surged into Warriors first-grade contention in 2003 on the back of his sizzling Bartercard Cup performances for Marist Richmond Brothers. He debuted off the bench in a memorable late-season win over the Roosters and travelled with the team as injury cover during the NRL finals series.
A regular at centre, fullback, wing or five-eighth when fit over the next decade, the 10-Test Kiwi was plagued by serious injuries from 2011 onwards and hung up the boots in 2014 with 145 games for the Warriors to his name.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) May 27, 2014
10=. Ali Lauti’iti (1998) – 18 years and 281 days
Prodigiously talented back-rower Lauiti’iti played in the Auckland Warriors side that made the 1997 Super League Under-19s grand final and scored on first-grade debut against Norths early the following season. He broke the record of teammate Stacey Jones (18 years and 352 days in 1995) as the Warriors’ youngest-ever player.
He cemented a regular spot in 1999 under Mark Graham – who famously dubbed him ‘the Michael Jordan of rugby league’ – and he became recognised as one of the most damaging, skilful forwards in the game in the early-2000s.
The Dally M Second-rower of the Year in 2002, Lauiti’iti left the Warriors in acrimonious circumstances after 115 games for the club in ’04. But the 19-Test Kiwi created a rich legacy in 12 Super League seasons with Leeds and Wakefield Trinity before returning to the Warriors as a 36-year-old in 2016 to play for their ISP outfit.
9. Louis Anderson (2004) – 18 years and 276 days
The younger brother of centre/back-rower and clubmate Vinnie, Louis Anderson received an early-season call-up from Warriors coach Daniel Anderson in 2003, scoring a try off the bench in a 42-22 loss to Penrith.
He played 16 NRL games that year and made his Kiwis debut less than four months after his 19th birthday, again dotting down in a 16-all draw with Australia after being chosen at hooker. Anderson’s versatility helped him played 18 Tests for New Zealand, while he left the Warriors at the end of 2007 with 67 appearances to his credit. He racked up over 200 Super League games for Warrington and Catalans to the end of 2018.
8. Francis Meli (1999) – 18 years and 255 days
Apia-born Meli came through the ranks at City-Marist and Marist Saints before being called up as a centre for the Warriors’ Round 9 loss to Souths in 1999, breaking Lauiti’ti’s record. He played just five games in two seasons under coach Mark Graham but became a first-choice winger when Daniel Anderson took over in 2001.
A member of the 2002 grand final squad, Meli’s tenure at the Warriors peaked the following season when he crossed for a club record 23 tries – including an all-time finals record five-try haul against the Bulldogs. The 14-Test Kiwi finished with 60 tries in 110 games for the Warriors but went on to score more than 150 four-pointers in nine seasons in England with St Helens and Salford City.
7. Paul Whatuira (2000) – 18 years and 198 days
Whatuira debuted for Wellington and won a grand final with Wainuiomata in 1999 but was still eligible for the New Zealand Under-18s team that year. He was snapped up by the Warriors on an elite scholarship and earned his NRL spurs early in 2000, coming off the bench in a loss to Wests Tigers and breaking the Warriors’ youngest player record.
But the gifted utility-back played just five games under Mark Graham that year and joined Melbourne for the 2001 season. Whatuira’s career took off after linking with Penrith in 2002, winning a grand final with the Panthers in ’03 and collecting another premiership ring with the Tigers two years later. He played 16 Tests for the Kiwis from 2004-07.
6. Isaiah Papali’i (2017) – 18 years and 166 days
Papali’i was the bolter in Stephen Kearney’s maiden Warriors first-grade squad, coming off the bench in the Round 1 victory over Newcastle last year less than six months after turning 18. The hulking back-rower was the youngest Warriors debutant in more than a decade.
The Te Atatu and Richmond junior was not sighted again until Round 22 but finished 2017 in first grade and became a permanent fixture last year while also making his Test debut for New Zealand. Isaiah’s 41-year-old mum, former Kiwi Fern Lorina, was part of the inaugural Warriors Women’s team in 2018.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) August 9, 2018
5. Manu Vatuvei (2004) – 18 years and 80 days
A teenaged behemoth on the wing, Otahuhu product Vatuvei made five mid-season appearances for the Warriors in 2004. His debut against Souths provided several signs of things to come, with a spectacular try assist, a string of barnstorming runs and a radical bleached afro drawing plenty of attention.
With just 17 NRL games under his belt, the 19-year-old starred in the Kiwis’ famous 2005 Tri-Nations triumph, scoring two tries in the 24-0 rout of Australia in the final. The enigmatic fan favourite went on to score a Warriors club record 152 tries in 226 games and a New Zealand record 22 tries in 28 Tests.
4. Evarn Tuimavave (2002) – 18 years and 65 days
Daniel Anderson took a hatchet to his team sheet after a 44-0 loss to the Roosters late in the Warriors’ watershed 2002 campaign. The most eye-catching change was bringing skilful 18-year-old prop Evarn Tuimavave onto the bench to become the club’s youngest debutant.
The Marist-Richmond junior played in the last two regular-season games for the minor premiership-winning Warriors but was not required for their finals campaign. Part of the Kiwis’ 2008 World Cup squad, Tuimavave played 105 NRL games for the Warriors before rounding out his career with stints at Newcastle and Hull KR.
3. Patrick Ah Van (2006) – 18 years and 24 days
Warriors coach Ivan Cleary turned to Kelston Boys High product Ah Van when injury brought Kiwi Test winger Manu Vatuvei down early in 2006. The 18-year-old started on the flank in a 22-8 loss to Manly in Round 5 and went on to rack up 15 rookie-season appearances.
The New Lynn Stags and Te Atatu Roosters junior was also a capable fullback and centre, but stiff competition for backline spots dictated that Ah Van played only 54 games for the Warriors before departing for Super League at the end of 2010. Ah Van was a prolific tryscorer on the wing for Bradford and Widnes in the subsequent eight Super League seasons.
2. Thomas Leuluai (2003) – 17 years and 314 days
Leuluai (pictured top) held the record as the Warriors’ youngest-ever first-grader for more than a year after being blooded off the bench early in 2003 – two months shy of his 18th birthday. He reappeared 10 weeks later as Stacey Jones’ halves partner and featured in the No.6 throughout the club’s charge to the preliminary final.
He became one of New Zealand youngest Test reps later that season, coming off the pine in an upset win over Australia only a few months after turning 18. The half/hooker played 85 NRL games across two stints for the Warriors and has turned out in 40 Tests in a Kiwis career spanning 15 seasons. Leuluai is still plugging away for Wigan, taking his tally of games in England past the 300 mark.
1. Cooper Vuna (2004) – 17 years and 47 days
Powerhouse winger Vuna shattered the Warriors’ youngest player record when he came off the bench in a heavy loss to Parramatta in 2004. The Otahuhu junior was the youngest player to appear in first grade for 11 years (Adam Ritson was 16 years and 303 days when he made his debut for Cronulla in 1993), while there has been just one younger NRL debutant since (Gold Coast’s Jordan Rankin was 16 years and 238 days when he debuted in 2008).
Vuna was promoted to the starting line-up a week later, crossing for a try in a narrow loss to eventual grand finalists Sydney Roosters, but only made five top-grade appearances for the Warriors before joining Newcastle in 2007. After four fruitful seasons with the Knights, Vuna switched codes and represented the Wallabies at international level.
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) April 12, 2018