Little General primed for Juniors campaign
A bold new era in the Warriors approach to youth development is about to dawn - and club legend Stacey Jones will be at it helm.
Jones, who played 261 games in a star-studded career for the Warriors between 1995 and 2009, will take over John Ackland as the Warriors Under-20s coach from 2014 on a two-year deal.
The move of Jones, who has been serving as the junior recruitment coach this season, into the coaching ranks at the Warriors, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a changing mentality to player development at the club.
The general upshot is that younger players will be promoted earlier. That won't be a blanket approach - players will be promoted when coaches see they are ready, both mentally and physically.
The rationale is that players will be exposed to a tougher, more challenging level of football earlier - meaning by the time the club's best youngster are 20 or 21, they will have experienced at least a year of tough reserve-grade footy.
The best 19-year-old players at the club will now no longer be playing Holden Cup footy - they'll be visiting the likes of Wentworthville and Newton in the NSW Cup - instead of being thrown to the lions in the NRL too early.
"It's a big responsibility, and I know the direction we want to go with trying to promote these young kids earlier," Jones, a former coach of the Pt Chevalier Pirates in the Fox Memorial Cup, told Sunday News.
"That doesn't mean it diminishes what we want to achieve - we still want to go out there and win competitions. It's a huge honour that I'm pretty excited about. Something that was a little bit unexpected, I guess.
"But having spent time out of the game but still coaching a high level, I know a lot more about the game from when I was playing."
Dean Bell, Warriors general manager of football operations, said the catalyst for the changing mentality, largely one adopted by Australian NRL teams, towards development came from when the club interviewed for first-grade coaches last year.
"When we were interviewing for the NRL coach's position, we spoke to a lot of coaches, some very, very high-profile ones, before we decided on Matt [Elliott]," he said.
"What became really clear to us is the value and importance they placed on developing young players. Basically having that boot camp mentality in their development - how critical it was to the success of the NRL team. When you listen to some of the coaches we were listening to, there's just a constant message from every coach - how hard you have to push the juniors.
"They come from a tough system already, over there, too. Our players don't - we probably need it even more."
No knock on Jones - but expect the Under-20s results to taper off somewhat. That's because he won't have the more experienced players, such as Carlos Tuimavave and Omar Slaimankhel in the past, who have been at the level for so long - and become so dominant at it.
"It will be a challenge to Stacey - but he's up for it," Bell said. "You could hold those players back and we could win the championship and that - but all roads lead to the NRL.
"The whole thing about the Under-20s is developing them into first-grade players. That's the underlying thing - and that's what Matt has brought with him. These kids - it's more of a relief when they leave the under-20s. The step up won't be as big. It's been too tough for them at the younger level."
Outside back Ngani Laumape, 20, and promising hooker Siliva Havili are two players who have served under this model in 2013, with both promoted to the Vulcans at a younger age while still being eligible for the Under-20s.
Other alterations to player development have already begun. The Warriors have set up a Launch Pad Programme with the top 10 Under-20s players doing extra fundamentals sessions this season with first-grade coaches, while the Base Camp programme follows the same track, but with developmental players and NYC coaching staff.
Recruitment directions are altering a little too. Bell said the next wave of junior recruits are likely to feature players from further afield than just New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Bell believes the overall promotion approach is common sense.
"I don't want to sound like an old fart, but I was playing senior footy when I was 17, for Manakau," the former Kiwis captain said. "I got a few whacks, but believe me, it toughened me up. To me, it's common sense. How do you get the best out of players? You challenge them."