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New Zealand delights in Warriors’ NRL success after years of rugby league neglect

<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>

<span>Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP</span>

Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

It’s the feel-good story of 2023. After years of finals droughts and a Covid-induced exile, the New Zealand Warriors are back. The team that finished 15th on the ladder last year is now just 80 minutes from playing in their third grand final.

For their long-suffering fans, it must feel like the world’s turned upside down. The Warriors’ 40-10 thumping of the Newcastle Knights in front of a heaving home crowd at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday was their first home win in finals football since 2007.

Related: Shaun Johnson inspires as Warriors surge past Knights into NRL preliminary final

As impressive as it is, the team’s success has been dwarfed by the massive public response. “Up the Wahs” has been read into the record in Aotearoa New Zealand’s parliament six times in the last month. Friday’s edition of the New Zealand Herald gave Shaun Johnson the Obama treatment. Pubs and restaurants in Auckland are extending their trading hours. And after being banned last year, Roger Shoey-Vasa Sheck is back.

The flipside to this lovefest is why it took so long for rugby league to realise its enormous potential in New Zealand. Since the Warriors launched to literal fireworks in 1995, efforts to grow the game have been hamstrung by the Australia-centric NRL, managerial dysfunction domestically and the hot mess that is the Warriors’ back office.

The Warriors’ 28 years in first grade has been a story of near misses and rolling administrative crises, with enough moments of greatness sprinkled throughout to hint at their potential. Their first-ever win, against the Western Suburbs Magpies in round three of the 1995 season, was nullified because their coaching staff accidentally sent out an extra interchange player. The two premiership points the team was stripped of ended up costing them a spot in the finals.

The budding club’s development was disrupted by the code war of the late 1990s, during which the Warriors sided with the breakaway Super League. After years of torrid ownership drama and financial near-oblivion – Eric Watson bought the club licence from the NRL for $1 in 2000 – the rebranded New Zealand Warriors made their first grand final in 2002, losing badly to the Roosters.

A few horror years followed – dismal performances, a salary cap scandal in 2006 – before a fairytale finals run in 2008 and their second grand final in 2011, losing to a star-studded Sea Eagles outfit. Despite the emergence of stars like Johnson and 2018 Dally M medal winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, they’ve played just one finals game since then – until this year.

The Warriors thumped Newcastle at the weekend to move into a preliminary final against Brisbane.

The Warriors thumped Newcastle at the weekend to move into a preliminary final against Brisbane. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

In those 28 years, the NRL’s efforts to support its only non-Australian club have ranged from patchy to tokenistic. For the first few years of their existence, the Warriors had to pay the air fares of Australian teams flying over to play them. The annual Anzac Day match between the Warriors and Melbourne Storm has never been played in Auckland.

But rugby league’s difficulties in New Zealand are bigger than the Warriors. The code has been dogged by the sense locally that the Australia-centric NRL consistently takes more out of the game in New Zealand than it gives back.

“The big thing that’s missing here from the NRL’s perspective [is] the game here in New Zealand,” Warriors CEO Cameron George said in September 2022. “The game gives so much to the NRL in general … Across every club, the environment here from a playing talent perspective delivers a lot of talent throughout the NRL.”

Resentment at the NRL taking New Zealand for granted bubbles up in a variety of ways. Earlier this year, Māori All Stars co-captain Joseph Tapine spoke out about the long-running failure of Australian broadcasters and commentators to correctly pronounce Māori and Pasifika players’ names. One NZ chief executive Jason Paris’s claim in May that referees are biased against the team struck a chord.

Shaun Johnson of the Warriors celebrates a Dallin Watene-Zelezniak try earlier this season.

Shaun Johnson of the Warriors celebrates a Dallin Watene-Zelezniak try earlier this season. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/AAP

Nothing brought this grievance into relief more than the unpaid debt the code still owes the Warriors from the lockdown era. During the Warriors’ two-and-a-half years in exile, the rugby league establishment fell over itself to praise them. Once lockdown was over, though, the NRL turned down the Warriors’ request to bring more games to New Zealand to start rebuilding the game after nearly three years of empty stadiums. To date, the only compensation the Warriors have received for their 1,073-day ordeal is an away game in Hamilton courtesy of the Wests Tigers and a “Thank You NZ” sticker on the back of the Broncos’ jerseys in round 13.

Related: ‘Mind-blowing’: New Zealand swept up in league fever as rugby union falters

In fairness to the NRL, its New Zealand counterpart has long been a byword for managerial incompetence. In 2009, a damning government report found the NZRL had mismanaged the local game for nearly a decade. In 2018, Auckland Rugby League chair Cameron McGregor declared that “the game has gone backwards” since then. The much-hyped Denver Test match between the Kiwis and England in the same year cost the NZRL more than NZ$300,000 in unpaid debts, in exchange for a game attended by 19,000 people.

The strength of support on display for the Warriors despite the weight of that history is proof that winning is rugby league’s best medicine. If the code can get past its own provincialism and embrace the idea that league is a genuinely regional game, its prospects in New Zealand look brighter than they have for a long time. The NZRL is planning to bid for hosting rights to the 2025 Rugby League World Cup in partnership with Pacific Island nations. And Tuivasa-Sheck is coming back to the Warriors next year. Whether or not they win in Brisbane on Saturday, fans will be hoping the Wahs are here to stay.

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