Dean Bell leads the Auckland Warriors run out onto Ericsson Stadium for the opening game of the 1995 Winfield Cup season against the Brisbane Broncos on March 10, 1995. Image | www.photosport.co.nz

WARRIORS FOREVER | Where it all started

Foundation captain Dean Bell leads the Auckland Warriors onto Ericsson Stadium for their debut in the Winfield Cup on March 10, 1995.

 

The very notion of the Vodafone Warriors starting out on their 20th season in existence today can’t help but spark some nostalgic thoughts.

 

For head coach Matthew Elliott and his players today is what matters, not yesterday or tomorrow.

 

But for anyone with time to indulge in some reflection then there will be memories flooding back just thinking about the club’s history.

 

There have been the obvious high points of reaching the NRL grand final twice, winning the minor premiership, taking out the NYC premiership twice and also making the grand final a third time. There have been spine-tingling team and individual performances, famous victories and all manner of club firsts plus a lot more. For those who like dwelling on the not so good, yes you can find material to feed your need, too. Each to his/her own.

 

Dealing with some statistics, a total of 184 players appeared for the club in the first 19 seasons. The number grows to 188 with Sam Tomkins, Chad Townsend, John Palavi and Jayson Bukuya all making their club debuts against Parramatta later today (for Tomkins and Palavi it’s also their NRL debut game). It might be another season or two before the all-time rosters grows to 200.

 

Without gorging on numbers too much, the Vodafone Warriors have played a total of 466 matches since joining the competition for a record of 217 wins, seven draws and 242 losses, a winning percentage of 47.32. They’ve scored more than 9800 points including 1729 tries, Manu Vatuvei by far the club’s most prolific try scorer with 118 in 171  games (his strike rate is the best among the NRL’s current wingers taking into account South Sydney’s Nathan Merritt has scored some 38 of his tries when playing at fullback).

 

Forget the numbers for now and, for the purpose of this exercise, drift back to when it all began, that very first game against the Broncos on March 10, 1995 at a place then known as Ericsson Stadium. Think of that game, the moments etched in minds before and during that unforgettable contest. Think also of that foundation year which has enabled this club to not only exist but survive all manner of adversity to be what it is today. Warriors Forever indeed.

 

So staying with game one in 1995 and then the season which unfolded, take up a challenge of listing 20 special – and maybe not so special – moments. Here’s a random selection, not ranked, just popping into the mind without prompting:

 

  • Pre-season promotional tour, taking the team around the country. Plenty of hype.

 

  • The pre-game entertainment on the night of the debut appearance against the Broncos. Explosions. Flames. The army. Both unreal and surreal.

 

  • Dean Bell, No 1 Warrior, leading the team onto the field through flames, the cacophony of the Pacific drummers and the rapturous crowd of close to 30,000 (seemed like more). And a guard of honour which stretched out onto the field.

 

  • That game, the club’s first try scored by Phil Blake, the sense of elation mixed with incredulity as the Warriors went to a 22-12 lead early in the second half only to be undone by Alfie Langer. A stupendous first match whatever the outcome. 

 

  • Trouncing Western Suburbs 46-12 in the third round for the club’s first win … only to lose the competition points when it was discovered the Warriors had used Joe Vagana as a fifth replacement. 

 

  • Six straight wins taking the club within sight of the play-offs. Anticipation was through the roof as the Warriors hosted St George with 29,000 jammed in at Ericsson. Good times until kick-off … and then it all fell apart as the Dragons went on a rip and tear mission to win 47-14. Gorden Tallis’ try was freakish, just freakish.

 

  • Stacey Jones making his debut against Parramatta and stealing a try off Blake moments after coming on. A big win that day, too (40-4).

 

  • Former All Black John Kirwan being signed. It was almost the end of his playing days but it was a big deal.

 

  • The first official win, beating the Illawarra Steelers 38-12 in front of another massive crowd.

 

  • Sean Hoppe. What a finisher. Just kept scoring tries, 19 in 22 games.

 

  • Dean Bell. Mean Dean. Perfect choice as the club’s first captain in his final playing season. 

 

  • Hitro Okesene and the cult hero status he enjoyed through his fearless charges, his trademark mullet trailing behind him. 

 

  • Not a pleasant memory this one but hard to forget the day Frano Botica broke his leg against the Western Reds.

 

  • The style of football the Auckland Warriors played. Thrilling. Might have let in a few points but they could attack as well. Scored more than 100 tries in 22 games.

 

  • The clash against Cronulla. Defining day. On the same day New Zealand won the America’s Cup a star was born when Stacey Jones had his first start in a first-grade game. He nailed a field goal to help the Warriors to a 23-18 away win.

 

  • The crowds at Ericsson. To die for. More often than not around 27,000-29.000.

 

  • The buzz around town and around the country. The Warriors were all the rage, win or lose. Entertainers. Cool.

 

  • Not so good but can’t help thinking about them when recalling 1995 – the off days. Apart from the loss to St George, the Warriors also leaked 40 or more points against North Sydney, Newcastle and finally Brisbane in the last game of the season.

 

  • The jersey. Never forgotten. Whenever it has been given an airing since it has always been a standout replica strip.

 

  • John Monie. Phlegmatic type. Came to the club with a great record of success with Wigan and Parramatta before that.