New pathway for young talent

Otago Boys’ player Sonatane Tavake (left) and Southland Girls’ player Sualo Lofoga train with...
Otago Boys’ player Sonatane Tavake (left) and Southland Girls’ player Sualo Lofoga train with Tony Iro (centre) during an academy session at Logan Park in Dunedin on Thursday. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
The Warriors movement has officially peaked to provide pathways for future players in Dunedin.

The Southern Zone Rugby League Academy, in association with the Warriors, starts on Monday for players in the under-16 and under-18 grades.

It is the fifth academy in New Zealand, following Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland, and will host 17 athletes in the first flight.

They are split between 10 boys and seven girls — the Southern academy is the first to introduce girls — with eight from Dunedin, eight from Southland and one from the West Coast.

Nathan Jones, who previously worked with the Melbourne Storm, will lead the academy as head trainer and manager and will facilitate other coaches and hubs in Invercargill and Greymouth.

A second tier, with a hub based in Timaru, will be announced next week to give other identified players a chance to join trainings.

Southern Zone hosted an introduction night on Thursday, with Tony Iro — who leads the Warriors pathways programme — running a skills session at Logan Park.

Southern Zone general manager Liam Turner said they were lucky to have secured both Jones and Iro — who has been a big supporter of the Southern Zone — for their launch and credited the work it took to get the academy off the ground.

"Just to see the excitement and energy on the kids faces ... was pretty cool," Turner said.

"It’s something that’s a massive step forward for rugby league down here to provide more opportunities and grow the game."

Turner called the academy a milestone moment for rugby league in the South and hoped it could produce more players like Balclutha teenager Karius Booth.

Booth, who only started playing league last year, is currently in Sydney with the Warriors under-17 team to play in the under-17 New South Wales semifinal.

"It’s something we’ve never had down here," Turner said.

"[For] a lot of people around the community, it’s given a real buzz for rugby league.

"The way the Warriors are going at the moment and the opportunities for kids in that pathway could not be any better."

That could also be said for the women, after the Warriors announced they would be returning to the NRLW next year.

Girls’ participation had grown in the past couple of years and providing another pathway for those girls, and the boys, was a driving force.

"It’s probably been challenging for our youth to get this type of opportunity in the past.

"It’s a big part of why we’ve worked hard to have hubs ... so these opportunities are at the doorstep for these kids."