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From the moment he led them onto the field for their first ever game against the Broncos in 1995, the Warriors have always been close to Dean Bell’s heart.

Rated one of the finest centres of his era and an icon of Kiwi rugby league, the no-nonsense Aucklander was the ideal man to skipper the fledgling outfit on their maiden voyage into the unknown.

“It was such a big deal for us as a country, the realisation of so many people’s dreams who never thought they’d be alive to see it,” Bell said in ‘Rugby League Icons: The Clubs, The Tribes, The Triumphs’.

“Standing in that tunnel on that first night I felt so humbled to be part of a moment rugby league had been looking for in New Zealand.

“I played in seven Challenge Cup finals in England and won them all and I always say the best two moments of my career are my first Wembley final in 1988 and that first night with the Warriors in ’95.”

Almost three decades later, the man voted Manukau’s Player of the Century has revelled in the rebirth of a Warriors side set to play finals footy for just the second time 12 years.

Inaugural Warriors captain Dean Bell salutes the crowd on Old Boys' Day in Round 25.
Inaugural Warriors captain Dean Bell salutes the crowd on Old Boys' Day in Round 25. ©Photosport

Just as he and fellow veteran Greg Alexander joined forces with astute mentor John Monie to drive the standards in that inaugural season, so too Tohu Harris, Shaun Johnson and Andrew Webster have set the tone for a 2023 campaign that has taken the NRL by storm.

“It has been an amazing turnaround from where they were the last few years and without doubt the credit has to go to Andrew Webster,” said Bell.

“He’s a very clear communicator, he knows what he wants and he gets it done efficiently.

“A team can only be judged on ‘are they playing to their potential’ and that will always fall to the coach if they aren’t, but these guys certainly are.

“Sometimes there’s an over-emphasis on the coach but in this case it’s right that Andrew get the credit.

“Shaun is now doing a lot of stuff he wasn’t doing early in his career. He has always been a mercurial player but now he is playing the ultimate halfback’s game to the point where there hasn’t been a better halfback [in the NRL] this year.

“Tohu is always willing to do the hard stuff, he’s a ‘follow me’ style of leader. He has a lot of support around him now and that has helped him.

"Guys like Dylan Walker and Jazz Tevaga, they are two of the best bench players you could have. They are a barometer of the toughness you need to win finals games."

The winning moment: Johnson

Being part of the September action has been little more than a pipe dream since the 2011 grand final loss to Manly, but in 2023 the Warriors have won more games than the last two seasons combined to secure their first top-four finish since 2007.

Among a host of players producing standout seasons, Johnson leads the NRL in try assists with 27, Addin Fonua-Blake has more post-contact metres than any other player and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak needs just two tries to equal Francis Meli’s club record of 23 set in 2003.

Depending on results this weekend the Warriors will head to either Brisbane or Penrith in week one of the play-offs, before returning home to Auckland in week two or three to host a final for the first time since the 2008 semi against the Roosters.

Sitting in the coach’s box that day and masterminding a 30-13 triumph was none other than Ivan Cleary, the man Webster stood alongside on grand final night last year as the Panthers went back-to-back.

Three for DWZ

In his role as Cleary’s assistant, Webster had been part of both the 2021 and ’22 premierships and was ready to spread his wings as head coach of the Warriors.

“Although we’re saddened to see Andrew depart the club, it’s rewarding to see a valued member of the club progress to the next stage of their career,” Panthers CEO Matt Cameron said at the time.

“Working alongside Ivan Cleary and the entire football staff, Andrew has been influential in providing an environment for players to flourish, and played a key role in leading the Panthers to premiership success.”

While he concedes the Warriors aren’t quite at the Panthers’ level just yet, Bell sees plenty of similarities between the two sides.

“The Panthers are not necessarily a team of superstars but they just win footy games, and if you’re winning footy games then everything you are doing is the right thing,” Bell said.

“They put the pressure on, they keep the pressure on, and to a certain extent that’s what Warriors have done this year.

“The Panthers take the air out of you through their consistent, persistent defensive approach and that frustrates teams.

“Then they have that sparkle and finesse and that teamwork that gets them over the line and we can see a little bit of that in the Warriors, who are playing a brand of footy that everybody knows what they are doing.

“They have become a team you want to watch whereas the last four or five years you couldn’t have said that.

“We watch footy games for pleasure and a few years ago they weren’t a pleasure to watch. They were fairly negative and if the pressure was on, they would turn games up, now there is a consistency we are so proud of.

The final moments of the Wests Tigers-Warriors 2011 SF

“They are rewarding the fans who stuck with them through those years. They are playing that style of footy that fans can be proud of and that’s why they are turning up in huge numbers.

“A home final will be a major event in the New Zealand sporting calendar just like that first game in 1995 was.

“I think we had 30,000 in Auckland that night and the atmosphere that was created was just like the 100,000 at Wembley.

“What we gained in that first year was respect – you have to earn that, it is never something that is given to you.

"Part of that respect is going to be how this team perform in the finals. It's still a successful season but deep down they are after a whole lot more than just getting there.

"They have to raise the bar now. It's turn up or go home."

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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