Warriors' 'recruitment and junior development needs to improve' says former coach Frank Endacott
Former Warriors coach Frank Endacott is as worried about his old club's youth squad as he is about Steve Kearney's under-performing NRL team.
Endacott insists he "wants the Warriors to succeed more than anyone in the country", but he believes the Auckland-based club must improve their recruitment and retention to deliver overdue success to their frustrated fan base.
The former Kiwis coach - now a players' agent - said it is a worrying sign that "'over 90 per cent" of young New Zealand players would rather sign for an Australian NRL club than the Warriors "because they see other clubs as more successful".
Endacott believes "you can't build a big flash house with a shaky foundation" and he is concerned that the bottom of the table Junior Warriors' woes could be spell potential problems for Kearney's senior side.
"Have a look at the performance of their 20s [side] this year, it's embarrassing. "It will be unbelievable if they end up with the wooden spoon after all the success they've had over the years."
The Junior Warriors have won just three games in 2017 and are on a five-match losing streak. They were thrashed 70-4 by the Newcastle Knights last weekend and have also lost 70-10 to the North Queensland Cowboys and 58-12 to Manly.
Endacott believes the Junior Warriors' poor showing is a sign the club is struggling to attract the best young New Zealand talent with the brightest stars opting for Australian clubs.
The talent drain includes two top-line 21-year-old NRL first grade stars, Roosters back Joseph Manu from Tokoroa and Penrith Panthers forward James Fisher-Harris, the New Zealand junior player of the year who hails from rural Northland.
Endacott said almost every NYC and NRL squad was stacked with young Kiwis, some of whom who were once on the Warriors' books.
He is concerned that the junior player development pathway at the Warriors is not what it once was.
John Ackland, who guided the Junior Warriors to back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011 (the year the Warriors senior side was last in in a NRL grand final).
"When John Ackland coached the 20s, he was responsible for the recruiting. He knew every player in Auckland and he knew the players to get."
Ackland helped nurture the careers of Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor, Ben Henry and Konrad Hurrell.
Now most of the Junior Kiwis' squad are on Australian clubs' books. The Warriors had just three players in Nathan Cayless' team for last May's trans-Tasman test against the Junior Kangaroos.
Some of the Australian-based Junior Kiwis were born across the Tasman or moved there as infants. But a fair number grew up in New Zealand and were signed from under the Warriors' noses.
Endacott says he never recommends a young Kiwi "go to an Australian club for more money", but advises them to "go to clubs that look after young players better than others".
The Junior Warriors won the NYC grand final in 2014 with Stacey Jones (now the Warriors NRL team assistant-coach) in charge. Some of the class of 2014 are in the current Warriors NRL squad, including Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo, Sam Lisone and Mason Lino.
In 2015, the Junior Warriors finished eighth and they were 14th out of 16 teams last season.
Endacott said they had gone from the top to "rock bottom" in a short space of time.
One of Ackland's title winning Junior Warriors team members, Sosaia Feki, won the NRL grand final last year with the Cronulla Sharks and other home-produced players such as Taylor (Penrith Panthers), Hurrell (Gold Coast Titans) and Carlos Tuimavave (England) have moved on to other clubs.
The Warriors have also faced a battle to attract and retain Australian talent. The Sharks' 2016 grand final halves, James Maloney and Chad Townsend, were once on the Warriors' books but their careers have thrived since returning to Australia.
Endacott believes the Warriors need some hard-nosed Australian players, saying they got great value from Queensland State of Origin reps Steve Price and Kevin Campion. Michael Luck - while not a star player - "gave 100 per cent in every game, and that's the type of player you need".
Endacott said the Warriors must be wary of recruiting big-name players whose best years may be behind them.
Kiwis captain Adam Blair is reputedly on Kearney's shopping list for 2018.
Endacott said Blair "is an excellent player, but they are looking to sign him for four years when he's 31, and he's going to be 35 at the end [of his contract].
"You have to ask, 'are you getting the best years out of him?"
Endacott suspects Broncos coach Wayne Bennett would be looking to keep Blair, "if he was still in his prime".
Kearney lamented last week after the loss to the cellar dwelling Knights that some of his players were not trying hard enough.
Endacott said the comment was a symptom of Kearney's frustration, but he believes a lot of young New Zealand players struggle to maintain their effort for full games.
"You need to be able to focus for 80 minutes to win NRL games.
"But, growing up, a lot of our home based players come through the 16s, 17s and 18s [grades] winning games by 60-odd points because of their size in that age-group.
"Then they find themselves playing hard-nosed Aussie, who have been playing tough games for 10 years, and they struggle to cope.
Endacott said it wasn't the players' fault - New Zealand simply lacked the numbers to have more competitive grades, but he said 60 to 70 point blowouts gave a false impression of where the players were at.
He believes the answer is getting the bigger, more skilled players "playing up a grade" against older opponents so they learn how to cope with pressure and adversity earlier.
While the Warriors are struggling at first grade level, Endacott isn't "in the queue of people calling for Stephen's head", saying Kearney needed two years to stamp his mark.
"He needs to be recruiting now for next year and he needs at least two full years to prove what he can do."
Endacott said there needs to be "stability" in the coaching ranks with Kearney the fourth coach at Mt Smart Stadium since Ivan Cleary's six-year tenure ended in 2011.
He also believed it was "absolutely vital that the two next-best coaches in the country" were in charge of the Warriors' NYC and reserve grade sides and that the age-group scouting network was robust and widespread.