Orcas starting to reap dividends from Academy involvement

Ben Matulino is an example of what the new New Zealand Rugby League regional academy in Wellington is trying to achieve.

Having spent the past two years as part of a pilot programme between the NZRL and New Zealand Institute of Sport, and now this year with the confirmed partnership between the NZRL and Weltec, Matulino is destined for the NRL.

The 18-year-old second rower is being paid by the Warriors to continue playing in the Bartercard Cup for Wellington before moving to Auckland next year where he could be earning in the region $50,000 a year.

But he will also receive an education, with a certificate in personal training from Wellington Polytechnic, a fallback option should things not go to plan.

"With the relationship with Weltec, the pathway is there both in terms of becoming a Junior Kiwi, then a professional rugby league player and also securing an education," academy coaching director and Wellington Orcas Bartercard Cup coach Paul Bergman said. "And it adds another zero on the contract."

Bergman has high hopes for Matulino and the rest of the young achievers, of which he believes most are destined for NRL clubs.

"It's tremendous for Ben, he's only 18 but he did the smartest thing possible in holding off. He could've gone to Australia and gone from one job to the next while trying to make his name in rugby league, along with all the other thousands of players over there.

"But the pathway is there if players like Ben stay here a little longer and also get an education. In my opinion, Ben will be in the second row for the Warriors next year, possibly alongside another Wellington product, Simon Mannering."

The national premiership starts this weekend, with Wellington hosting Tamaki at the Basin Reserve today.

The Orcas disappointed results-wise last year, finishing seventh in the 10-team competition and winning just six of 18 matches.

Bergman attracted criticism from several quarters for fielding too many teenaged players, but he believes the experienced gained last year will prove invaluable.

"It's the third year for a lot of these guys, they'll be getting a diploma at the end of the year, possibly a Junior Kiwis jumper and then I'd expect a lot of them to be signed by professional clubs.

"So I'm expecting big things from them in the Bartercard Cup. They've gained a lot of experience, they're much wiser, and we've had a far more intense off-season this year - their strength levels are significantly higher."

Bergman has again plumped for youth, with most of the squad still in their teens.

Features include Papua New Guinea international Ompalus Kua moving to fullback despite being Wellington's leading try-scorer last season at centre, with Bergman keen to see him get his hands on the ball more, while Ben Taraeka takes over the crucial halfback role from sharpshooter Leon Boyd, who has returned home to Canterbury.

"Ben's probably a better halfback but we will miss Leon's goalkicking."

And in an interesting developmental ploy, Bergman will leave two bench spots per game for members of the Wellington under-18 squad, which will play in the curtain-raisers to Bartercard Cup matches, when their competition starts next month.

"It's a genuine development route for the younger players. The boys will know there's a spot in the team for the taking if they perform."

courtesy The Dominion Post