Warriors bring the faith back to Mount Smart for sold-out homecoming

By Mana Wikaire-Lewis

Captain Tohu Harris and his teammates finally arrive home. Photo / Supplied.

Loyal and faithful Warriors fans of Aotearoa – your time to watch NRL action in the flesh is almost here.

The Vodafone Warriors arrived in the country yesterday evening in Tāmaki with an official pōwhiri whakatau back at their home base of Mount Smart Stadium today.  

The last two and a half seasons have seen the club based in Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic and, after many restarts to get them back in Auckland for a game, this Sunday is the real thing.

Some players were already in Aotearoa as Representative Round last weekend played out incredible international fixtures, with the Kiwis beating Tonga last Saturday on the same field.

For other players, it will be their first time stepping onto the team’s hallowed home ground in the club’s colours. These include hooker Wayde Egan and first-choice centres Marcelo Montoya and Rocco Berry.

And not only is it his first time at the historical stadium but it’s also prodigy fullback Reece Walsh’s (Ngāti Hineuru, Aboriginal) first time in Aotearoa.

Photo / Supplied

No Warriors home crowd has filled the seats since August 2019. That changes this Sunday with a confirmed sell-out for the Warriors – Tigers clash.

But for prop Bunty Afoa, who is poised to make his 100th NRL appearance this Sunday, it’s all business now and whānau catchups later.

“We need to get the two points this week. We’ve got a whole week off so I can catch up with [family] next week.

“We owe it to not just our fans but our club. We’ve lost seven in a row. Our main focus is us and putting on a good performance for everyone.”

Almost three long years fans have had to wait - but they're finally home.

Afoa says his soon-to-be-reached 100-game milestone is a great achievement.

“I love this club. They’ve given me the opportunity to play and provide for my family. I just got to go out there and make the jersey proud.”

For Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Te Arawa forward Jazz Tevaga, the pōwhiri from Ngāti Whātua was special not just for him.

“The boys haven’t experienced anything like that, so I’m sure it was special for them as well.”

Reflecting on the past couple of years having to be away from whānau in Aotearoa, the last weekend with Rep Round has made Tevaga see how tough his Warriors brethren have had to deal with relocation.

“Hopefully coming home, the boys have had a break. Most of the boys have been home, [we] get to reset and finish off our season strongly.

Echoing what Afoa said, Tevaga is all business too.

“I was talking to the boys earlier. We’ve got to treat this like it’s our grand final. We’ve been in a rut the past 10 weeks or so. Coming home, sold-out crowd, the last thing we want to do is put on a poor performance for them.”

Photo / Supplied

Having joined the Warriors in 2021 during the pandemic and while being based in Australia, winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has yet to play for his club on home soil.

“We’ve only heard stories from the boys about what it’s like to have a packed-out crowd at Mount Smart behind you.

“To be back here, to play our first game in club colours on our home ground is going to be awesome. I still get little tingles just by saying it.”

It’s all going ahead this Sunday, kicking off the Tigers matchup at 4pm.