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Long road ahead as Warriors return home

3 minute read

It's been three years in the making, but after 60 NRL games on the road the Warriors are finally back in Auckland.

After 1,038 days on the road, the Warriors are finally home.

Sunday's game against the Wests Tigers is their first at Mt Smart Stadium since Friday 30 August 2019, bringing an end to their nomadic existence enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The game will be bigger than Texas," said Sir Peter Leitch, the man known as 'The Mad Butcher' and the club's No.1 fan.

"I don't know why I say that, because I've never been to Texas but that stadium is going to erupt.

"It's going to be on a par with their first game in 1995 for atmosphere."

The last few years have been lean for the Warriors.

When they stepped onto the field for the opening round of the 2020 season away to Newcastle, they assumed they'd be going home after the match.

By the time the full-time whistle had blown, the country's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had closed the border.

The club's chief executive Cameron George hoped it would be a short stay, but they would spend the next three seasons on the road.

Across 60 NRL games in that time they have played 'home games' in Mackay, the Gold Coast, Gosford, Brisbane, Redcliffe and Tamworth.

Thirty-four players have made their debuts for the club, while two head coaches have been and gone.

They are onto their second interim coach, Stacey Jones, for Sunday's game against the Tigers.

"I think what they've done has sort of been forgotten about over the past 12 to 18 months," said Todd Payten, an interim coach during the 2020 season when the club sacked Stephen Kearney.

"They've been away from home for three years. There's no way that the competition could have continued the way it has if it wasn't for the sacrifices that they made."

The return to Mt Smart is a sellout, but in an indication of how drastically the club has changed since 2019, only three players - Jazz Tevaga, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Adam Pompey - remain from that last game in Auckland.

But aside from the sugar hit of taking the Tigers fixture and three more games back to Auckland this season, there is work to be done.

The club still hasn't appointed a new head coach since their peculiar split with Nathan Brown, with St Helens coach Kristian Woolf knocking them back after appearing the most likely contender.

George said he wants their next coach to be a "hard arse" but four weeks after Brown's exit they appear no closer to finding the tough nut who can crack the Warriors.

Given the instability the club has been through over the last three seasons on the road, it's perhaps understandable why George's inbox hasn't been inundated with resumes.

It probably hasn't helped, either, that owner Mark Robinson was involved in a heated argument with Matt Lodge that led to the prop's mid-season exit with a full payout.

The exits of Lodge and David Fusitua mean the Warriors are chewing up salary cap space while not playing for the club.

The form of Shaun Johnson has been a concern, Harris-Tavita will take a sabbatical at the end of this season, while Reece Walsh, who won't play on Sunday after catching COVID-19, is continually linked with moves to Australian clubs.

If a new coach were to come in they would have to make do with the players the Warriors allowed Brown to sign before showing him the door.

As former Warriors coach Tony Kemp told AAP: "The narrative isn't ideal."

"I hope they don't hurry the decision," Kemp said.

"The model of sacking a coach after two years isn't working and history shows the club isn't learning.

"I think coaches are getting a lot smarter when they agree to go to clubs and you see that historically you don't have a long shelf life at the Warriors.

"This roster isn't winning you a premiership and it doesn't look to be building for the future; it's simply one that's signed the best players it could get a hold of."

The Warriors have played just one finals game in a decade and as well as rebuilding the club on the return home, a new coach won't be supported by the production line of talent that has greeted their predecessors.

Schools in the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Sydney are being filled with aspiring NRL players who have left New Zealand because there hasn't been a direct path to the top flight over the last three seasons.

"We lose so many kids overseas," Kemp said. "The success of the Warriors goes a long way to supporting the sport and having them away hasn't helped the game."

The two times the Warriors have reached the NRL grand final (2002 and 2011) they have had a blend of Australian talent, seasoned pros and prodigious Kiwi boys.

While they have to compete with rugby union and 16 other NRL clubs for talent, former Kiwis coach Sir Graham Lowe says the production line is still the best in the world.

"I could walk five kilometres from where I'm standing right now and I could pick up another team of players who could make it to the NRL," Lowe said.

"There's been all sorts of politics over the years and the Warriors have probably become a little bit disconnected by being away.

"I don't think anyone has made the impact on Mt Smart Stadium as Stacey has.

"He understands the soul of rugby league in this country and no matter how long the Warriors have been away for, that will never die."

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