Check the calendar if you haven’t done so yet.
March 10. Not just March 10 but March 10, 2015. It will click for rugby league folk who like their history. For those who don’t dwell on it so much, it might mean a lot more when March 10, 1995, is mentioned in the same breath.
Indeed this is a red letter day for the Vodafone Warriors, brought to life on this day 20 years ago when the then-Auckland Warriors made their debut in the old Winfield Cup facing the glamour side of the times Brisbane.
Today is a time to reflect, to allow memories to flood back of that unforgettable night. It was one of those events when most sporting people have a story about where they were and what that match meant to them.
Now on March 10, 2015, the club has clocked up 491 matches in the competition after Saturday’s clash against Newcastle; foundation captain Dean Bell was the club’s No 1 player and last weekend young prop Albert Vete made his NRL debut as No 197.
As either the original Auckland Warriors or the Vodafone Warriors, the club has had nine captains in Bell (1995), Greg Alexander (1996), Matthew Ridge (1997-99), John Simon (2000), Stacey Jones and Kevin Campion (2001), Monty Betham (2002-04), Steve Price (2005-09) and current skipper Simon Mannering since 2010.
The coaches across 20 years have been John Monie, Frank Endacott, Mark Graham, Daniel Anderson, Tony Kemp, Ivan Cleary, Brian McClennan, Tony Iro, Matt Elliott and now Andrew McFadden.
Twice the club has reached the NRL grand final and won the minor premiership in 2002; it had the distinction of having all three sides at ANZ Stadium on grand final day in 2011; and the Vodafone Junior Warriors have won the NYC premiership three times in the last five years while losing in the grand final in 2013.
Through it all, though, one date – March 10, 1995 – means everything. And at the forefront of it on that day was Dean Bell. On this day 20 years later it couldn’t be more appropriate to recount how it played out for him in this edited extract from the opening chapter of his biography ‘Dean Bell – Warrior’ published soon after the inaugural season.
EXTRACT FROM ‘DEAN BELL – WARRIOR’ (PUBLISHED 1995)
It used to be known as Mt Smart Stadium; now it rings to the name of Ericsson Stadium, courtesy of the age of selling naming rights. It’s not the same ground in appearance either. It has been totally transformed to suit its new purpose as a rugby league arena. And a few minutes before 8.30pm on March 10, 1995, it’s counting down not just to rugby league history but an important chapter in New Zealand sporting history.
Lining up in tunnel in the north-east corner of the ground waiting to be feted by 31,500 spectators are the players who’ll generate a sporting phenomenon, led by the Aucklander who has returned home from England to captain the Warriors – Dean Bell. And, even at 32, he’s nervous, very nervous.
He had played 26 Test for New Zealand and 36 matches in all for the Kiwis. He could count seven Challenge Cup final appearances at Wembley among his 253 matches for Wigan, plus 40 Winfield Cup appearances for Eastern Suburbs. Not to mention stints with Carlisle and Leeds, appearances for Oceania and the Rest of the World, Auckland and the New Zealand Maori. But those moments, those precious moments on the night of March 10, 1995, found Dean Bell as nervous as he had ever been.
Which wasn’t altogether surprising because this was no ordinary match. It was an occasion and, as far as games go, as momentous as they come. Auckland, indeed New Zealand and Australia, too, had waited for this – to see New Zealand’s first fully professional sporting team enter a competition regarded as the pinnacle in its code. The one the coaches and players always call “the toughest in the world”.
And the Warriors’ organisation, as it would on many other occasions during this first season, ensured the Winfield Cup debut had memorable touches throughout. Not least among them was the innovative idea to use that tunnel as a special entry point for the Warriors. The visitors would run onto the field from the more conventional entrance under the main grandstand – while the Warriors would make their entrance on a grand scale.
In fact, in a year which produced indelible sporting images of Peter Blake hoisting the America’s Cup and Jonah Lomu charging through and over England fullback Mike Catt, the Warriors added to the tapestry. It was captured in those moments when Dean Bell led his team through a flame-flanked guard of honour onto Ericsson Stadium.
Timing was everything. The operation had to be synchronised for maximum effect. An event which had been hyped up beyond belief for weeks still had more in store, reaching its crescendo with the dynamic entrance. The crowd went delirious. Dean Bell was overwhelmed.
“Standing there at the tunnel I could hear almost feel the roar. There had been such a build-up and finally we were there,” says Bell.
“There was an overwhelming feeling of pride knowing what was happening. And experienced as I am, I did have to physically hold the tears back walking through the flames. It was very emotional. It dawned on me that this is why I came back home. I knew I’d made the right decision.
“Using the tunnel was a great idea. It gave us that sort of grand entrance, especially with the way they have the two lines of flames. It makes you feel like you’re walking out onto your stage. I knew we were going to come out from that tunnel the very first time I had a look at the ground when I came home. And I went through that in my mind every time we trained. I would look at it and picture in my mind how were going to come through it.
“But I was incredibly nervous, so nervous I nearly tripped over as I ran onto the field – which would have gone down really well with the crowd. There’s a slight rise from the track to the field and I stumbled on it with the sprigs of my boots.
“The Brisbane match was very much like my first Challenge Cup final appearance at Wembley (in 1988). That feeling of going into the unknown. Going out onto the Wembley was something I’d never done before. Going out onto Ericsson that night was just the same. I’d never played a Winfield Cup game with those players before. We just didn’t know how things were going to go.”
It wasn’t quite a feeling of helplessness. Bell realised he and his players could determine their destiny that night – but there was fair reason for a hint of fear. The fear of being involved in a debacle after such an astonishing build-up. Bell had been through it all before.
Before returning for Operation Warriors, Dean Bell hadn’t played at home since 1988, when he played for the Kiwis in their World Cup final appearance at Eden Park, That in itself said enough.
“What we went through all added up to the same scenario as the 1988 World Cup final. And I did think about that, too,” he says. “It could go two ways. We could have been thrashed or we could have been competitive.”
There’d been no shortage of reminders about the day. The players had been subjected to a demanding promotional programme over and above their training requirements. Shooting the Tina Turner advertisement and the Warriors’ own effort had frayed tempers at times, Bell insisting the requirements, while accepted, tended to be far more time-consuming than they ought to have been.
And no matter what he did, he couldn’t hide from the hype. “The night before the game John had asked us to relax and do something unrelated to the game,” says Bell. “So I went to the movies and, when I came home, I flicked the television on to watch the news. Well, there was something on about the Warriors and, when I changed channel, there was something else about the game. Surely it wouldn’t have been on a third channel? Sure enough, the Warriors were on again. There was just no escaping it.”
Bell’s match-day ritual was no different than usual. A late morning video movie as a diversion plus keeping to himself as much as possible, his wife Jackie ensuring son Kurtis and daughter Chloe were out of the frame much of the time. And, typically, eating was a worry.
“I don’t eat much on match day – not because I don’t want to. Because I can’t. I spew it up all the time,” says Bell. “Right from when I was kid I’ve been a chucker like that. I tried much harder to force some food down this year and it benefited me. I still had my chunders and, true to form, I dry retched before the Brisbane game. It’s a weekly event. No one likes getting changed next to me because they don’t know what’s coming.”
Bell knew what was coming in the match, however. He’d be marking the abrasive Michael Hancock instead of Brisbane’s splendid centre Steve Renouf, who’d been ruled out with injury – a decided bonus.
But once the game started, the Warriors very soon found themselves wondering what was in store for them as, within 14 minutes, Brisbane bolted to a 10-0 lead through a dubious Willie Carne try and a converted Chris Johns touchdown.
Yet, just when the Warriors were threatened with a woeful baptism, they transformed the contest and made the night even more memorable than it had been.
The Australian connection had a say. Centre Manoa Thompson’s great pass created room for his winger Whetu Taewa to carve up Brisbane down the left flank and find Phil Blake inside for a dazzling try. The Warriors’ first in Winfield Cup football and it had gone to an Australian.
Before the half was out, Dean Bell’s angled run and inside ball to Sean Hoppe had laid on another try and second rower Tony Tatupu had a third Auckland try to give the home side a 16-10 halftime lead.
Even with Phil Blake in the sin bin, the Warriors were dictating affairs in the second half; Hitro Okesene putting replacement Tea Ropati over and Gene Ngamu’s conversion stretching the lead to what seemed tantalisingly close to a match-winning 22-10.
Just when the perfect result promised to top the night, a little man with tons of talent changed the course of the match. Allan Langer, restricted for much of the game, suddenly started running the show as he scored two tries and the Broncos escaped with a 25-22 win.
“I think deep down not many people thought we’d win but they wanted us to be at least competitive in defeat,” says Bell. “Once the game had finished I was bitterly disappointed. It doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been together, when you get that sort of lead you should finish a team off. The adrenalin should be running so much that no side should be able to get back into the game. A lesson learnt and, at the end of the day, relief that we didn’t disgrace ourselves, that we’d been competitive.
“There were still so many positives to erase the doubts I’d had. While I was annoyed with the defeat, when I sat down and thought about it, I saw plenty of good points in the performance. If you could ever have a moral victory when losing, that was it.”
Among the doubts erased that night were Dean Bell’s own misgivings about his ability. If it had been waning, which he suggested it had been, there was no hint of it in this game. Maybe not quite as quick any more – and at 32 no one would expect him to be – but his all-round class was so obvious. On defence, he was exceptional. On attack, inspirational, as he worked a try for Hoppe and also provided a fabulous ball to Hoppe behind Michael Hancock on another occasion. He was unmistakably the Warriors’ man of the match.
There was some concern about the way the Warriors had surrendered a winning lead but none about the night on a wider scale. The Warriors had delivered everything to the New Zealand sporting public short of a win.
AUCKLAND WARRIORS v BRISBANE BRONCOS
Friday, March 10, 1995
Ericsson Stadium, Auckland
Auckland Warriors 22 (Phil Blake, Sean Hoppe, Tony Tatupu, Tea Ropati tries; Gene Ngamu 3 goals).
Brisbane Broncos 25 (Allan Langer 2, Willie Carne, Chris Johns tries; Julian O’Neill 3 goals, field goal; Allan Langer goal).
Auckland Warriors | Phil Blake; Sean Hoppe, Dean Bell (c), Manoa Thompson, Whetu Taewa; Gene Ngamu, Greg Alexander; Gavin Hill, Duane Mann, Hitro Okesene; Stephen Kearney, Tony Tatupu; Tony Tuimavave. Interchange: Se’e Solomona, Tea Ropati, Jason Mackie, Martin Moana.
Brisbane Broncos | Julian O’Neill; Willie Carne, Chris Johns, Michael Hancock, Wendell Sailor; Kevin Walters, Allan Langer; Glenn Lazarus, Kerrod Walters, Andrew Gee; Brad Thorn, Alan Cann; Darren Smith. Interchange: John Plath, Peter Ryan.
Halftime: 16-10 Warriors.
Referee: Bill Harrigan.