With the NRL season only a few weeks away and the New Zealand Warrior's having started their warm-up matches, I have decided to reminisce on some of the more memorable moments in the Warrior's history.
Year two of Daniel Anderson’s coaching rein and the Warriors make the 2002 grand final against the Sydney City Roosters. Down 8-2 early in the match, things were looking decidedly average for the first time grand finalists. Until, that is, Stacey Jones came to the rescue with one of the all-time great grand final tries. Play had broken down on the Rooster’s thirty metre line. The ball somehow managed to get to Jones who then proceeded to run diagonally to his right for fifteen metres. Finding no space to his liking in this particular part of the ground, he then took a rather acute turn to the left and headed off again on the diagonal and through the good majority of the Roosters team to score, showing just how great he was. With the conversion, the score was back to 8-all. Though the score remained the same for the next twenty minutes the Warriors started to gain the ascendancy. That is until Richard Villisanti’s infamous head butt on Rooster’s captain, Brad Fittler. Fittler fired up and the Rooster’s strolled away to a thirty points to eight victory. Still, Jones left his mark on the game with a try that will be remembered for many years to come.
Midway through the 2008 season, Warriors fans were just getting used to the notion that their team would not be playing finals football. For their team was in thirteenth position on the NRL ladder. Something sound familiar? A similar position to 2007 at the same stage of the season and like 2007, Ivan Cleary’s men jump-started their staggering, spluttering season by going on a prolonged run of vibrant form. In the end they sneaked into the finals football in eighth position and a first weekend away game against defending champions the Melbourne Storm. In the history of the McIntyre system number eight had never beaten number one. Despite a tight match, with two minutes remaining on the clock Melbourne were up 15-12 and had looked to have done enough to get week two of the finals series off. However, Jerome Ropati and a few close acquaintances had other ideas. Desperate to seal a last minute win, The Warriors backline sprung into action when Ropati busted the Storm’s right-side defence and off-loaded to the Manu “the beast” Vatuvei, who thundered his way along the grassy expanses of Olympic stadium. Having encountered a few undesirables in the form of the Storm’s defensive unit, he passed inside to Michael Witt who scampered over to score in the left corner. Though, not before giving Cleary and his teammates heart palpitations by raising the ball in the air before forcing it for the try that sealed an upset victory.
In 2001 the Warriors came under new management, which also brought in a new coach in Daniel Anderson. The team’s fortunes changed for the better right from the beginning. But the defining moment came against the Canterbury Bulldogs. Bulldog’s forward, Steve Reardon decided to open a can of whoopass on Monty Betham and Betham whooped his ass. *Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, please, if you will,letsssss get ready to rumbleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Steve-what the hell was I thinking-Reardon throws a right hook and connects with Betham. Monty-I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life-Betham throws a right hook, Monty throws a left hook, Monty throws a right hook, Monty throws another right hook, Monty wins. The Warriors had always been considered to have a soft underbelly but from here on in that all changed. The Warriors forward pack became well respected. Oh yes, feared as well.
* Part of this sentence was taken from Michael Buffer, a boxing ring announcer.
2001 was a year that had numerous firsts for the New Zealand Warriors. Perhaps the most important was their first ever visit to the stunning scenery that is finals football. Though, it was a close run thing in the end. Going into the final round of the regular season, they needed to beat or at the very least draw with the Melbourne Storm. Up 20-4 at the half-time break, it looked to be a foregone conclusion that they would be celebrating making history by the night’s end, but the Storm had other ideas. While the Warrior’s did add one more try to their tally the storm was closing in on them. With only minutes remaining and the Warriors up 24-20 the Melbourne grabbed a last minute try to tie the score. The fate of their season (As well as a $150 bet at 7/1 on my part for the Warriors to make the top eight) was to be decided by a sideline conversion. Matt Geyer missed the conversion and the players as well as the Warriors long suffering fans were rewarded with a first ever finals appearance.
Another first happened in 2001 for the Warriors. The Warriors decided to do the unthinkable...beat Brisbane. And this they did 13-12 in round six. A victory achieved on the back of one of the finest defensive efforts seen in the club’s history. That Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett felt moved to go to the Warriors changing rooms after the match and congratulate the opposition- something he very rarely does- speaks volumes.
Brisbane battered the Warriors goal line for close to ten minutes, but could not find a way through. In part this was due to Kevin Campion who was pushed by Shane Webcke in the play the ball area. Campion responded with a flurry of punches that Webcke could not respond to. Not only that, but Webcke was penalised for starting the incident. The Warriors kicked for touch and then manoeuvred their way out of trouble, holding on for a one point victory. Campion had given his team some much needed mental energy in what was a very clever play on his part.
This started a run of seven from eight wins against Brisbane. Amazing what a little self-belief can do for a team.
More from the 2001 file and this one’s a beauty. Playing the Canterbury Bulldogs at the cake tin in Wellington (the Bulldog’s home game),the Warriors had played seventy-four minutes of football distinguishable more for its ineptitude than for any memorable attacking fare. Skillful attacking fortitude had been nowhere in sight but now here is a true story of some marvellous attacking flair. Down 24-8, the Wellington crowd, at this stage, more than likely did not care. But only go home early if you dare. For a revival of mighty proportions was near. That revival came in the form of three tries, two of which were converted. Stacey Jones lined up the conversion for the final try twenty metres in from the sideline. A relatively straightforward kick, but the pressure mounted and he missed the kick leaving the scores tied at 24-24.
Who would have thought that six minutes of football could be worth the price of admission alone.
The hype leading up to the first ever match of the Auckland Warriors was extreme, to say the least. Unlike a lot of occasions of this magnitude when there is so much promised and very little delivered, the match against Brisbane was every bit as good as the hype had suggested it would be. First though, there was the prematch entertainment which consisted of mock soldiers in camouflage darting all over the ground in amongst heavily manipulated smoke. Unfortunately for the Warriors though, they could not quite get the killer blow in and went down fighting 25-22, thanks mainly to the individual brilliance of Alan “alfie” Langer.
In 2003 Warriors fans were once again rewarded for the third year in a row with their team reaching finals football. Up against the Canterbury Bulldogs of Sydney, the Warriors flew west to the Sydney showground and then took great delight in dismantling the Bulldogs 48-22. Francis Meli set a finals record by scoring five tries. He was surely a very happy boy as he flew back east. Not so the Bulldogs though, for they had dominated the first third of the match (including a ten minute period where the Warriors had a man in the sin bin) having had an eight point lead. In the end though the Warriors were too big, strong and fast for their opposition, showing just what they were capable of doing to the best of opponents on their day.