The promising batch of players chosen to represent New Zealand Kiwis A in the opening match of Saturday’s triple-header at Eden Park will be eyeing the clash with Tonga A as a stepping stone to full Test honours.
A 15-strong Kiwis A squad laced with experienced first-graders, emerging fringe NRL players and gun teenagers was named last week; they will be joined by three members of Michael Maguire’s Kiwis group not selected for the Pacific Championships Test against Toa Samoa.
The selection of four Kiwis A tyros – Wests Tigers’ Asu Kepaoa, and Warriors trio Ali Leiataua, Jacob Laban and Tanner Stowers-Smith – in particular is a ringing endorsement of New Zealand Rugby League’s representative pathways.
Versatile 23-year-old Kepaoa has already racked up 40 NRL appearances for the Tigers after being lured to Sydney by the Roosters aged just 17 and earning his NSW Cup spurs with North Sydney Bears.
The Auckland junior represented Akarana Falcons and Counties Manukau Stingrays at age-group level, winning selection in the New Zealand Under-16s Merit Team, the New Zealand Residents 18s and – after linking with the Roosters – the 2019 Junior Kiwis side that featured the likes of Griffin Neame and Jordan Riki.
Snapped up by the then-Maguire-coached Tigers midway through 2020, Kepaoa played five top-grade games on the wing and crossed for four tries. He had an extended NRL stint in the centres at the back end of 2022, while this year his 19 matches (in which he scored five tries) included starts in the second-row, in the centres and on the wing.
Leiataua made his NRL debut in June as the Warriors memorably spoiled Canberra centre Jarrod Croker’s 300th game celebrations in a blistering 36-14 victory. The 20-year-old produced a superb display on both sides of the ball opposite the milestone man to announce himself as a star of the future.
A hamstring injury suffered during that match sidelined Leiataua for more than two months, but he returned in time to play a standout role in the Warriors’ NSW Cup playoffs charge that ended at the preliminary final stage. In 16 NSW Cup appearances in 2023, Leiataua scored 10 tries, made 13 line-breaks, chalked up 77 tackle-breaks and six try assists, and averaged 137 running metres.
The nephew of Warriors and Kiwis great Ali Lautiiti and the brother of Kiwi Ferns rep Onjeurlina Leiataua, the athletic outside back is a Papatoetoe Panthers junior whose representative achievements include New Zealand Residents 16s selection in 2019 (from Counties Manukau Stingrays) and New Zealand 18s Schools selection (from King’s College). A member of the Warriors’ inaugural SG Ball squad in 2020, Leiataua played for Auckland Blue in the 2021 NZRL Under-20s tournament before outlining his potential for Redcliffe Dolphins in the 2022 QRL Colts competition.
Randwick Kingfishers (Wellington) product Jacob Laban – born in Moto’otua, Samoa – represented New Zealand Residents 16s in 2020 before finishing his secondary school studies in Auckland at Kelston Boys’ High. He was named College Sport Wellington’s rugby league player of the year in 2019 and earned the same award under the College Sport Auckland banner in 2021.
Signed by the Warriors, Laban played in Redcliffe Dolphins’ under-18 and under-20 teams in 2022 and began this year in the Warriors’ SG Ball line-up. The 19-year-old second-rower’s rapid progress continued via 17 appearances at NSW Cup level – scoring five tries, and averaging 74 metres and 24 tackles a game – while he received a call-up to the Warriors’ extended bench for the final-round clash with the Dolphins.
Tanner Stowers-Smith, also 19, capped a stunning 2023 rise with a late call-up to join six Warriors clubmates in the Kiwis A squad.
The highly impressive middle forward hails from Canterbury Rugby League club Halswell Hornets and attended St Bede’s College, while he was briefly contracted to Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. A staple of Canterbury and South Island Scorpions age-group tournament teams, Stowers-Smith kicked off this season by captaining the Warriors’ SG Ball side.
Stowers-Smith eventually made 13 NSW Cup appearances – including all three of the Warriors’ finals matches – and made a mighty impression in his five starts at prop or lock and eight interchange outings.
An industrious worker on attack and defence with a dash of X-factor, Stowers-Smith comes from esteemed rugby league stock. His great-grandfather, Pat Smith, is a Canterbury legend and has the rare distinction of captaining the Kiwis in all 36 matches (including 10 Tests) he played for his country from 1947-49. CRL’s premier clubs vie for the Pat Smith Challenge Trophy on grand final day.
New Zealand Kiwis A’s showdown with Tonga A kicks off at Eden Park at 1.30pm on Saturday, October 21.