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The ones who got away: New Zealand Warriors

This is the 13th article in the series where I’ll pick a team of the best players who got away from a club since 2000.

Today it’s the turn of the New Zealand Warriors.

The only criteria are that the player named must have made his debut for the Warriors, left the club after 2000 and then played with another NRL club rather than just retired or headed to obscurity in either the ESL or rugby.

Details in brackets are the year the player debuted for the Warriors and the number of games played for the club.

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1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (2017, seven games)

Yes, he’s returning to the Warriors next year, but they could have done with his power game over the last four seasons.

2. Cooper Vuna (2004, five games)

Like CNK, Vuna didn’t play much first-grade league during his couple of years with the club, so it was no surprise that he headed to the Knights in 2007 before becoming a Tongan dual national.

3. Paul Whatuira (2000, five games)

Another to barely get a start at the Warriors, Whatuira played his best football with the Tigers and became a 16-Test player for NZ.

4. Konrad Hurrell (2012, 71 games)

The powerful centre played well in his first three seasons with the Warriors before a drop in form saw him released to join the Titans midway through 2016. He’s just a good club player.

Konrad Hurrell

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

5. Bill Tupou (2010, 64 games)

Tupou began his time at the Warriors well, but after playing every game in 2012, he found himself on the outer in 2013, playing just nine games in first grade. He left the Warriors for Canberra in 2014 but didn’t fare much better, and it wasn’t until he switched to the ESL in 2015 that he found himself a permanent place in the top grade.

6. Tui Lolohea (2014, 52 games)

Lolohea played everywhere in the backline during his career, and perhaps his versatility and being shifted all over the park stood in the way of him establishing himself as a top-line player. He left the Warriors for the Tigers midway through 2017 and his career drifted after that.

7. Mason Lino (2015, 17 games)

I always liked the look of Lino, but he struggled for first-grade appearances during his time with the Warriors. He moved to the Knights in 2019 and didn’t do much better there, eventually heading to the ESL in 2021. He was a player who was never able to fully utilise his talent.

8. Leeson Ah Mau (2009, two games)

It’s probably a bit rough to expect a club to identify talent after just two games, but he was certainly one who got away. He debuted for the Warriors at the age of 19 but was cut from the squad after injuries ruined most of his first season. He headed to the Cowboys in 2010, where he got a foothold in the first grade, and then became one of the Dragons’ most reliable performers after joining them in 2012, going on to play 16 Tests for Tonga and nine for NZ. He finally returned to the Warriors in 2019 to finish his career.

Leeson Ah Mau of the Warriors

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

9. Siliva Havili (2014, 14 games)

Havili struggled for consistency early in his career and notched up just 14 first-grade games in his first two seasons with the Warriors. A switch to the Dragons in 2016 wasn’t any more successful, and it wasn’t until he joined Canberra in 2018 that he established himself as a genuine first-grader.

10. Ben Matulino (2008, 212 games)

Matulino was a junior Kiwi before joining the Warriors in 2008, where he quickly established himself in the first-grade team and became a regular selection for NZ the following year. He joined the Tigers in 2018 in order to link up with coach Ivan Cleary but wasn’t able to recapture his best form. He retired at the end of 2019.

11. Isaiah Papali’i (2017, 63 games)

After debuting for the Warriors in 2017 at the age of just 19, Papali’I became a regular in the top grade over the next couple of years before Parramatta got under the Warriors’ guard and signed him for 2021. He soon established himself as one of the best backrowers in the game.

12. Lewis Brown (2009, 84 games)

Brown joined the Warriors in 2009 and, after overcoming a foot injury, played nearly every game over the next three seasons as well as five tests for New Zealand. He was snapped up by Penrith in 2013, where he spent the next three years while notching up another 11 Tests for his country.

13. Elijah Taylor (2011, 67 games)

Versatile, talented and whole-hearted, Taylor became one of the best performing Warriors after making his debut as a 21-year-old in 2011. He also made his Test debut that same year. He was recruited by Penrith in 2014, but injuries limited his first-grade opportunities.

This is an interesting but odd bunch of players. They were all good, reliable first graders while they were with the Warriors, but there’s not one player among them who you’d class as an outright star who got away from the club.

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