When Andrew Webster first slid his feet under the desk in Go Media Stadium's East Stand last November, he could scarcely have imagined the magical journey his team would take the entire nation on in 2023.
Having served as an assistant to Andrew McFadden back in 2015-16, Webster returned to Auckland for his first crack as an NRL head coach, inheriting a side that won just six games in 2022 on its way to the lowest finish (15th) in club history.
Arriving to help with the rebuild were a number of key signings including tough nuts Marata Niukore and Mitch Barnett, 2014 premiership winner Dylan Walker and exciting fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, returning to the club where he debuted as a raw 21-year-old in 2017.
With Shaun Johnson, Addin Fonua-Blake, Tohu Harris, Wayde Egan and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak already on deck and eager to make amends for a dire 2022 campaign, the rookie mentor had the makings of a decent team, but only the most loyal of Warriors fans would have predicted they’d still be in there swinging a week before the grand final.
“I said to the boys early in the season that if you gain momentum and you improve rapidly and you do it together, trust me you won’t know what you can do,” Webster said after the emotional ride finally came to an end against the Broncos.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's record-breaking 2023
“I’m grateful that everyone bought in, it was so amazing.
“I feel like the football program is in a good position for us to launch something here… stay consistent and challenge for grand finals and win grand finals
“We have to come back hungry for that and it has to be in our actions not just our words.”
From the moment they downed the Knights in the season opener in Wellington and followed that up with wins over the Cowboys in Round 3, Bulldogs in Round 4 and the great escape against Johnson’s old team the Sharks in Round 5, it was clear Webster’s words were resonating with his men.
Calling on reserves of resilience that had largely deserted them in recent seasons, the Warriors stormed back from 26-12 down at half-time to draw level with the Sharks at 30-30 with 10 minutes to play before Johnson slotted a goal near the siren after Josh Curran was ruled to have been pushed while chasing a kick.
"It’s one of the best wins I’ve ever been a part of, for different reasons, and that is they just never gave up,” Webster said post-match.
“The boys’ attitude and never giving up is just something different, it’s crazy how good it is.”
SJ grateful for the support
Successive losses to the Storm, Roosters and Panthers between Round 8-10 proved a minor hiccup before wins over the Bulldogs, Dolphins and Raiders saw the Warriors head into their Round 16 bye in sixth place on the ladder.
With only two points separating the fourth-placed Rabbitohs and 11th-placed Roosters, there was still plenty of work to be done but the Warriors had made it clear they had turned a corner.
Following that bye, Webster’s men won eight of their last 10 games, taking care of business in hometown blockbusters against the Sharks, Raiders, Sea Eagles and Dragons as the ‘Up The Wahs’ catch cry hit fever pitch.
Having been robbed of the chance to watch their beloved Warriors for two years due to the COVID pandemic, the fans made up for lost time by packing Go Media Stadium to the rafters for a string of monster matches, including the semi-final against the Knights.
The Warriors fans belt out the team song!
“The support the fans have given us, the movement ‘Up The Wahs’, everywhere you go everyone is talking about rugby league and we couldn’t have done it without them,” Webster said.
“I don’t care if you are in the South Island or the top of the North Island, they are all talking about rugby league right now, and that’s amazing and we are really proud of that.”
Among of posse of stars who delivered big time in 2023, Johnson shone brightest as he roared into Dally M Medal contention and turned the clock back to his Golden Boot year of 2014.
Back with his family in Auckland and back to his best, the 33-year-old produced 29 try assists, 26 line break assists and 24 forced dropouts as he lifted the Warriors into the top four for the first time since 2007.
From Watene-Zelezniak breaking the club's tryscoring record for a single season with 24 spectacular four-pointers, to Fonua-Blake running 171 metres per game and busting 73 tackles, to five-eighth Luke Metcalf and edge forward Jackson Ford emerging as genuine NRL stars, the Warriors had heroes across the paddock.
And pulling it all together in his maiden season was Webster, keeping it real as the hype and expectation grew, keeping his men grounded and delivering clear, concise messages.
Crazy Finishes: Sharks v Warriors - Round 5, 2023
As the players sat slumped in their seats and tried to come to terms with the loss to the Broncos on Saturday night, Johnson used the moment to pay tribute to the coach and his staff.
"Shaun wanted to express the players’ appreciation of what Webby has brought to the club and the staff as a whole," Harris revealed.
"They probably don’t hear it enough from us and he wanted to make sure they heard it tonight. Make sure they know how much we appreciate them.
"What Webby and the coaches have brought in can set us up but the players still have to use it to get better and we will."