Covid-19 is threatening to scupper the NRL dreams of young rugby league players in New Zealand.
The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on the domestic game in Aotearoa, with the national secondary schools and youth tournaments among a host of events to be cancelled.
Experienced administrator and rugby league agent, Jordan Friend, said the coronavirus has been devastating for the development of young players in New Zealand.
"Cancellations of these tournaments will affect players in terms of less exposure, but also mentally for kids not getting that opportunity," he said.
"Even for players who are established, the lack of playing opportunities has already limited their progression this year and there will be a lot of question marks on what's next for these players."
It's a second major blow for the schools tournament which was called off in 2019 because of a measles outbreak.
Former New Zealand Warriors captain Simon Mannering and retiring forward Adam Blair were among the names to have showcased their talents at New Zealand Rugby League's national tournaments, with both players going on to make over 300 NRL appearances.
Auckland-based agent, Dixon McIver, said the recruitment of players in New Zealand was already declining, hitting Māori and Pasifika players the hardest.
"It's really put a big dampener on the kids in particular this 15s, 16s, 17s and even 18 year-old age groups now because the possibilities where they've been waiting to have this crack are gone," he said.
"The players we produce here and that we semi-develop here go into a system, whether it be here or Australia.
"It's evident throughout the NRL now when you start looking at the percentage of players that are Pasifika especially, so this affects the recruitment status of these kids because they then start weighing up the cost of contracting a player from here."
Warriors commitment to NZ juniors questioned
The New Zealand Warriors played a pivotal role in developing junior players in Aotearoa and offered a local pathway to the NRL.
They were the most successful club to compete in the former NRL Under 20s competition, winning three premierships from four grand final appearances and unearthing a raft of first grade stars which included Shaun Johnson, Konrad Hurrell and Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
But it was evident there had been a downturn of homegrown talent being established at the club, with the Warriors starting lineup from this year's opening round, containing just four players who were developed in New Zealand without spending time at another club.
The Warriors announced a new partnership with the Redcliffe Dolphins in June, which was promoted as a shared vision "to enable outstanding young players from Queensland and New Zealand to benefit from the best pathways structure available in the game."
Dixon McIver isn't convinced the deal would support New Zealand-based players, with the Brisbane-based Dolphins acting as a feeder club.
"We've got the best nursery ground of players that they can choose from, we've got the whole of Aotearoa, yet we're turned away from that for some time now." he said.
"They've pretty much given up on their development programmes that they've had prior...and it seems quite obvious with the Warriors now doing a deal with the Redcliffe Dolphins over the next three years, that development from the only NRL club that we have in this country has almost turned its back on our youngsters as well."
Jordan Friend spent eight years at the Warriors, most recently in charge of junior recruitment and pathways, but finished on the same day the Redcliffe partnership was announced.
"It was announced as a landmark trans-Tasman rugby league deal but my initial thoughts were cost-saving and less playing opportunities," he said.
"In Australia some NRL teams may not have a reserve grade and will give it to the local league club, they've got that opportunity.
"In New Zealand, what we're seeing from a player, parent and agents' perspective, we're saying: what is going to be the opportunity for these boys?"
The Warriors defended their commitment to development pathways, adamant they had done everything possible to rebuild the club amid uncertain times.
An under 18s team debuted in the New South Wales Rugby League's SG Ball Cup earlier this year but the competition was subsequently cancelled, alongside the NRL's second-tier competition, the Canterbury Cup, because of Covid-19.
Warriors CEO Cameron George said the partnership with the Redcliffe Dolphins would ensure a sustainable future.
"The competition was shut down overnight so with that, we lost a lot of revenue and lost a lot of opportunity and we've done a three-year partnership with Redcliffe to rebuild our club," he said.
"We would lose a lot of players if we didn't have that partnership in place because as it stands now we don't have the revenue from this year to be able to sustain three teams in a competition in Australia."
Dixon McIver said the cancellation of the SG Ball competition and uncertainty over its future had left contracted players waiting for answers.
"That was a great opportunity because the U20s provided a squad of 25 kids with opportunities, so it wasn't just the one or two kids flying over to be in Australia to make it, it allowed a group of kids to potentially get that opportunity to fulfil their dreams and to develop."
McIver knew of half a dozen players from this year's squad who were now looking for clubs overseas.
"Now I get that clubs can't keep all the players, but where does a young 15-year-old in New Zealand expect to play when the only NRL club here has abolished all its junior teams? They've got no choice but to go abroad if they want to play in an NRL system."
NZRL urged to step up
The Warriors were working with New Zealand Rugby League on the possibility of fielding an SG Ball team next year, while the club had appointed Phil Gould as a consultant, as part of a wider vision to implement a long-term academy programme in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
"This is the world of sport in Covid-19 where we live in New Zealand and play in an Australian competition," George explained.
"I've been living with uncertainty since April of this year...so I get that people are concerned with the uncertainty but that's out of our control and that's the real challenge for everyone."
He said the responsibility for the domestic game rested with New Zealand Rugby League and their zones throughout the country.
"Covid-19 has had a huge impact financially on sport and that's going to stifle some progress in the short term," he said.
"But hopefully the governing body such as the New Zealand Rugby League and the NRL and whoever else, invests not only money but time and energy into ensuring that those competitions are retained in order for kids to have the best pathways to come through and play at the elite level."
NZRL have since announced an inaugural schools vs clubs fixture to take place in November.
Mt Smart Stadium is set to host a jam-packed weekend of rugby league action with the inaugural NZRL Schools v Clubs (18s) match and an NZ Residents v NZ Māori Residents game locked in for Sunday, November 8. Both games will be televised live on Sky Sport! https://t.co/0UsrRBB9RG pic.twitter.com/tJmUgYGO2o— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) September 17, 2020
Chief executive Greg Peters said while he was concerned that participation rates in the game were falling, the match would provide an important pathway moving forward.
"It's a concern for the whole game. This year has been a really unusual and challenging year for all of us, not only in sport, but when you look at participation rates trending down compared to last year by about 15 percent, it's consistent with other winter codes as well."
The fixture was set to be an annual event and Peters hoped the situation would improve further in the new year.
"We're hoping that obviously we can get back to normality next year and that will turn around again and that by standing up some of these national tournaments that we are at least providing something of a pathway so that they're still getting an opportunity to have something to aspire to."