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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SportsSeptember 9, 2023

Where did ‘Up the Wahs’ come from? A Spinoff investigation

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It’s grown from a murmur among diehard Warriors fans to a roar heard up and down the country. Now, Duncan Greive uncovers the phrase’s mysterious origins.

It’s three syllables, nine letters in total – there really isn’t a lot to it on paper. At its core, “Up the Wahs” is simply a team nickname made into an exhortation by adding the common prefix “up the”. But, over the course of the 2023 NRL season, it has evolved into a vernacular phrase as widespread and quintessentially New Zealand as kia ora.

“The beauty of it is its versatility,” says the Alternative Commentary Collective’s Mike Lane. “You can use it as a way of signing off a Zoom call, or scream it at the top of your lungs with a cha-hoo.” Its lightness contrasts strikingly with the flat, joyless chants associated with most New Zealand sports teams (“Let’s go [team name] let’s go”) and particularly the All Blacks (“All Blacks”).

Up the Wahs has become a talisman, escalating in lockstep with the Warriors’ 2023 form to symbolise the end of an era of resigned or even ironic fandom and the beginning of a new one defined by justified ambition and hope. After bubbling under for a while, it started to really spread in April of 2023, when it first outranked “Let’s Gone Warriors”, according to Google Trends data

Then it exploded.

Over the last few weeks, as the Warriors secured their first top four finish since 2007, Up the Wahs has made it into parliamentary record Hansard on multiple recent occasions, been tagged onto a train, tattooed on multiple bodies and seen a whole cell network renamed in its honour. The phrase has inspired unauthorised merch from T-shirts to baby bibs and a popular, royalty-free parody of ‘How Bizarre’. Little wonder the NZ Warriors recently copyrighted the phrase – but only after brewer Good George did the same for its unauthorised tribute beer. 

Good George’s Up the Wahs beer

Yet while the club now has the right to control use of it, Warriors media manager Richard Becht says they have no intention of stopping their legion of new fans from using it (nor could they, even if they wanted to). More to the point, Becht admits that the club has no idea where the phrase came from. 

I am not the first person to attempt to solve this mystery. After days of scouring forums and calling a variety of official sources and superfans, my blood ran cold when I saw this headline on the Herald:

Hard-driving reporter Luke Kirkness, author of multiple front page scoops, had the yarn. I read it with trepidation – then relief. He had entertainingly mapped its contours, but not discovered the source. The origins remained elusive, as proven by The Project’s package on Thursday. I resolved to press on.

Partly this was sunk reporting costs, but also because The Spinoff has form with tracking down buried Warriors treasure. In 2019, Hayden Donnell made a series called Get it to Te Papa, in which he pitched various objects for inclusion in our national museum, despite legal threats to stop. One such taonga was the original Let’s Gone Warriors sign. This had been considered lost to history until Donnell doggedly tracked down its creator Tyson Ella, and found the lost sign. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? 

A fanbase divided

My quest started in the forums, which have for decades been an active place for Warriors fans to complain about their team. They would likely have an opinion on the phrase, and perhaps a theory about where the phenomenon began. Sure enough, even in the midst of an extraordinary run, they had something to moan about. In a post – now mysteriously deleted from the forums – a thread named “Wahs or Warriors?” was started in April of 2023.

Despite its popularity, in the forums the general vibe was grouchy: “Whoever started it should be banned from Mt Smart”, said a user named Damo. 1995warriorsfan said Up the Wahs is a “PR exercise that has worked for those on the bandwagon… We are the Warriors end of story!” This is very much where NRL hard man Willie Mason was coming from with his recent tirade

Among a certain group of diehard originals, the phrase had come to epitomise the fairweather fans who only started to fill the stadium when the team began playing well, eschewing the ascetic joys of a freezing, wet and largely empty stadium supporting the team during normal times. A poll in the thread, which runs to over 200 posts, showed 87% of voters picking Warriors over Wahs. 

‘The Wahs’ hasn’t been universally accepted (Image: Tina Tiller)

Among the disapproving posts, however, there was conjecture about where it might have begun. One user suggested comedian Dai Henwood might be the source. This was a bonafide lead. I tracked down a number and messaged him. He replied within minutes – but the news was not positive. “Hahahahaha,” he wrote. “That is quite amazing. Sadly it is quite far from the truth. I have no idea where it came from… It was ‘Lets Gone Warriors’, then suddenly ‘Up the Wahs’.” 

Henwood was in the clear. But the idea of checking in with various prominent Warriors fans seemed to make sense. Everyone was talking about the phrase, surely one might have been told the origin story? I started at the top of the media food chain, and emailed Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking. Despite his Ferrari and expensive shoes, he is one of the most loyal Warriors fans around. For the past decade he has been unfailingly polite in declining my interview requests, but as of publication he has left me on read.

To the Mad Butcher, then. “Hello, Sir Peter,” he said, answering on the third ring. He was happy to talk, but had no clue. “I can’t help you because I don’t know.” He was shocked at the speed with which the phrase had taken over – he’d had it yelled at him at a Waiheke gas station forecourt just minutes earlier. Still, he was unmoved. “Personally, I’m a ‘Let’s go Warriors’ man,” he said. He suggested I speak to the Warriors CEO, to see if he knew.

The only way to contact Cameron George was through Warriors media manager Becht, who had been tracking the rise of Up the Wahs himself. He had most recently heard it from a gang of schoolkids, deep in the heart of rugby country on the Hauraki Plains an hour earlier, prompted by his team jacket. He said that while the phrase really took hold this year, he recalled hearing “the Wahs” as a nickname as long as five years ago. 

This was interesting – a reminder that we could only have arrived at Up the Wahs off the back of “the Wahs”. In fact, for Becht, “the Wahs” was the only story that mattered: “people have been saying ‘Up the reds’ or ‘Up the Gunners’ for years.” He drew a through-line to other oval ball nicknames – the Sah-Sahs for the Sāmoan rugby team, the ‘Tahs for the Waratahs. 

Becht said the rise of the phrase had been brilliant for the club, saying the only resistance had been from “the senior citizen-type category, who don’t go in for all those hip phrases”. Up the Wahs built all year, breaking out with Shaun Johnson saying it after a game, leaping with a young fan named Coco, whose live TV outburst has been viewed over 500,000 times, and reaching a kind of surreal peak when Steve Kerr, team-mate of Michael Jordan and multi-time NBA champion coach of the Golden State Warriors, was coaxed into saying it at the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

A selection of unauthorised ‘Up the Wahs’ merch (Image: Tina Tiller)

Becht put me in touch with his boss. When I reached Cameron George, he was in Australia for an NRL meeting. He said the phrase had been building in momentum for a year, first appearing on signs in the emotional return home game in June of last year, and now so endemic that when he checked into the Sofitel in Brisbane, the receptionist greeted with a cheery “Up the Wahs!”

George said its impact on the club was immense: “this is a movement not seen for many years in any sport.” As for its origins? “No idea – if you track that one down, the FBI will come calling,” he joked. One theory he did quash was that it was the Warriors’ own sponsorship manager, who Becht said had wondered aloud about whether he started it. “Oh please,” said the CEO.

Many leads, but no strong suspects

Over the coming days, as more people became aware of the quest, my phone would periodically light up with a fresh lead. Henwood’s friend and fellow comic Ben Hurley said he heard All Black halfback Aaron Smith say it after a test a few years back. I got in touch with NZ Rugby head of communications Charlotte McLauchlan, who said she’d check with the team’s media manager in France. “Cool if it’s true,” she wrote. So far Smith seems, unconscionably, too focussed on the World Cup to engage with this important question. The theory didn’t quite scan – it seemed more plausible that Smith was an enthusiastic repeater of the phrase than its originator.

Becht stayed in touch over the days and weeks that followed. One day he had an epiphany, suggesting that Leigh Hart or someone else from the Alternative Commentary Collective might have coined it. The group has history with making nicknames happen, so it was not out of the question. But their work has a particular aroma – Hairy Nipples, Ish the Dish, Mills and Boon – so Up the Wahs would be an outlier. ACC founding member Mike Lane confirmed the group could not claim responsibility for the phenomenon. “It definitely wasn’t us,” he said. 

He did, however, point to an expanded version of the Wahs. “There’s a rumour the Aussies named the team the ‘Wah Wahs’ because they were always moaning about the bunker decisions going against them.” This was also put forward by TikTok star Uncle Tics, and made intuitive sense – we did have a multi-year run of indefensible decisions from the bunker (video referee), and we did often have a massive cry about it. The Wah Wahs has been bubbling around for a while, with a 2019 ACC video showing its presence in low-level fandom which significantly predated the Up the Wahs hysteria. 

The Wah Wahs felt important, but its connection to music – it’s also the name of a reggae band, a George Harrison song and a hugely influential guitar pedal – made it almost impossible to use search engines to discover early usages. The answer seemed more likely to come from the Warriors community anyway. That would ultimately lead to the earliest mention, and most plausible origin story, I would find.

The theory of a good keen Mann

It started with Don Mann. He’s from a famous rugby league family and was head of commercial for the Warriors for 14 years, encompassing the glory of the two finals appearances, the promise of the Ivan Cleary era and, inevitably, a number of really bad seasons too. He’d been watching the Up the Wahs phenomenon with amazement from his current job heading up the Pacific Media Network. Unlike some other older heads, he was all on board with the new phrase – “it’s hilarious, it’s fantastic,” he said.

And then: “I first heard the term 13 years ago.” This was big – a decade before any confirmed mention. As Mann tells it, the Wahs came from the son of a fishing buddy. “‘Donny, Donny, how’s the Wahs”, he recalled his mate’s son saying. He said the man was now in his 30s, and working in finance. His name was Harry Fox.

I tracked Fox down and gave him a call. He didn’t pick up, but messaged to say he would be free the following day. Yet the appointed time came, and we still missed each other. This would happen again and again, for almost a week. While I methodically chased down other dead ends, he and I exchanged texts and missed calls. Then on a sunny late-winter morning, we finally spoke. The first name he mentioned was Peter Ropati.

From the Warriors’ first seasons in the NRL until 2010, the voice of Peter Ropati was a cornerstone of Sky’s Warriors coverage. He was earnest, passionate and had a deep knowledge of the game, and talked fans through the wilderness years between those two grand finals appearances. Few New Zealanders will have said the word “Warriors” so frequently. And no one said it like Ropati. “My Rs are not the best,” he said when I called him. Rather than the heavy, elongated R in most fans’ cheers, Ropati’s pronunciation was closer to “Warwiers” or “Wowiers” or, if you were to exaggerate it, “Wahwiors”. 

When the on-field results were lacking, Warriors fans would cling to elements around the game instead, and Ropati acquired a small cult of obsessive fans. One such group was Fox’s group of friends at University of Otago. They were a bunch of lads who hung out constantly, drinking beer and watching sport. Fox had watched the Warriors since he was a kid, but he and his friends became megafans while at uni. “Some of the scorelines that the Warriors put together were laughable,” he said, but the group found the culture of the club very compelling, and would affectionately repeat Ropati’s commentary lines back to one another.

“He had quite a funny way with his Rs,” recalled Fox. Leaping off Ropati’s pronunciation, his friends nicknamed the team the “woe woes”, then the “wah wahs”, he said, before eventually settling on “the wahs”. It was said unironically within time, and simply became how this group of students referred to the team. 

This was it – the Wahs, in the wild, in the late 2000s. If it was just one man’s recollection, it would be hard to put much credence into the theory. Unlike the “Lets Gone Warriors” sign, there is no physical artefact, or video footage, that could prove authorship. But Don Mann was a cop for more than a decade before he arrived at the Warriors. He knows the rules of evidence, and is one of the most high integrity people I know. His testimony and backing of the theory meant a lot. It also made intuitive sense – that it would start with a small group of geographically bound fans, and slowly spread as they made their way into their careers around the country.

I ran it up the chain to Becht, who believed it, rightly pointing out that it sounds like something a student would say. I felt a lightness about me. The mystery was inherently unsolvable, but here was a real person, with a story which scanned, backed up by key figures from the Warriors’ past and present. I was almost there.

The one person I hadn’t tested on was Peter Ropati himself. I was half dreading the call, as the greatest Warriors fan phrase being traced back to a slightly mumbled style of speech might be taken as an insult by some. But when I got him on the line and relayed the theory, he took it in good humour, and admitted that it sounded plausible.

The theory of the Wahs coming up from Otago was familiar to him too. “My son studied in Dunedin for a while, and he told me about a group down there,” he said. “I do recall those kinds of stories.” A third source. Enough for me.

I asked him how he felt about the phrase now. He said it jarred at first: “I was in the camp of ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’” But now, he said, he’s starting to warm to it. “I would like to see myself as someone who moves with the times. I’m happy to see it grow.”

Keep going!