Northern lights set to shine for the NZ Warriors
For years, New Zealand league fans have pointed to Andy Platt and Denis Betts as examples of how English players don't thrive Down Under. Fairfax Media finds out how two Leeds teenagers plan to prove the doubters wrong.
In bleak, wide curtains, rain sweeps over Mt Smart Stadium; drenching a previously sun-baked playing surface.
All around, the sky is concrete-grey and the raindrops fat and round. There's even a hint of a chill in the air. For the majority of the previous week, Auckland had been bathed in sunshine. The Kiwi summer felt well on its way.
Now, Penrose was a miserable sight; depressing even. It reminded Jordan Baldwinson of Leeds - his home town.
"I woke up this morning and I thought I was still in England," Baldwinson told Sunday News after training last week, laughing. "Hopefully it doesn't last."
But while the rain shouldn't be too much of a feature around Penrose over the next couple of months, Baldwinson will be.
Along with Mason Tonks, the Leeds native is one of two English 18-year-olds who have recently left the north of England and joined the Warriors' Under-20s setup with dreams of cracking the NRL.
While the impending arrival of superstar Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins has captured the majority of newspaper headlines this year, the twin signings of the two teenagers is, in reality, more of a significant step forward for the Warriors.
Club recruitment boss Dean Bell has made much about casting the net wide for young talent - and it doesn't get much wider than the home of Super League giants the Leeds Rhinos.
But start talking about English players at Mt Smart, and you'll inevitably settle on two names: Denis Betts and Andy Platt.
The Wigan forwards were big-money signings for the Warriors' 1995 inaugural first-grade season, and, for the most part, flops at the club.
Not only rugby league has changed but also, more importantly, the Warriors' approach to developing players.
Both Baldwinson and Tonks put pen to paper with the Warriors on two-year contracts in July and have been eager ever since to get to Auckland.
A tall front rower, Baldwinson comes to New Zealand with a decent pedigree. The 18-year-old played two Super League games for Leeds before making the move to Auckland; also notching up rep duties for the England Academy, plus the Under-18 and Under-15 teams.
Tonks, who plays in the second row, acknowledges there'll be no easy ride to first-grade footy at Mt Smart Stadium.
Next year, the Leeds duo will have to do the hard yards under Stacey Jones in the Under-20s, before a possible late-season callup to the Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales Cup.
"The Under-20s is a tough comp, a quick comp," Tonks said. "The Burgess brothers have done quite well coming through the ranks [at the Rabbitohs], and it's something for English players to look at there.
"Just to test ourselves mentally and physically, and being this far from home, I think it's a great test to see what we are about."
Both teenagers agree that the success of the Burgess brothers at the Rabbitohs has inspired a new generation of young English league players. If they can make it, they argue, why can't we?
"For people like myself and Mason, what the Burgess boys did is absolutely massive," Baldwinson said.
"You look at where we are in our career now. If you look at those English forwards, they've taken the same route - but we've come over a little younger.
"It's the same guidelines. We've got to look up to them and say ‘if they can do it, I can't see why we can't'.
"We can look forward [and] we can think there is some motivation for me and Mason especially. Being over here, if they can kill it and rip in, why not us?"
The duo, living together in Birkenhead, have been training with the wider Warriors first-grade players and fellow Under-20s over recent weeks.
Baldwinson has already spent time talking with Warriors big bopper Jacob Lillyman, while Tonks models himself on club skipper Simon Mannering, who is yet to return after his World Cup duties with the Kiwis.
The opportunity to transform from eager youngsters into battle-hardened NRL players is an exciting prospect for both.
"I think we're going to go from young lads and turn into men after our time here," Tonks said.
As for talk of Platt and Betts, the young Leeds duo brush them aside. They are their own men - and plan to represent their country with pride.
"They came out here and did OK for themselves," Tonks said.
"Sam Tomkins . . . took Super League by storm, and hopefully he'll come out here and do the same with the NRL.
"It's a good chance for us English guys to come out here and show what we are made of."
ENGLISH DOUBLE ACT
Born: November 10, 1994
Hometown: Leeds, England
Position: Prop/ Second Row
Former club: Leeds
Super League matches: 2 (debut vs Widnes, June 17 2013)
Born: October 11, 1994
Hometown: Castleford, England
Position: Second Row
Former club: Leeds
Super League matches: 0