Canterbury Bulls and Junior Kiwis front-row rugby league forward Roger Tafua has signed a two-year agreement with the Cronulla Sharks.
Tafua, 18, will be included in the same elite rugby league development squad as fellow Canterbury age-grade representative Brackin Karauria-Henry, 17, who signed in June. Bulls scrum-half Quincy To'o To'o, 17, has also caught the eye of Sharks scouts and has been invited to look around the Cronulla operation with his parents later this month.
Cronulla recruitment officer Theo Burgess described the elite squad as a means of fast-tracking the careers of up-and-coming youngsters.
It comprises the best players from Cronulla's under-20 team and the most promising of the new signings. They will have several months of specialist coaching and training alongside established first-grade players.
Although he initially did not realise it, Tafua was hot property when he toured Australia with the Junior Kiwis earlier this season.
"We didn't know there were scouts there until after we played and they came up to us. That's where it started," said Tafua yesterday.
Burgess followed the initial approach with a visit to Christchurch. Tafua and his parents then spent the weekend before last as guests of the Sharks when they played their last regular-season home match against South Sydney.
Tafua has made remarkable strides during a season which began in the Canterbury 18-years national junior competition (NJC) team as a prelude to his promotion into the Bulls.
He had the unusual distinction of playing in the national competition before he had made his open-grade debut for Papanui.
"I got a fright. I didn't know I would be playing for the Canterbury Bulls straight after the NJC. It was a huge buzz for me," he said. "I've been happy; I've enjoyed it. Phil Prescott is a good coach."
The rookie went on to make 10 appearances, nine from the interchange bench, but is a borderline selection for Sunday's grand final. His fact-finding trip to Cronulla coincided with the Bulls' major semi-final win.
Tafua, a student at the New Zealand Institute of Sport, has trimmed down from 105kg to 100kg and is looking forward to the prospect of full-time training with the Sharks.
He will go to Cronulla in November to prepare for his first season in Sydney.
If To'o To'o joins the mini-migration, Canterbury will have lost five of its most promising players across the Tasman since April.
Bulls rookies Charlie Herekotukutuku, 20, and Lewis Brown, 19, left for Australia after the opening round of the Bartercard Cup.
Outstanding Bulls centre Chris Newton will also be lost when he joins the Penrith Panthers later this year. But Newton, 23, is an exception to the general rule in that he takes with him a background of five Bartercard Cup seasons, two national grand finals, and representative experience for New Zealand residents.