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‘Auckland is a rugby league town’: How the Warriors have taken over – and how Super Rugby let it happen

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f there was ever a testament required to the success of the New Zealand Warriors, we might have seen it this last weekend passed.

While the Aussie media has fallen in love with the Wahs thanks to their huge crowds, their redemptive success after years of Covid-induced exile and, yes, their exceptional footy team, something new has begun to happen: they’ve started to be criticised.

It’s the best thing that could happen to the club, because it means we’re all taking them seriously.

 

They might have gone under during the pandemic and, when they righted themselves in Redcliffe in 2022, the rugby league world was more likely to give them pat on the head rather than treat them as threats for a Premiership.

Long before that, they were the untippable but loveable renegades, a deeply unserious side that lost when they should win but won when it should have lost.

But after successive defeats to the Dragons in Wollongong and then the Titans at home – the Gold Coast’s first win anywhere in 2024 – it’s finally open slather on Andrew Webster’s men, and that only comes with expectation.

It shows how far they have come on the field, and off it, they’re flying high too. The Titans match was their seventh successive sell out, with games at Mt Smart Stadium – and road matches in other cities – the hottest ticket in town.

While the national rugby union team will always be the biggest draw, the Warriors are whipping Super Rugby – so the Roar League Podcast rang up two of New Zealand’s most respected sports broadcasters to ask why the Up The Wahs movement had generated such momentum.

“You have to make the point loud and clear: the All Blacks are the All Blacks are the All Blacks, and they’ll always be the number one sporting team in New Zealand, and I can’t see a time where rugby is not our national game,” said Martin Devlin, said Kiwi broadcasting legend and host on The Platform.

“However, in Auckland in particular, I think it is fair to say now that Auckland is a rugby league town.

“You call it optics, metrics, you can throw whatever term you like at it, I look at it in terms of the crowd numbers that are going.

“If you go to a pub where the codes have crossed: last year the Blues were playing a quarter final knockout at Eden Park and I was at a pub called Schapiro’s and 19 out of 20 screens flicked to watch the Warriors play.

“The whole pub should have been full of people at Eden Park watching the rugby. Everywhere you go in Auckland, it doesn’t matter what time of day or night, you will see Warriors gear. You won’t see anything to do with the Blues.

Taufa Funaki of the Blues celebrates Ricky Riccitelli’s try during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between Blues and Western Force at Eden Park, on April 05, 2024, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“I think that, in terms of the younger generations, people under 30, I would say that the Warriors have captured that audience massively at the moment and rugby hasn’t.”

The success of the Wahs has led for calls for a second team to go to New Zealand in the next round of expansion, but according to veteran broadcaster Craig Norenbergs, that would be a mistake.

“The lucky thing that rugby league in New Zealand has at the moment is that there’s one team in the NRL,” he said.

“They can pour all their energies into that. The big test will be if a second team comes in.

“The players are already going to Australia to play, or playing in Europe, but how are they going to go when there’s a second team and the resources are piped into two.

“The Warriors have had the support even when they’re losing.

“I don’t think they should put a second rugby league team in New Zealand. Let’s get the Warriors right. Make them like the Broncos or the Storm where they’re always up there making the finals, and maybe look at another team in 10,15, 20 years.

“The population’s growing, there’s still time to do it. Maybe the time is to put one in Perth and Papua New Guinea, which they’re determined to have.

“Do you have to have a second team in New Zealand? Is there demand on the South Island? I don’t think it passes the pub test.”

Both agreed that at least some of the success of the Warriors could be found in their ability to move into space vacated by own goals from rugby union itself, both the New Zealand Rugby authorities and the Super Rugby competiton.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 09: Wayde Egan of the Warriors in action during the round 15 NRL match between Canberra Raiders and New Zealand Warriors at GIO Stadium on June 09, 2023 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Wayde Egan. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

“Super Rugby has wrecked its own audience by its own arrogance and complacency,” said Devlin.

It’s not a bad product this year – if you watch it, most of the games have been a hell of a watch with great narratives and storylines.

“They don’t help themselves because they’ve had three rounds in a row with four teams missing. They don’t look at the schedule of the NRL and think ‘that’s a blockbuster game, let’s move our schedule around and try to fit it in’.

“You can watch both sports, you can enjoy both but for a long time, rugby in New Zealand has sat there and said ‘we’re rugby, people are going to come and watch us’.

“Then you add that the players don’t want to play. You’ve got superstar players – and this is the greatest point around this – in the second round of Super Rugby, the Super Round in Melbourne, and the biggest story is that the players who are missing for All Blacks rest.

“We’re two rounds in and the All Blacks don’t play until June and they’re resting players!

“Can you imagine the Warriors saying Addin Fonua-Blake and Shaun Johnson aren’t playing because they’re on Kiwi rest? It’s not going to happen.

 

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