Young South Island stars stake NRL claims
West Coaster Slade Griffin may make his National Rugby League debut this year as understudy to the Melbourne Storm's Australian test captain, Cameron Smith.
Former Canterbury junior Penami Manumalealli is also in the Cronulla Sharks' top squad.
He played in a recent pre-season trial against Manly. The 20-year-old Samoa-born former Hornby Panthers scrumhalf helped set up two tries in a 24-12 victory and shared game-time with first-grade regular Jeff Robson.
Griffin, 22, has been signed by the Storm to a first-grade contract as their backup hooker.
His agent, former Kiwis and Warriors coach Frank Endacott, said Griffin also had the option of another season at the NRL's champion club.
"He was contracted last year but he did his knee in the first trial and was out for the entire season," Endacott said.
Griffin, a Cobden Kohinoor junior who played senior-grade rugby league on the West Coast while at school, joined the Storm's SG Ball (18 years) squad four years ago. He was the inaugural SG Ball grade player of the year in 2009, and also represented New South Wales under-18s in a curtain-raiser to a State of Origin match.
He was a regular in the Storm's National Youth Competition (NYC) squad and was their under-20s grade player of the year in 2011.
"He was a centre when he went over there and then played in the second row and now he's playing at hooker," Endacott said.
"If he gets the opportunity to play three or four [NRL] games this year, that will be great for him. They certainly like the look of him."
Griffin, now recovered from his cruciate ligament injury, was not part of the 21-man Storm squad selected to travel to England for Saturday's World Club Challenge match against Super League champions Leeds.
His first-grade break may come in mid-season when Smith, the sport's premier hooker, is on State of Origin duty as he attempts to captain Queensland to a record eighth consecutive title.
Griffin will compete with Ryan Hinchcliffe as Smith's backup.
However, Hinchcliffe is nearly 29 and the Kiwi may be the better long-term bet.
The Storm have a strong New Zealand contingent with wing Matt Duffie (a former Kaiapoi Bulldogs junior), centre Junior Sa'u and forwards Kevin Proctor and Jesse Bromwich all Kiwi internationals.
Matt McGahan, son of 1980s Kiwis captain Hugh McGahan, Tohu Harris, Denny Solomona and Bromwich's younger brother, Kenneath, are the other New Zealanders on first-grade terms at Melbourne.
Another Kaiapoi product, fullback, centre or second rower Michael Butson, is set to feature in the Storm's Holden Cup NYC team, alongside Cade Umaga, son of former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga.
Butson's Northern Bulldogs clubmate, Sheldon Pitama, and fellow Cantabrian Greg Panagiotidis are also on the Storm's books, with Pitama set to join their SG Ball team next year.
Other NRL clubs have stocked up on Canterbury talent.
The highest-profile player is five-test Kiwi Lewis Brown, who has rejoined coach Ivan Cleary at the Penrith Panthers after 84 games for the Warriors.
Brown returned home to score two tries against his former Warriors team-mates in a trial match in Hamilton last weekend.
Former Halswell hooker Matt McIlwrick, who made his first-grade debut at the Canberra Raiders last year, has been joined at the ACT club by four young Canterbury players and New Zealand age-group representatives.
The quartet include McIlwrick's younger brother, Jared, Jules Webley and brothers Thoren and Jiordan Fidow-Kele, whose father, Tala Kele, was a Canterbury rugby prop.
Thoren Fidow-Kele, who made his South Island Scorpions senior-grade debut last year, will play for the Raiders' Holden Cup squad. The 18-year-old, 1.83m 101kg centre has already made an impact.
"The NYC coaching staff has marvelled at Thoren's impressive physique, considering that the strongly built outside back had never been inside a gym before," the Raiders' website said.
Cronulla have promoted Canterbury's Fa'amanu (Nu) Brown, an 18-year-old utility back, to Holden Cup duty and former Linwood Kea, Jermaine Stowers, who played first XV rugby for Shirley Boys' High School last year, is also on the Sharks' books.