This is Part 9 of my series speaking with fans from all NRL sides to see what it’s really like to support their team. This week, the New Zealand Warriors.
Not everyone was happy with the Warriors at first. Their entry into the competition in 1995 was met with anger from those who didn’t agree with an international team joining the National Rugby League.
But over the years feelings changed, and the love for the team across the ditch grew.
Superstars like Stacey Jones, Simon Mannering, and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have made the Warriors a very exciting and entertaining team to watch. But they have never become the dominant force that their team-sheet represents. Two grand final appearances, but an empty trophy cabinet remains.
Despite the lack of silverware, the Warriors have come a long way over the years and their fan-base continues to grow. But it’s what the club has done over the past two Covid-hit seasons that has earned them so much respect and admiration from across the entire NRL community.
Relocating to Australia due to Covid restrictions – away from their family, friends, and fans – so the competition could continue. And it unfortunately looks like 2022 will be the same.
It’s no wonder they have become a second favourite team for many.
Of course, their own fans didn’t need any more reason to love them.
I spoke to two of those fans, Arna and Seve. I started our chat on the topic of the team relocating, and how much of an impact they thought being based in Australia had on the Warriors.
Arna answered first. “I think it would have had a massive impact on the players and their families. I don’t think we will really understand how hard it would have been for them all. We owe them so much for staying here so the competition could continue. They’re amazingly resilient and so committed to the game and the fans.”
Seve agreed the impact would have been huge. “Being away from family for that long isn’t ideal and I believe it impacts performance. They’re shoes I would not want to fill. We owe a huge debt to the Warriors.”
I asked when and why did they become Warriors supporters.
“Since day dot!” Seve answered proudly. “Back in 1995 and every game and every year since. All my family are Kiwi and growing up with New Zealand tradition and the All Blacks, it was a perfect fit for me. I haven’t looked back.”
“I became a supporter when I moved from Victoria to NSW,” replied Arna. “I didn’t know much about the NRL, but being sports mad, I needed a team. I decided on the Warriors quickly when I started looking into the different sides. There was just something really special about them that I loved.”
And what is the best and worst part about being a Warriors fan? “Best part is the Warriors family,” Seve answered.
“The comradeship and support the fans give week in and week out. The team do the best they can and regardless the supporters show up for all the games. You tend to recognise the same people travelling all over to show support and that’s what it’s all about. The worst part would be getting complacent when we have a lead. I believe we need to ensure we play 80 minutes instead of slowing down regardless of the score.”
“Best part is how unique it is to support the only non-Australian team ,“ added Arna. “Also, the opportunity (in non-covid times) to travel to New Zealand to watch home games. I love how other supporters get behind the Warriors, they’re universally loved. Worst part, Covid. Not being able to watch them at Mount Smart Stadium. Also not having a premiership yet. It’s coming though!”
Despite being such a strong, talented, and exciting side, the Warriors are never really seen as a competition threat.
I asked what they thought needs to change so they become a consistent finals team. Arna agreed with a point Seve mentioned previously. “We need to compete for the full 80 minutes, not just bursts of greatness. If we have teams on the backfoot we need to capitalise on these opportunities more.”
“I believe the Warriors have shown they can be a threat,” Seve replied. “We have two grand final appearances in 2002 and 2011 and quite a few semi-finals too. However, discipline and consistency are key. Continuing to try new things and complete sets are something that would achieve results. Our kick chase isn’t always the best and applying pressure in key moments is something we need to work on.”
I’ve asked many fans during this series how they felt about players with bad reputations being part of their team. I wondered how the fans felt about Matt Lodge joining the Warriors.
“To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I found out he had been signed,” admitted Arna. “Knowing his past and the seriousness of what happened, I wasn’t sure what impact his presence would have on the fans and the players. I guess people can change ….I have to trust that the club know what they were doing.”
Seve tried to stay positive. “I’m not sure exactly what happened with him at the Broncos and don’t think anyone does, however I see him as a key player and a disciplined one for us and definitely a leader in the group. His behaviour on the field is questionable however we all get frustrated and I’m sure he has learnt his lesson. He should have a great 2022 as long as his injury doesn’t play up again.”
I asked if they thought Nathan Brown is the right coach for the Warriors.
“I’m probably under the same opinion as everyone,” Seve began. “We are yet to see what he can do for us. Having coached during the Covid Pandemic it’s really hard to judge. I think he has a lot of knowledge and great ideas and I’m sure he will do his best leading us this season.”
“I really like Nathan Brown,” Arna added. “I think the players really like him and that’s so important. This season will tell us a lot more about him and what he can do with the side, which is really exciting.”
Many league fans were saddened to hear Roger Tuivasa-Sheck announcing his departure from the NRL to play rugby union.
How did these fans feel about him leaving, and how do the club move on from the loss of such a leader and player?
“Losing the goat RTS was devastating,” Seve began, “however I still believe it was a decision he had to do for him and his family. He was the glue in our team that just held us together. But sometimes we need to make way for bigger and better things and I’m happy for him and wish him the best for his future.”
Arna cried when she heard the news. “RTS is so loved and was such an amazing player. It is great though to see him move to a code that he loves; I know he will be phenomenal. Reece Walsh is the obvious choice to step up, given how much he lit the comp up.”
While one beloved son leaves, another one returns in the form of Shaun Johnson. I asked how much of an effect he will have on the team.
Arna believes a massive one. “Johnson returning brings with him leadership and experience. His speed, flare and creativity are his hallmarks and I’m hoping he can channel his previous performance at the Warriors which saw him as one of the best players in the comp. I hope his experience will assist our younger halves.”
Seve agreed with Arna and is very excited Johnson is back. “Welcome home Shaun! I’m a massive Shaun supporter, I love the guy. I was gutted when he left for the Sharks it just wasn’t the same. To hear he is back where he belongs was music to my ears. He is a great player and awesome person who I have met and love. I cannot wait to see what he brings this year, and I will be cheering him on.”
I asked who their favourite players were, past and present.
“I have to say that RTS is my favourite past player,” Arna answered. “I loved watching him play, he was the ultimate player. So reliable and loveable. My current favourite player is Reece Walsh. The kid is incredible and the future of the club.”
For Seve, his past favourite is Manu Vatuvei. “The energy he brought to the team every time he touched the ball was something else. To watch that bloke run down the wing at full charge and the faces he made still gives me chills. I know he got himself in a bit of trouble recently however his on-field performance was brilliant. I can’t pick a favourite player currently – the whole team has so many positives and skills it’s just so hard!”
What are the fans looking forward to most for next season, and who do they think is going to be the Warriors stand out star in 2022?
“The return of Shaun Johnson and a real run at the top 8…I would also love no injuries!” Arna laughed. “Stand out star will be Reece Walsh. He’s such an explosive player who will only get better and better.”
Seve agreed about Johnson. “I can’t wait until he gets a hold of that ball and does what he does best. As for the standout players – I’m choosing two! Reece Walsh and Rocco Berry. The way they both play and the exciting structure and talent they bring is going to make for an awesome season. They will both smash it and do brilliantly.”
And last question as always, if they could say anything to the team, what would it be?
“Let’s gone warriors!” replied Seve. “You’ve got this, boys. You have supporters far and wide and the whole NRL are secretively supporting you. I expect a team photo with myself at the next game. Good luck!”
“I’d love to say thank you for all of the sacrifices they have made over the last 2 seasons,” answered Arna. “Thank you for giving me something to look forward to every week during covid lockdowns, for bringing so much joy and a sense of normality to those lockdown days. Good luck for this season. I know you’ll do us proud.”
After everything they have endured the past two seasons, the Warriors and their fans will be hoping for a lot more success and maybe even a premiership in 2022.
And after all they have sacrificed, if they happen to be holding up the trophy at the end of the season, I have a feeling there won’t be many supporters from other clubs too unhappy about that either.