The Vodafone Warriors’ rivalry with the Canterbury Bulldogs intensified during the early-2000s following a string of spectacular comebacks and upset victories by the Auckland-based club, while the Bulldogs’ consistently large contingent of Kiwi imports ensured an extra bit of fire and physicality in the clubs’ showdowns.
Overall record: Played 35 – Bulldogs won 20, Vodafone Warriors won 13, draws 2; Vodafone Warriors scored 795 points, Bulldogs scored 805 points.
Biggest wins: Bulldogs – 54-10 at Mt Smart Stadium, 2004; Vodafone Warriors – 48-22 at Sydney Showgrounds, 2004 (final).
Longest winning streaks: Bulldogs – 6 matches (2004-07); Vodafone Warriors – 2 matches (three times – 2002-03, 2008 times 2010-11).
Finals: Played 1 – Vodafone Warriors won 1.
Most appearances: Hazem El Masri (Bulldogs) – 24; Stacey Jones (Vodafone Warriors) – 21; Steve Price (Bulldogs and Vodafone Warriors) – 19; Logan Swann (Vodafone Warriors) – 16.
Most tries: Hazem El Masri (Bulldogs) – 13; Francis Meli (Vodafone Warriors) – 10; Nigel Vagana (Vodafone Warriors and Bulldogs) – 9; Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 9.
Most points: Hazem El Masri (Bulldogs) – 178; Daryl Halligan (Bulldogs) – 80; Stacey Jones (Vodafone Warriors) – 61.
1995-1999 – Early wins memorable
Inspired by 19-year-old halfback sensation Stacey Jones, the Auckland Warriors surged to a stunning 29-8 victory over a Bulldogs side that included Kiwi stars Daryl Halligan and John Timu in the inaugural meeting between the clubs in 1995. Phil Blake scored two tries off the bench for the Warriors, while fellow veteran Greg Alexander also turned back the clock with a four-pointer in the five-tries-to-one upset at Parramatta Stadium. It would be the besieged Bulldogs’ last loss of the season – they subsequently won six straight games to clinch a phenomenal premiership triumph in the Super League-affected season.
Canterbury won its next three against Auckland, before another unlikely success by the erratic Warriors in 1998. Despite the first-half send-off of prop Jerry Seuseu, the Warriors held the Bulldogs try-less in their Belmore Oval backyard, carving out a remarkable 20-6 win. Auckland’s combative captain Matthew Ridge was also sin-binned during the match to leave his side with 11 men at one stage, emphasising the visitors’ momentous defensive display.
1999-2003 – Bulldogs foiled by Warriors bogey
The Warriors’ lack of on-field success in the late-1990s did not extend to their rivalry with the Bulldogs, while they continued to have the wood on the blue-and-whites after becoming a force in the early-2000s, losing just two of 10 games between the sides from 1999-2003.
Round 8, 2001 – Bulldogs stunned by unlikely comeback in historic Wellington clash
The Bulldogs signed a four-year agreement to play one home game per season against the Vodafone Warriors at Wellington’s Westpac Trust Stadium – and it paid off immediately, with 27,724 fans turning out for the first-ever NRL match played in the New Zealand capital. The move also looked set to pay dividends from a results perspective when the Bulldogs held a 16-point lead with less than six minutes on the clock. But in one of the most extraordinary late fight-backs of the modern era, young Vodafone Warriors backs Henry Fa’afili, Francis Meli and Clinton Toopi all crossed to level up the scores at 24-all. Prop Justin Morgan broke through the line to set up a 65-metre try for fill-in fullback Toopi in the dying stages, but Vodafone Warriors linchpin Stacey Jones hooked the relatively easy conversion attempt – his first miss of the night – to consign the match to a draw.
Jones was again the catalyst for a 34-8 drubbing at Mt Smart later in 2001, helping the Vodafone Warriors to secure their maiden finals berth, while a high-quality boilover at the same venue in 2002 ended the ladder-leading Bulldogs’ 17-match winning streak. Tries to former Warrior Nigel Vagana and Auckland-born rookie winger Matt Utai were not enough to prevent a 22-14 victory to the Vodafone Warriors, leaving the Bulldogs two games shy of the all-time record for consecutive wins. Worse was to come for the club – revelations of salary cap breaches saw the Bulldogs stripped of 37 competition points and consigned to last place, with the Vodafone Warriors instead taking out the minor premiership and going on to reach the grand final.
The Bulldogs bounced back to finish the 2003 regular season in third place, and went into their first-week finals showdown with the Vodafone Warriors at the Sydney Showgrounds as raging-hot favourites.
Qualifying Final, 2003 – Rampant Vodafone Warriors stun heavyweights
Rated little chance of upsetting the high-flying Bulldogs, the enigmatic sixth-placed Vodafone Warriors produced one of the most dazzling finals displays in premiership history. Powerhouse winger Francis Meli crossed for an all-time finals record five tries, while Brent Webb racked up 18 points, and the likes of Sione Faumiuna, Clinton Toopi and Motu Tony were at their unstoppable adlib, ball-promoting best. The Vodafone Warriors led 16-4 at the break before powering to a 48-22 victory in the highest-scoring finals match in the code’s history to that time. Both sides were eventually eliminated at the preliminary final stage.
2004-2007 – Bulldogs turn the tables
While the Bulldogs translated their long-running heavyweight status into premiership success in 2004, the Vodafone Warriors suffered a dramatic fall from grace and spent three seasons on the outside of the finals picture looking in. Comprehensively snuffing out a five-season bogey, the Bulldogs racked up six straight wins over the Vodafone Warriors and maintained an unbeaten record in matches staged in Wellington. Hazem El Masri racked up 72 points in the six-match streak, including a 22-point haul in a 54-10 drubbing in the final round of the ’04 season – the Vodafone Warriors’ biggest-ever defeat at home – with Kiwi Test winger Utai crossing for four tries.
Round 18, 2006 – Rookie Kiwi burns countrymen
Livewire rookie half Ben Roberts conjured a sensational golden point win for the Bulldogs against the Vodafone Warriors at Stadium Australia. Roberts made his NRL debut against the Vodafone Warriors two months earlier, and had only recently returned from making his New Zealand Test debut for a second-string Kiwis side – made up predominantly of British-based players – against Great Britain, partnering ex-Vodafone Warriors legend Stacey Jones in the halves. The Vodafone Warriors led the Round 18 clash 16-0, but the Bulldogs quickly hauled in the deficit and the score remained 18-all for the last 34 minutes of regulation time. After setting for a field goal in extra-time, Roberts, in just his fourth first grade appearance, sliced through the Vodafone Warriors’ defence and found Mark O’Meley with an audacious flick pass. The burly Test prop scored under the posts to clinch a 22-18 win for a Bulldogs side that contained Auckland-born trio Sonny Bill Williams, Roy Asotasi and Willie Mason.
But the Vodafone Warriors did manage to secure one of their biggest and most important signings from the Bulldogs’ ranks at the end of 2004. After 222 games in the blue-and-white jumper, Bulldogs captain Steve Price moved to Auckland and took over as skipper of the Vodafone Warriors; the inspirational prop was integral to the club’s gradual return to finals contender status.
2008-2014 – Thrilling finishes mark topsy-turvy rivalry
The Vodafone Warriors piled more misery on the wooden-spoon Bulldogs in 2008 with two big wins. Manu Vatuvei bagged a double in a 36-16 win in Round 5, while relatively unknown winger Malo Solomona scored a hat-trick in a 40-22 thumping in Round 19. The clubs experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes in 2009, and the front-running Bulldogs won both clashes with the also-ran Vodafone Warriors. El Masri kicked eight goals from as many attempts in the penultimate regular season round encounter, a match that doubled as the popular winger’s final home game – a bumper crowd of 41,835 turned out for the 40-20 success. Centre Josh Morris crossed for three tries.
Round 5, 2010 – Vodafone Warriors snatch win at the death
A last-minute try to Lance Hohaia saw the Vodafone Warriors steal a 30-24 win over Canterbury at Stadium Australia. The Vodafone Warriors had led 24-12 early in the second half, but the Bulldogs reeled them in with tries to Luke Patten and Jamal Idris, and appeared set to go on with the job...until Brett Kimmorley shanked a simple field goal chance with four minutes to go. Lewis Brown conjured the freakish match-winner from halfway, making a break and kicking ahead before regathering when fullback Patten fumbled. Veteran utility Hohaia – who started the movement – arrived in support to finish off with just 43 seconds on the clock.
Canterbury returned to Wellington in 2013 and extended the Vodafone Warriors’ winless run in the city, recovering from a 16-point deficit to record a 24-16 victory.
Round 6, 2014 – Bulldogs spoil McFadden’s NRL introduction
The first assignment for new caretaker-coach Andrew McFadden, who replaced Matthew Elliott at the helm after a heavy defeat to Cronulla, was against an in-form Canterbury side at Eden Park. McFadden looked set for a dream start to his NRL coaching career, his side crafting a 20-12 lead with less than 15 minutes to go. But Tim Lafai reduced the deficit to just two with a try, before a contentious penalty allowed Trent Hodkinson to level the scores via a 76th-minute goal. The Bulldogs halfback proved the match-winner shortly afterwards, slotting a pressure field goal with just over two minutes on the clock to break the Vodafone Warriors’ hearts.
Canterbury’s incredible record at New Zealand venues other than Mt Smart Stadium continued four weeks after their last-gasp win at Eden Park. After taking their Round 10 home game to Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, the Bulldogs hung on for a dramatic 16-12 win, with a Josh Morris try-saver on a runaway Shaun Johnson needed to confirm their fourth straight victory over the Vodafone Warriors. It was the Bulldogs’ seventh match at alternate venues in Kiwi territory, for six wins and a draw.
Coming into the clubs’ final-round clash in 2015 on a seven-match losing streak, the injury-stricken Vodafone Warriors were gallant in going down 26-22 to the fifth-placed Bulldogs, with Tuimoala Lolohea outstanding in a two-try performance for the vanquished visitors.
The Vodafone Warriors ended a long-running hoodoo against the Bulldogs in 2016, notching their first win against the blue-and-whites in Wellington in six attempts (the club had broken their duck in the city against Wests Tigers in 2014). The 24-20 result came at a heavy cost, though, with fullback recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury in just his seventh appearance for the Vodafone Warriors.
The Bulldogs created history by taking their third-round home game against the Vodafone Warriors to Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium earlier this season, the first time the city has hosted an NRL match. The Vodafone Warriors edged ahead 12-10 with a converted Shaun Johnson try in the 62nd minute but Canterbury-Bankstown reclaimed the lead minutes later and went on to take the contest 24-12.
THEY PLAYED FOR BOTH CLUBS
Gavin Hill: Former Wellington rugby union flanker Hill was a rare forward convert success story, joining Canterbury-Bankstown in 1992 and earning Kiwis selection in his first season after switching codes. A handy goal-kicker, Hill scored 150 points in 33 games for the Bulldogs in 1992-93 and played five Tests, before becoming the Auckland Warriors’ first-ever signing. The hard-hitting prop/second-rower scored 152 points for Waikato Cougars in the inaugural Lion Red Cup competition in 1994, before playing 14 first grade games in the Warriors’ first two seasons in the premiership.
Nigel Vagana: A prolific try-scorer for the Auckland Warriors, Vagana crossed 37 times in 71 games from 1996-2000 before being snapped up by the Bulldogs. He enjoyed the best years of his career under the coaching of Steve Folkes, scoring 61 tries in just 76 games – including club records for tries in a match (5) and a season (23) in 2002 – and taking out the Dally M Centre of the Year award in 2001-02. The Kiwi Test veteran finished his decorated career with stints at Cronulla and Souths.
Robert Mears: A wholehearted, slippery hooker, Mears began his career at the Roosters before playing 16 first grade games for the Bulldogs in 1997-98. He was a valuable pick-up for the struggling Auckland Warriors, playing 40 games in two seasons and taking out the club’s Player of the Year award in 2000, before embarking on stints with Leeds, Wests Tigers and Leigh.
Justin Murphy: Speedy, diminutive winger Murphy scored a try in his only NRL appearance for the Bulldogs – a big loss to the Broncos in 2000 – before being snapped up by the Vodafone Warriors in 2001. Murphy scored 10 tries in 43 games across four seasons with the Warriors, enjoying his best year during the club’s watershed 2002 campaign, in which his 18 appearances included the grand final loss to the Roosters. He later teamed up with former Vodafone Warriors team-mate Stacey Jones at Super League club Catalans after stints with Widnes and UTC.
Steve Price: A Canterbury-Bankstown great with 222 games and three grand final appearances in the blue-and-white, Queensland and Australian stalwart prop Price joined the Vodafone Warriors soon after missing the Bulldogs’ 2004 decider triumph through injury. Price proved to be one of the Vodafone Warriors’ greatest-ever Australian recruits, winning the Dally M Captain and Prop of the Year honours in 2007, and becoming just the club’s second Kangaroos Test player and third Origin rep. A foot injury ended his career in 2010 after 91 games for the Vodafone Warriors.
Krisnan Inu: Gifted but enigmatic outside back Inu, who made his New Zealand Test debut after just one NRL appearance for Parramatta, left the Eels to join the Vodafone Warriors in 2011. He played a key role in the club’s charge to the 2011 Grand Final, but was released after an indifferent start to the following season and joined Canterbury mid-year. Inu produced a spectacular run of match-winning form as the Bulldogs reached the decider, where he became just the second player ever to feature in grand final losses for three clubs (he also suffered defeat with the Eels in ’09). Despite a Test recall in 2012, the prolific scorer’s erratic tendencies saw him fall out of favour with the Bulldogs in 2014 and he was snapped up by French rugby before returning to the 13-a-side game with Super League outfit Catalans.
Jonathan Wright: Former Parramatta utility-back Wright played 38 games for the Bulldogs in 2011-12, scoring 14 tries in the latter season and featuring in the club’s grand final loss to the Storm. After two seasons at Cronulla, Wright linked with the Vodafone Warriors and featured 29 times in first grade in 2015-16, but joined Manly ahead of the 2017 season.
James Gavet: Bruising forward Gavet made a solitary appearance for Canterbury-Bankstown in 2012, and arrived at the Vodafone Warriors via stints at Wests Tigers and Brisbane. Gavet made 10 first grade appearances and made his Test debut for Samoa during 2016.
Raymond Faitala-Mariner: Otahuhu Leopards product and Junior Kiwi Faitala-Mariner burst onto the NRL scene with 11 appearances for the Vodafone Warriors in 2015. The dynamic back rower had one further run in first grade with the club in 2016 before joining the Bulldogs in April, forging a regular spot in their star-studded pack by playing 14 of a possible 18 games before the end of the season. He has now played 20 times for the Bulldogs.
Shaun Lane: A rookie sensation with the Bulldogs in 2015 – scoring five tries in 14 games – Lane linked with the Vodafone Warriors midway through 2016 as Faitala-Mariner went in the opposite direction. Lane featured in the under-strength Vodafone Warriors’ gutsy win over the Dragons, but could not force his way into the first grade 17 again, instead featuring in the club’s Intrust Super Premiership finals campaign before signing with Manly for 2017.