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It has been over 1000 days since the New Zealand Warriors last played an NRL match in Auckland, and the Mount Smart Joker has the hair and beard to prove it.

Since the club’s last match at Mount Smart Stadium in Round 24 of the 2019 season, the club super fan, who doesn’t reveal his real identity, has refrained from having a haircut or shaving his beard off.

“Shaving and cutting my hair was always one of my NRL season rituals… so since the last home game in 2019 I haven’t cut my hair and the beard has only been trimmed once,” the Joker told NRL.com.

“Now I can’t wait to get it all off.”

Despite bringing an unwanted seven-game losing streak back with them to New Zealand, enthusiasm for the Warriors hasn’t diminished one bit if ticket sales for the homecoming match against the Wests Tigers on Sunday are anything to go by.

The stadium sold out more than a week before game day, becoming the second-fastest selling match in the club’s history, behind only their debut game back in 1995.

Josh Curran and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak are all smiles on their return to the Warriors spiritual home.
Josh Curran and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak are all smiles on their return to the Warriors spiritual home. ©Photosport

Among the crowd of over 26,500 expected will be husband and wife duo Lorraine and Dave McKee, who despite living in Christchurch, over 1000kms south of Auckland, hadn’t missed a single Warriors home game in the 12 years before the pandemic struck.

At 82 years of age, Lorraine speaks of the child-like joy watching the team in person brings her.

“I think I’ll cry on game day probably…. I can’t wait for that feeling of seeing them running back out onto the field,” she said.

“The crowd are going to go berserk mate, berserk.

“I’ve missed the club, missed the people, we have still watched the games, but it’s been pretty awful without getting to meet all our friends at the games. We’ve made some fantastic friends up there. We’ve already booked all of our flights for the remaining games in Auckland and will be at all of them.”

That lost time with friends over the past couple of seasons is a common theme for much of the Warriors faithful, with home matches each year forming a large part of their social calendar.

“It’s a community, you go to the game and you see your Warriors family, and for the last few years we haven’t had the opportunity to hang out, have a pot of chips and talk some smack,” the Joker added.

Warriors fans celebrating one of the club's home games in 2019.
Warriors fans celebrating one of the club's home games in 2019. ©NRL Photos

“For a diehard fan the result matters, but it doesn’t matter at the same time. It’s being there with mates and experiencing it.”

For Warriors member Emma Harper the team’s extended stay in Australia left her feeling on the outside for the first time since she began supporting the club in 2007.

Not only has she missed interacting with other fans, but also the players themselves, who in a typical year they would get to know through the various meet and greet events organised by the club.

The emotional Mt Smart return

“When you’re used to going to games every other week, meet and greets, all that stuff that goes along with being member, most of us have felt a bit on the outside,” she said.

“Normally you’d get to know the players and they get to know you, but now it is basically a new team who none of us have got to know in person.

“It’s going to be quite emotional getting back and giving everyone hugs.

“I can’t even imagine how the players have done it. We all appreciate it and their efforts to keep the competition going.”

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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