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Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the NZ Warriors, March 2016 (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the NZ Warriors, March 2016 (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

SportsSeptember 5, 2019

This is the long and sorry Warriors saga. Now it has a shot at a happy ending

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the NZ Warriors, March 2016 (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the NZ Warriors, March 2016 (Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The latest twist in the Warriors tale might be grim, but it comes as little surprise to sports journalist and former Warriors CEO Trevor McKewen. He traces the club’s long and sorry history

I know that by now a lot of people don’t care what happens to the Warriors. I’d like to think this piece is for the ones that still care. It’s also a poignant plea for sanity from someone who has been at the coalface and understands the toil against already stacked odds. I was there, as CEO, in the sixth and seventh seasons of the Warriors. We’re now near the end of the 25th. And history is repeating.

The revelation that the co-owners of the Warriors are so at war that it will probably require a mediator to even get them to speak was, quite frankly, painful to read. The Herald cited a source who assessed the chance of anybody from majority shareholders Auckland Rugby League sitting down with the minority shareholder, Autex Industries, as “zero”.  Which left Autex making its offer to buy out the ARL via the media.

An ugly ownership spat went public back then in the 2000 season too. That one was between the majority shareholder, the Waikato-based iwi Tainui, and Graham Lowe and Malcolm Boyle. The fight back then was basically over the same two things I suspect the current stoush is about – ongoing funding of the club to the level required to be competitive in the NRL, and the loudest voice in the boardroom. But I’ll come back to that.

People often ask me if the Warriors are cursed. They’re not cursed. If they’ve been cursed with anything, it’s been a lack of investment from a committed owner. And it’s been like that been since day one. In 25 years, the Warriors have never had an ownership structure that has allowed them to compete – let alone flourish – as the only non-Australian franchise in an Australian competition.

They could have had that under one owner in particular. But he didn’t do it. So where does that leave us now?

Stephen Kearney in happier times. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Before addressing that question, a history lesson is in order. The Warriors were born when the Auckland Rugby League were gifted a licence in the early 90s by the New South Wales Rugby League, who administered a competition largely consisting of Sydney clubs. The invitation came through a 1995 competition expansion that had largely been forced by the success of the Brisbane Broncos, admitted to the competition six years earlier and a dominant force ever since.

Even in Australia, the buzz was that the Warriors would be another Broncos. But in reality, Brisbane was everything Auckland’s new franchise wasn’t. It had off-field political influence, structure and money. Auckland had none of those. It was David versus Goliath that balmy night in March 1995 when the Warriors first ran onto Mt Smart in front of a packed house and unbridled optimism.

Brisbane was the first privately owned club in league, run by a group of pugnacious and seriously connected businessmen. They were a pesky nuisance to Sydney administrators but they couldn’t be ignored because they won so often. And they had powerful backers, including Rupert Murdoch.

Auckland’s ownership model was completely different, and a lot more fragile. The Sydney clubs were effectively financed by local leagues clubs.  These suburban ‘pokie palaces’ were massively profitable, gobbling up dollars off the back of rampant gambling and local footballing pride in Australia.

The Auckland Rugby League had a leagues club too. Only it was a tiny building in Parnell, down the road from Carlaw Park, which had become so rundown by then that the League decided to transform its only asset into a commercial site to secure a financial future. It is now the Carlaw Park Heritage Trust, the current majority shareholder of the Warriors.

The administrators of powerful Sydney leagues clubs like Manly and Parramatta also had a huge influence on the code. Sitting 2000 kilometres away, the Auckland Rugby League had zero sway on league politics. In the mid-90s the ARL were mere minnows in a fish bowl of piranhas. And it was about to get worse.

The same year the Broncos and Warriors faced each other for the first time, Murdoch’s News Limited machine ambushed the game with its now infamous Super League concept – a blueprint modelled on the success of those same Broncos and based on turning an inward-thinking Sydney club comp into a glittering national pay-TV commodity feeding Murdoch’s wallet.

The ARL had hoped the Warriors would become a golden goose of Broncos stature and whose profits would feed grass roots activity in New Zealand’s biggest city, where the game was still not getting a fair go in schools and where its clubs were still sneered upon by the union establishment.

But it could see the tornado coming. Super League had upped the ante significantly around playing contracts and operation costs. If it all fell apart, deep pockets would be needed to keep the club alive. After four mediocre seasons, including one of rebel competitions, where the Warriors struggled with travel and consistency, the ARL lost their appetite for their dream and in 1998 jettisoned the club to the combination of Tainui and Lowe and Boyle.

The Warriors were now privately owned. If that sounded positive given the success of the Broncos, the reality was again very different.

Gene Ngamu, in one of the Warriors’ finest uniforms. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The “peace agreement” brokered between the Australian Rugby League and Super League to reunite the code did the Warriors no favours. It contained an obligation for News Limited to exit central funding for most of the clubs that had sided with it, just as the ARL was to do with its clubs. The first club News Limited cut the financial lifeline to was the Warriors. In the meantime, News Ltd stuck thick for years with funding the likes of Melbourne (including through salary cap sagas), Brisbane and the Cowboys – and still do.

Tainui’s motivation for buying the Warriors was similarly altruistic to the ARL’s. Leader Sir Robert Mahuta saw it as an aspirational development path for its troubled youth.

But the plan was doomed before it started because the club was dumped with an astronomical wage bill and nobody had enough money to make it work. Despite a promising first run in 1999, the new millennium brought one of the club’s most hellish seasons.

An ailing Mahuta could not beat down factions in Tainui who were (very reasonably) questioning why the hell the club had brought a football team haemorrhaging red ink. Lowe and Boyle were at odds with the iwi over governance issues. The club was being run on the smell of an oily rag. The conflict undermined confidence and spewed into poor on-field results. By the end of 2000, Tainui had decided to cut its by now considerable losses and run. At this point, the club came perilously close to extinction.

Enter Eric Watson. He might have ridden in on a white horse but the suave, and now self-exiled, businessman drove a hard bargain. He convinced the NRL to sell him the club licence for the princely sum of $1 and then allow him to renegotiate the players’ contracts downwards, removing a lot of the immediate financial pressure.

Eric Watson and the then Nicky Robinson during their social scene peak at the Derby Day races at the Boxing Day races. (Photo by Wayne Wilson/Getty Images)

The NRL, not wanting to lose Sky’s broadcasting dollars, embraced Watson and gave the racehorse owner free rein in the hope his successful image – and big wallet – would finally turn the Warriors into that elusive juggernaut. Watson was also far more palatable to the blunt Aussie blokes at the NRL than a Māori tribe with two co-owners.

For a while, Watson looked like he had provided the elusive elixir. His timing was impeccable. The war was over, league’s broadcasting deal was on the up and the yearly NRL grant was now multi-millions. The player wages were under control and they had responded to a new environment, reaching the 2002 grand final in stunning style.

The Warriors were probably close to making money in that era. But it didn’t seem enough for Watson. He drove an environment where the club had to make a profit or there would be dire consequences. But at the same time he invested very little back in. That fat wallet didn’t seem to be getting opened too often.

At one stage Watson completely took his eye off the ball. An embarrassing video emerged of a secret teleconference meeting with World Rugby (then the International Rugby Board) to enter an Auckland-based Pasifika team in Super Rugby. A furious New Zealand Rugby spiked that.

The video featured a promise to make the Pasifika team immediately competitive by swapping the best Warriors players, such as Stacey Jones, cross codes over to the rugby team. This incident justifiably raised concerns about just how committed Eric really was to the Warriors and to league.

At this point, around 2005, I believe Eric Watson should have sold the club into interests with a greater passion for it and league than he had. Others were upping the ante in terms of facilities and technology. The Warriors risked dropping off their 2002-2003 inspired roll. The team required investment but Eric didn’t seem to have the appetite.

The club meandered for a long time afterwards. A pattern was repeating itself. No investment from the ARL, none from Tainui, very little from Eric. Meanwhile, juggernauts the Storm, Brisbane and clubs of influence like the Sydney Roosters rolled on. Private ownership of NRL clubs has rapidly become the norm. But owning a club, or even a share of it, is not necessarily good business. NRL clubs don’t make money. Often it’s a vanity project. And vanity projects need money.

Even in making the 2011 grand final under Ivan Cleary and competent administrators, the Warriors always looked neglected in terms of the required passion and investment around the “extra one percenters” that should have come from an engaged owner.

The Warriors jerseys over the years. Photos: Getty Images

There was a brief flurry of optimism when Sir Owen Glenn was introduced as a new and equal shareholder in 2012. In reality, it seemed like Eric wanted to shunt some of the Warriors’ bills onto Glenn. Predictably, it ended in tears within three years, after a bitter fallout across more than just the Warriors, and ultimately a stunning legal loss by Watson, who had been accused by Glenn of fleecing him for $250m.

Fast forward to 16 months ago. Watson’s legal battles with Glenn and the taxman had reached a head. He had sold off Kiwi assets and now the Warriors were gone too. The successful suitors arguably over-paid Watson to the tune of at least $2-3m, before he left town with a $16 million cheque for his $1 investment, leaving the Warriors looking like one Watson’s few successful deals of his late career.

And so the club changes hands for the fourth time in its 25-year history. The new owners are…. (drum roll please) the Auckland Rugby League (again) and Autex Industries, a successful insulation manufacturing company driven by owner and CEO, and passionate league man, Mark Robinson. Autex and the ARL have fallen out over the investment needed to lift the Warriors out of the quagmire. Autex is prepared to put the required money in. The ARL is blinking.

On the one hand, this should be easy. Robinson seems to understand the brutal reality of the required investment and is promising to do what no other owner in the Warriors has done until now – fund the bloody thing to the level required for success. If Autex are prepared to lose money to do that, I say ‘here’s the keys’.

The penny has also dropped at the ARL that they don’t have really have a golden goose and are probably best to step aside a second time. There’s one problem and that’s the figure the ARL should get for its shareholding. An independent valuation had the club being worth $10 to $13 million when Watson put in on the block. The two owners paid $16m and then had to put more money in and soon as they got the club as Watson had run it dry.

If the Auckland RL, via its Carlaw Park Heritage Trust, ends up losing $2-3m  on the deal when that money could have gone into the development of the game, a political football will be kicked about with enthusiastic abandon.

So be it. This mess needs to be fixed. If the Warriors finally have an owner willing to really invest – let’s get them in charge.

Keep going!