The Vodafone Warriors with the Trans-Tasman Cup after beating Brisbane 48-4 in their final NRL trial in Dunedin on February 23.
As off-seasons go, the build-up has been anything but regular for what is a defining campaign for the Vodafone Warriors in 2014, their 20th since joining the competition in 1995.
Tomorrow, though, normal service resumes when Vodafone Warriors head coach Matthew Elliott settles back into the routine he’ll face almost every Tuesday for the next seven months of naming a team to do battle in the NRL, the toughest sporting competition around.
Elliott’s accustomed to the responsibility having knocked up a total of 260 games as an NRL coach but picking the first team of any season is always special, always a challenge.
This one is undoubtedly in that category. New signings Sam Tomkins, Chad Townsend and Jayson Bukuya, all in fine form during the club’s trials, are poised to become the newest Vodafone Warriors when Elliott reveals his side to face the Eels at Pirtek Stadium on Sunday (8.30pm NZT). They’re in line to become the club’s 185th, 186th and 187th players as they eye the likelihood of wearing a Vodafone Warriors jersey for the first time in an NRL match.
If it’s all new for the trio there’s nothing novel about the Vodafone Warriors’ season starter.
Barely a year seems to go by when they don’t meet the Eels in the first or second round. They were first-round opponents last year, in 2011, 2009 and 2007; the two teams met in the second round in 2012, 2008 and 2006.
The preparation this time couldn't be described as typical. When the 2014 training programme kicked off as long ago as October 28 last year, the number of football staff almost outnumbered the players on hand.
Most of the missing players were on duty for the Kiwis, England, Fiji, Toa Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup while some others had time off after other representative commitments.
Right through to Christmas the Vodafone Warriors’ coaching staff had limited resources, the full squad not coming together until mid-January.
The schedule since then has been hectic, the Vodafone Warriors just emerging from a packed programme of three NRL trials and the NRL Nines all jammed into a period of just 15 days.
With the playing roster stretched to cover two trials and the Nines in an eight-day period, Elliott was forced to spread his available talent thinly across the first two NRL trials against Gold Coast and Wigan. Despite fielding many untried players, the Vodafone Warriors led at halftime in both trials and a young squad spearheaded by Shaun Johnson, Tomkins and Bukuya gave the Nines a huge shake before exiting in the semi-finals.
Only in the Brisbane trial on February 23 was Elliott able to call on his best available players (Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai, Dane Nielsen, Kevin Locke and Ben Henry weren't considered). Despite their absence, the Vodafone Warriors unleashed a furious assault on the Broncos to win 48-4 in one of the best – perhaps the best – trial performances the club has produced.
Now Elliott has to whittle an in-form pool of talent down to kick-start season 2014.
This is going to be a momentous day for the Vodafone Warriors all round.
The club now owns and runs its own team in the New South Wales Cup with coach Rohan Smith set to reveal the first Vodafone Warriors NSW Cup side to take on Wentworthville in Sydney on Saturday while club legend Stacey Jones will name his first side as the new Vodafone Junior Warriors coach.
Look out on www.warriors.co.nz for all three teams on Tuesday afternoon.