After ending their dreadful 2017 season with a 9-game losing streak, the Warriors will be looking to create some more positive memories for their beleaguered fans. But where does last year’s abysmal failure sit within the pantheon of poor performances? James Dann looks back over the club’s history since 1995 to rank each of their seasons, from best to worst.
Finally delivering on their potential, 2002 was the year that the Warriors showed that they could actually compete with the big boys in Australia. They won their first and only minor premiership, scoring more points and winning more games than they have in any other season. They had a fantastic playing strip. Ali Lauiti’iti had a magnificent season, breaking through defences, redefining the role of the ball-playing forward in a way that we’re accustomed to now, but was something else at the time. While the final itself was disappointing, Warriors fans will always remember Stacey Jones cutting through the Roosters’ defence on his way to scoring one of the great Grand Final tries, in one of the single best moments in the club’s history.
The club started their pre-season by adding a trial match in Greymouth on February the 5th. This was a fundraiser for the families of the Pike River Mine disaster, against the Newcastle Knights, a team from a region with a proud mining history. After the Canterbury Earthquakes, their final trial on February 26th against the Sea Eagles was turned into a fundraiser for the earthquake appeal. All that good karma from their charity work would be repaid in a second trip to the Grand Final.
After finishing the regular season in 6th, finals season saw them get done by the Broncos 40-10, deflating all hope. They looked down and out, trailing the Tigers 18-6 at halftime in their do-or-die semifinal, before staging one of their great comebacks to squeak through, 22-20. After taking out the Melbourne Storm in the next round, the Sea Eagles proved a step too far – though it was closer than their only other grand final appearance. It was the breakout year for Shaun Johnson, who went from getting his first start in June to lining up in the Grand Final just four months later.
The Under-20 team won the Toyota Cup again, with players like Ligi Sao and Konrad Hurrell making a name for themselves. The reserve-grade Auckland Vulcans were also the losing finalists in the NSW Cup Grand Final, meaning teams from all three grades made the final of their respective competitions. The future was looking up.
Though there were other seasons that were more successful, it is hard to beat the euphoria of the first season. That strip! 30,000 fans packing into Ericsson Stadium (now Mt Smart) to watch a bizarre Full Metal Jacket ballet. This is where the myth, the hope, the dream began. Remarkably, the Warriors scored more points per game in this season than they did in any other bar 2002, which perhaps contributed to a reputation for free-flowing attack. The whole first match is available to watch on Youtube, but instead I’d recommend this wonderful documentary on NZ on Screen. With the punderful title Once We’re Warriors, it follows a group of players as they gear up for the club’s entry in the ARL. It’s a great insight into the club, and into the early era of professional sport in New Zealand.
In their third game, a comfortable win over the Magpies, the team mistakenly made five substitutions instead of the allowed four. They were docked two competition points, and as a result they finished the season in 10th, separated from 8th and a place in the finals by those very same two points.
In 2001 the Warriors made the finals for the first time, proving that maybe, just maybe, they could do it. Two things happened this season that would doom Warriors fans with misplaced hope for all eternity. Firstly, in a game against the Bulldogs in Wellington, they looked dead and buried. They then had a remarkable comeback, scoring three tries in the last minutes to tie the scores, with the kick to come. After slotting all the other kicks, Stacey Jones missed the easiest of them all, leaving the result a draw. Secondly, they went on a late season run, teaching fans that if it’s still mathematically possible to make the finals, then you can still dream. But with hope comes despair. After squeaking into the top 8, they were beaten handsomely by minor premiership winning Eels in the first finals game.
After again going on a late season run to secure 8th spot and a trip to the finals, they beat the odds by beating the best. The Melbourne Storm, always the yardstick for the NRL, were minor premiers. The Warriors went to Olympic Park and became the first 8th-place team to beat the 1st-placed team in a finals game, and in stunning fashion. With just two minutes left on the clock, the Warriors went full field in just two sets, Manu Vatuvei breaking the line and throwing a pass to put Michael Witt in the clear, who ran to the corner, turning and taunting Cam Smith before putting the ball down. They then won a home semi against Sydney and were looking good, before getting done by bogey team and eventual winners Manly in the preliminary final.
It was always going to be hard to follow up 2002’s Grand Final season but they gave it a good shot. After finishing 6th in the league, they had a good finals series, hammering the Bulldogs in the first final, with Frances Meli scoring five tries – the record for a finals game. The Warriors were eventually beaten in the preliminary final by the Penrith Panthers, who went on to win the Grand Final.
Into the finals, largely on strength of miserly defence. They had a six-game losing streak, the pinnacle of which was a scintillating 4-2 loss to Melbourne. They then went on their post-Origin late season run to the finals, winning nine and drawing one of their final 12 games to finish 4th. But they were spent for the finals, losing their first game, then once given a chance, losing that too.
A good season that foreshadowed the following year of success. Made the important signing of James Maloney from Melbourne, who would be key in the 2011 Grand Final run, before going on to win Premierships with both the Roosters and Cronulla. The highlight might have been their round 16 game against the Roosters in the pouring rain at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. Down 18-8 with just six minutes to go, Vatuvei dotted down in the corner. Then, with just seconds on the clock, Kevin Locke completed his hat trick by toeing through a ball and sliding in to score at the base of the posts. In the act of scoring the try, he injured his hip and had to be taken from the field on a cart.
The Warriors finished in 5th, just below the Titans, who beat them twice in the regular season, and then in the first round of the finals to end their season. The Under-20 Warriors won the club’s first trophy, beating the Rabbitohs to win the Grand Final of the Toyota Cup, with a team that included Shaun Johnson, Elijah Taylor, and Charlie Gubb.
A classic up is down, down is triangle box cutter bungle bungle bungle season for the Warriors. They recorded their biggest ever loss, 62-6, against Penrith. Two weeks later, they played one of the most infamous games in the club’s history. They went to Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane where they beat the Broncos 56-18, a fantastic result against a great team. This was also the game in which Russell Packer peed on the field AND was the first outing of “Lets Gone Warriors”, Tyson Ella’s sign that went viral and became the club’s official hashtag.
They also recorded a 50-16 win over the Raiders, but yet still finished a win away from the Top 8. Warriors had seven (7!) playing strips for sale, and sold the most shirts of any club in the competition.
A great attacking season, averaging a shade under 24 points per game, their third best for a season. This included scoring 54 points against the Raiders twice, as well as beating the Eels 48-0 and the Titans 42-0. However, after getting themselves into a good position to make the 8, they then lost three of their last four games to end up 9th.
This was the season of the Konrad Hurrell sex tape, which I wouldn’t bring up except to point you to it getting the weird Taiwanese animated news treatment – the 2014 equivalent of being made internet famous by John Oliver.
Another great Under-20 team won the Holden Cup, with a team that included future first-graders Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo, Sam Lisone, and Tui Lolohea.
In 1996, the iconic Winfield Cup was re-branded, or re-blanded, to the Optus Cup, after a bunch of nanny state pen-pushers decided cigarette advertising was bad for the kids or some other PC nonsense. The Warriors, like the Optus Cup, failed to ignite this season. Coming down off the high of their formation season, and with the storm clouds of the SuperLeague brewing on the horizon, the team ended up finishing 11th. They beat a bunch of teams that no longer exist – Gold Coast Chargers, South Queensland Crushers, North Sydney Bears, as well as starting a long tradition of losing in Perth by going down to the Western Reds. I went to my first Warriors game. My dad chucked me on the back of the Honda trail bike, to go to Lancaster Park to see them play the Sydney (nee Balmain) Tigers. They lost.
After the mess of 1997 (see #15) , the ARL and SuperLeague came together to form the NRL that we know and love to this day. With 20 teams in the reconstituted competition, the Warriors could still only manage 15th. They had their third worst attacking season ever, averaging just 17.4 points per game. Ali Lauiti’iti, arguably the club’s best ever player, made his debut.
Since its establishment, the Auckland Warriors had been owned and controlled by Auckland Rugby League. Between the end of the 1998 season and before the start of the 1999 one, they sold the club to a consortium which involved Tainui iwi and former Kiwis coach Graham Lowe. It was the beginning of a couple of tumultuous years, both on and off the field. Vodafone enter the Warriors vernacular, replacing DB Bitter (RIP) as the main shirt sponsor.
You know it wasn’t a good season of football when the highlight was a fight. Their first round game against the Roosters descended into a farce after a scuffle which saw Brad Fittler and Ali Lauiti’iti sent off as well as two other players sent to the bin. We hate to see that sort of behaviour so we couldn’t possibly encourage anyone to follow this link to the fight.
Also in Sydney, the boys beat Souths with Tom Cruise watching on from the stands, meaning Maverick has seen Jerry Seuseu and Lee Oudenryn play rugby league.
In a game probably more significant for their opponents, they beat the Magpies 60-16 in what would be that club’s last game before they merged with Balmain to form the West Tigers. Hooker Jason Death, who sounds like the bad guy in a Vin Diesel film, was the Warriors player of the year.
An improvement on 2004’s horror show, finishing in 11th place. They recorded their biggest ever comeback, fighting back from 20-0 down against the Knights to finish 30-26 winners. Big name signings Steve Price and Ruben Wiki were brought in to bring some experience and grit up front. There was a debut for Simon Mannering, still in the backline before his transition to the forward pack. Stacey Jones, who had been with the Warriors since they entered the comp in 1995, scored the match-winning try against Manly in his last game for the club.
In 1995, they finished 10th, and 11th in 1996, so 7th in 1997 was the Warriors best finish yet. Unfortunately, there were 20 teams in the first two years, and only 10 in 1997, due to the club defecting to the Superleague. Even in this much-weakened competition, with new clubs like the Hunter Mariners, the Adelaide Rams, and the Western Reds, they couldn’t even make the top half. But the worst thing to happen this season was off the field. Matthew Ridge joined the club, forming a partnership with Marc Ellis that seemed harmless at first, but would go on to blight our televisions with laddish banter and reality television for much of the next two decades.
Already a club legend after his role at fullback in the 2002 Grand Final team, this was Ivan Cleary’s first season as head coach, and the beginning of the second great Warriors team. The club won their first ever game in New Zealand outside of Auckland (at Jade Stadium / Lancaster Park) – a record that is still very poor. Though they are nominally the New Zealand Warriors, they have only won six of the 28 games they have played outside of Auckland. They would have made finals had they not been docked points for breaching the salary cap, but then, they breached the salary cap, so it’s a moot point. There was good late season form, but some terrible match attendances – dropping under 5,000 punters a few times. Sione Faumauina was released mid-season after repeated alcohol breaches.
The team made the final of the pre-season Auckland Nines tournament, losing to the Eels. Later in the season, the Eels would be stripped of competition points and the Nines title due to a salary breach – but the NRL chose not to pass the title on to the Warriors. Once again, agonisingly close to winning something. A couple of big name signings, with Roger Tuivasa-Scheck and Isaac Luke joining, though RTS played just seven games before a season-ending injury. The regular season was another disappointment, though not without ups and downs. They were involved in five golden point games, but won only two – including an extraordinary run where they had four in five games. The low point of the season was a 42-0 loss to Melbourne on ANZAC Day. Plenty of rumours abounded about disharmony in the camp, culminating in fan fave Konrad Hurrell leaving the club for the Titans mid-season.
Promising young player Sonny Fai died, presumed drowned, just before the season started, and the club never seemed to recover from the shock. The team, known for their attacking style of play, had their worst ever season going forward – averaging just 15.7 points per game. Stacey Jones came out of retirement to play the season. Probably should have stayed there.
Brian “Bluey” McClennan came in to replace Ivan Cleary as head coach. After leading the Kiwis to a Tri-Nations win in 2005, and a successful stint with Leeds in the UK Superleague, there were high hopes for Bluey. He presided over an 8 game losing streak, including two games in consecutive rounds where they had 18-point leads, but still managed to lose.
Some people remember where they were when JFK was shot, or when they heard Princess Di had … died. I remember where I was when the Warriors 2015 season ended. We were in the sports bar at the Woolston club, unwinding after a game of football, when Shaun Johnson made one of his weaving runs, stepping two Manly defenders on his way to the try line. Unfortunately for Shaun, and for the Warriors, he did his ankle in scoring the try, and though we stayed till the end of the game, we all knew, deep down, that was the season done. The loss to the Sea Eagles was part of a dismal eight-game losing streak to end the season. Possibly more disappointing were the two games where they didn’t score. At all. Not one point.
The team started off with a win – the first winning start to a season since 2009. Sadly, that was probably the high point of a dire, lifeless season. Coach Stephen Kearney was clearly trying to bring in a different style of play to the club, one that was more structured and less erratic. Less Warriors. The result was a team that couldn’t really attack, but also couldn’t really defend either. They ended the season on a nine-game losing streak – their worst run in a single season. This was the 6th season in a row that the club missed out on the finals. While the fans might have accepted the style of play if the results were good, they weren’t. Even when the Warriors weren’t always winning (see: almost every other season) you could hardly ever say they were boring. In 2017, that’s about the only thing you could say about them.
The club finished second to last, and recorded their biggest loss to date – 54-nil against the Dragons. But their real issues were off the field. The consortium that bought the club the previous year were bought out by Eric Watson. However, only half of the player contracts were bought by the new owners, who rebranded the club as the New Zealand Warriors. Statistically, they were abysmal, with their second lowest points for and their second highest points against. Surely it couldn’t get much worse? Which brings us to…
of the Spinoff’s first book!Find Out More
In the good column: Manu Vatuvei got his debut.
In the bad column: everything else.
When the South Sydney Rabbitohs were allowed back into the competition in 2002, they owned the race for the wooden spoon. They held it 3 times in 5 years, but had to fight hard in 2004 against this dire Warriors outfit. In the end, the two could only be separated by points differential. Which tells you how bad the Warriors were, as they were conceding an average of 28.9 points a game – just shy of five converted tries! I
t wasn’t a great season off the field either, with both coach Daniel Anderson and star Ali Lauiti’iti walking out on the club mid-season. In the pre-season trials, they gave a debut to a promising 16-year old centre, who then committed a truly horrible crime that I’d prefer not to talk about. After three years in the finals, the club came crashing back to reality in the harshest way possible. Whenever a Warriors fan thinks it couldn’t get any worse, just think back to 2004.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.