Forget the fact that they have reached two NRL grand finals and won one minor premiership, the New Zealand Warriors’ 18-0 victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons on Saturday might arguably go down as the finest victory in their history.
Upon resumption of the season, which was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not many gave the Warriors a chance of doing well this year after New Zealand slammed its borders shut over two months ago in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The Warriors were in Newcastle playing their Round 1 match when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that any arrivals into the country, including the players and staff, would be required to self-quarantine for a fortnight.
Thus, in an attempt to keep the competition running, the club decided to remain in Australia for as long as it took, knowing they’d be leaving their families behind for an indefinite period of time, despite reports of homesickness among the players.
Their selflessness gained them a cult following among league fans, with members of other clubs and the general public signing up to club memberships as a show of support.
Even Dragons premiership-winning five-eighth Jamie Soward pledged his support for the beleaguered club, saying “This is bigger than the game but without the Warriors the game doesn’t continue.”
Subsequently, the Warriors based themselves at Kingscliff near the NSW-Queensland border and played their Round 2 match against the Canberra Raiders on the Gold Coast before the competition was eventually suspended at the peak of the pandemic.
They flew home and then spent an indefinite time in isolation as New Zealand entered stage four lockdown, in which people were not permitted to leave their places of residence except for essential activities such as limited exercise and shopping for groceries.
Then, ARLC chairman Peter V’landys launched Project Apollo, which was to get the season back up and running by early June, by which it was expected that the coronavirus infection rate would (and has) dramatically decrease(d).
The Warriors were then granted special permission to fly back into Australia, where they would be permitted to train as a team while quarantining in Tamworth, which embraced their new team despite locals being unable to get up close and personal with the players.
They flew across the ditch knowing they would be leaving their families behind for an indefinite time, with some (if not the majority of) players having become fathers in recent years.
Not least was the heartbreaking image of Adam Blair saying goodbye to his young son at Auckland Airport before he and the team flew to Australia to play their part in rescuing the NRL season.
Adam Blair saying goodbye to his son Taika at Auckland Airport this morning ????????????
Really hitting home what it means for the Warriors to travel to Australia to restart the season.
— Brendan Bradford (@1bbradfo) May 3, 2020
During their time in Tamworth, they suffered some significant injuries, not least Leeson Ah Mau, who could miss the rest of the season after rupturing his pectoral.
It is unknown how long the Warriors will remain in Australia for, though there are talks that a Trans-Tasman travel bubble could be established, in which people would be allowed to travel across the ditch without having to quarantine for 14 days at either end of their journey.
What we do know is that they will spend at least the next seven weeks here in Australia and play their home games at Central Coast Stadium.
They had already lost their first two matches of the season and many had touted them to finish last, but the players themselves would not allow any external talk to affect their preparations for the restart of proceedings.
Thus, they had every right not to be given a chance of even being competitive against the Dragons, another side that had started the season with two losses from as many matches.
But the side would repay the faith to their large legion of fans, whether it’d be here in Australia or back home in New Zealand, as well as, to some extent, the rest of the competition with arguably their most polished performance in history.
They completed 45 out of 47 sets and completed 44 consecutive sets before committing their first clanger of the match with five minutes remaining, by which point they led 18-0 and could not be beaten.
It was the first time any side had completed over 40 sets of tackles in NRL history.
Even the commentators were amazed at what they saw.
“It’s unbelievable, I’ve never seen any side do that, let alone the Warriors,” commentator Steve Roach said.
“They usually get tired and make mistakes in the back end of halves but not this afternoon, they’ve been outstanding, itching to play and they’ve proven it.”
Their first try came off a Dragons error in defence and the Kiwis immediately made the Red V pay, scoring inside the first ten minutes. That advantage doubled by halftime before Kodi Nikorima completed the rout with a try in the second half.
Not only that, they also managed to keep a clean sheet for the first time since 2014, and in Australia for the first time since they thrashed the South Sydney Rabbitohs 66-0 at Telstra Stadium (now ANZ Stadium) in 2006.
Mikaele Rawalava looked to score a consolation try for the Dragons with five minutes remaining, only to be stripped of the ball by Ken Maumalo, ensuring the Red V would be shut out of a match for the first time since Round 24, 2018.
Post-match, coach Stephen Kearney praised his players for the efforts they put into reviving the season, and focusing on the task at hand rather than the external state of affairs surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic (which, by the way, has now claimed over 350,000 lives worldwide).
Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck also said there was no extra motivation behind the team’s victory, saying they simply had to get the job done.
If the Warriors hadn’t already won enough fans over their selflessness to potentially play the entire season without a match on home soil, then they may have won even more support for their performance against the Red V in the most trying of times.
It was now evident to see why they have become everyone’s second team for agreeing to sacrifice their normal routines at home for the sake of restarting the NRL season.
The Kiwis’ next test will be backing up on a short turnaround against far more sterner opposition in the Penrith Panthers at Campbelltown Stadium, a venue which has been somewhat of a graveyard for the club.
The Panthers started the season with two straight wins, first upsetting defending premiers the Sydney Roosters at home in Round 1 and then coming from behind to beat the Dragons in Round 2 before the season was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While they’ll be without suspended halfback Nathan Cleary due to social distancing indiscretions, they’ll be expected to pose a far more bigger threat than the Dragons did on the Central Coast.
In the coming weeks the Warriors will also face the Cowboys, Rabbitohs, Storm, Broncos and Titans, with their only matches against the Cowboys and Broncos this season to be played on the Central Coast, while they will travel for matches against the other three clubs in that stretch.
After that they are scheduled to face the Sharks and Roosters in back-to-back home games in rounds 10-11, though whether they’ll be allowed to play those matches in their home country will remain to be seen.
But with the Trans-Tasman travel bubble not expected to be approved until September, the earliest they could play a true home game could come in Round 17 against the Parramatta Eels.
The Warriors’ latest against-the-odds victory proves that it won’t be all doom and gloom for the club nor its supporters, whereby many experts are tipping them to again finish in the lower rungs of the ladder.
From here they will have nothing to lose for the rest of 2020 as they face the prospect of not seeing their families again for at least four months.
The question now will be whether the Warriors can continue to surprise many in the face of such adversity for the rest of the season, or whether reality will hit them hard from here on in.
Though unlikely, should they end up mounting the premiership dais on October 25 (which is when the NRL grand final is scheduled), then it could just about become the most celebrated and talked-about championship in not just rugby league, but also world sport.
Apart from the Super Rugby, which spans no less than three countries, no foreign team has ever won an Australian sporting competition, though the Warriors themselves came close twice when they lost to the Roosters and Sea Eagles in the 2002 and 2011 NRL grand finals respectively.
So, could they pull off the impossible and win league’s holy grail? We’ll just have to wait and see.