The handshakes and hugs started outside the gates of Mount Smart Stadium well before the official welcoming ceremony began on Tuesday morning, as Warriors staff reconnected with colleagues for the first time since the team returned from Australia.
Later that morning the full playing squad were greeted by a powerful pōwhiri (Māori welcoming ceremony) from local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, which marked their return home after two and a half years across the Tasman.
The long-awaited homecoming has been a particularly emotional experience for the club’s New Zealand-based players, including playmaker Shaun Johnson, who this year had spent less than a week in total with his wife Kayla and young daughter Millah, who remained in Auckland.
“Watching my little one grow up through FaceTime wasn’t ideal. We’ve all had our different challenges,” Johnson said.
“Not having them in my corner for the year has been challenging at times.
“I’m just so grateful that I am in this position right now and get to be a dad and share this week with my family.
I can rock into Mount Smart Stadium with a smile on my face knowing that I am going to go home and see my little one afterwards.Shaun Johnson
“Every sort of tough day you have had (in Australia) brings you back to this moment right now where we are home, with my family and I get to be embraced by the people I play for.”
After spending three seasons at Cronulla (2019-21) and then being stuck in Australia for the first half of his return season with the Warriors this year, Johnson also thought his days of being welcomed at Mount Smart Stadium were over.
“I never thought I’d be able to walk through Mount Smart again and see the faces I bounced in seeing for the eight years I was here,” Johnson said.
“Even driving the path from my house to the stadium, I called my dad saying ‘Dad, I’m doing it again’.
“I am exactly where I need to be and I know that.”
Jazz Tevaga, Adam Pompey and Chanel Harris-Tavita are the only players still on the Warriors’ books who took the field the last time the club played in Auckland back in Round 24, 2019, while prop Bunty Afoa is still around but missed that game.
For the likes of veteran winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, this is his first time seeing club’s headquarters as a Warrior, after years of experiencing it as a member of the visiting team.
“It was actually good to come in here and see my locker, see the place and actually feel like you belong to something and belong somewhere,” Watene-Zelezniak said.
“A big part of the reason why I signed back here was to come back to where I have come from and to let my wife and kids experience that as well.
Stacey Jones excited for homecoming
“We had only really heard stories from the boys about what it’s like to have a packed-out crowd at Mount Smart behind you, so to be back here and play our first game in the colours on our home ground is going to be awesome.”
Club captain Tohu Harris meanwhile spoke about the honour of leading the club out in front of their dedicated fans again.
“It’s a privilege to be honest, to be in this position to be able to lead the boys out onto the field,” Harris said.
“I don’t think anyone would have imagined it would go on for this long… I certainly wouldn’t have picked two and a half years to be the length of time before we got to play at Mount Smart again.”
Tickets to the homecoming match have already sold out, with a crowd of over 26,500 expected on Sunday afternoon.