It seems fitting that the Warriors have the chance to launch a new era this Friday against the Newcastle Knights, the same club who almost exactly three years ago were their opponents on the day the pandemic changed everything for the NRL’s lone Kiwi outfit.
That game ended in Newcastle winning 20-0 and by full time the New Zealand Government had pulled the trigger on a policy of mandatory 14-day isolation stints for arrivals into the country, effectively ending regular travel across the Tasman.
After a chaotic and now well documented period away from home, the Warriors have a chance to make a fresh start this season, with a roster that contains just six players who were part of that group three years ago, and under a new coach in Andrew Webster.
So what has changed during this pre-season, and what is behind the plan for the 2023 Warriors?
A different type of fit
Ahead of their season-opener in Wellington, nobody at the Warriors is going near the overused line that the players are feeling fitter than ever before, but what is clear is that Webster has introduced a different approach to pre-season training.
Kiwi UFC star Kai Kara-France has been brought in as a wrestling consultant to improve their work in the ruck and help build resilience in defence, and plenty of conditioning work has been done on the mats.
UFC star Kai Kara-France joins Warriors
“I could be the fittest runner in the world, but absorbing contact and taking someone to the ground and trying to keep them down for three seconds, then get up and do it over and over again? That zaps the most energy from you,” Webster said.
“If you just run all pre-season you don’t get that benefit. [Wrestling work] gives us a lot of resilience and a lot of game-based fitness.
“We are football fit and we have done a lot of running, but we have done a lot of drills that are going to get us on the pace of rugby league early.”
Halfback Shaun Johnson adds that the introduction of ball-specific sessions before Christmas – which wasn't the case a year ago – has the playing group better connected when it comes to attacking plays.
“I think our clarity and understanding around our roles within the team is far more advanced that what it was this time last year,” Johnson said.
“I would say we are far more connected and understand our style of play.”
More than just an emblem
After so long away from home, the focus off the field has been on connecting new players, and reconnecting others, to the club and New Zealand.
Among other things, that included Webster sending his charges out onto the streets of Auckland on a day-long Amazing Race style exercise at the end of last year.
The aim was to have the players learn more about the place, and people, they represent as Warriors.
“Our motto at the moment is ‘What was before us? Respect our past’. That’s not just people who wore the Warriors jersey, that’s New Zealand in total and that’s Auckland, so we wanted to connect and get to know the place while doing some team building,” Webster explained.
“There were history [components], they had to take the knowledge in they learned at each area and do a quiz.
It’s important. If you don’t know what you’re playing for it’s pretty hard to be successful.Andrew Webster
That desire to pass on what it means to be a Warrior has also seen the club bring in former players Monty Betham, Kevin Campion and Awen Guttenbeil as ambassadors.
The man with the plan
As part of his ambassador role Betham has been a regular at training sessions since Webster has arrived, and can’t help but notice some similarities between him and the club’s most successful coach.
“He’s got similar traits to Daniel Anderson as a coach, with the calmness, the way he is open,” said Betham, who played under Anderson at the Warriors during the early 2000s.
"From a player’s point of view you soon find out whether they know what they are talking about, whether you like them and whether they are a coach you want to play for.
“I know if I was a player back in the day I would have liked to have been under someone like Webby.”
As for Webster himself, after a lengthy apprenticeship which spanned across stints at the Wests Tigers, Eels, Warriors and most recently Panthers, he's excited for his first game as a full-time head coach in the NRL.
"It's there. I have been preaching to the players that we can't get excited too early, so I maybe have got to rein that in myself," Webster said.
"I am happy, this is what I wanted to do and I am excited to do it with this group, I love them.
"Proud to represent New Zealand and the Warriors."