To mark the 25th anniversary of the Warriors’ maiden season in the Australian competition, This Warriors Life is reliving each match from that unforgettable 1995 campaign. First up, of course, is the Auckland Warriors’ first-ever premiership match against the Brisbane Broncos at what was then known as Ericsson Stadium on this day 25 years ago – one of the greatest occasions in the history of New Zealand sport and among the most memorable regular-season encounters rugby league has ever witnessed.
The following is a modified excerpt from Will Evans’ recently-released book, ‘Warriors 25: Celebrating 25 Years of the New Zealand Warriors’:
“It was bigger than Ben Hur. It went even further than my expectations,” Dean Bell says. “Coming back to Auckland to lead the side out in that first-ever season was a massive honour. I knew it was going to be a big deal, but there was no way I thought it was going to be as big as it turned out. To say I was nervous before the first game was an understatement, because it was going into the unknown.”
The line-up for the historic March 10 encounter was: Phil Blake, Sean Hoppe, Dean Bell (c), Manoa Thompson, Whetu Taewa, Gene Ngamu, Greg Alexander, Gavin Hill, Duane Mann, Hitro Okesene, Stephen Kearney, Tony Tatupu, Tony Tuimavave. Interchange: Se’e Solomona, Tea Ropati, Jason Mackie, Martin Moana.
The Auckland Warriors fulfilled the skyscraper-high expectations placed on them ahead of the club’s Australian premiership debut, but they landed just short of a dream start in a pulsating 25-22 loss to the Allan Langer-inspired Brisbane Broncos. A sell-out crowd of 29,220 had Ericsson Stadium bursting at the seams and the venue erupted as captain Dean Bell and the Warriors emerged from the tunnel and strode onto the field flanked by flames.
But the Broncos made an ominous start through early tries to Willie Carne and Chris Johns. The Warriors struck in the 21st minute with a memorable maiden try, a 40-metre movement featuring superb offloads from Manoa Thompson and Whetu Taewa and finished off by fullback Phil Blake. Bell put Sean Hoppe over for a leveller soon afterwards and the Warriors stormed to a 22-10 lead with tries either side of halftime to Tony Tatupu – a blockbusting solo effort – and Tea Ropati.
The incomparable Langer squared up the scoreboard with tries in the 54th and 61st minutes, however, and Julian O’Neill booted a penalty goal and a field goal to give the Broncos a three-point buffer as the Warriors frequently found themselves on the wrong end of referee Bill Harrigan’s whistle.
The Broncos withstood a goal-line assault from the valiant Warriors in the dying seconds, hanging on to win an instant classic. Bell and Stephen Kearney were lauded as Auckland’s standout performers. The Frank Endacott-coached reserve grade side created history courtesy of a 36-14 win over their Broncos counterparts earlier in the evening, with Syd Eru scoring two tries and Stacey Jones kicking six goals.
“I think I’ve met every person that was in that 30,000 crowd – I still bump into so many people that say they were at that game,” laughs Bell, who is forever enshrined in the club’s history as Warrior No.1. “It was a moment in history that the game in New Zealand had never seen and has never seen since. Rugby league had finally arrived. That first game was so important because of all the hype, the marketing, the promotional stuff. It could have really gone the other way if we hadn’t turned up. It laid a good platform.”
Bouquets for the intrepid debut performance, and the occasion, piled up. The night has deservedly attained mythical status as one of the nation’s most iconic sporting events. “I’ve always said that game is in the top half-dozen games that I’ve played in. It will always be one of the most enjoyable games in terms of expectation, atmosphere and general feeling,” Alexander says. But the match also proved symbolic of the Warriors’ initial season and many more of their first 25 campaigns: slow out of the blocks, a stirring revival in which they looked like world-beaters, and a late collapse that left everyone agonising over what might have been. An exhilarating ride…but ultimately a big tease.
Veteran New Zealand league journalist and author John Coffey recalls a fellow scribe, a non-‘leaguie’, declaring post-match that the Warriors would not lose another game in ’95. But any misconceptions the media, fans or players had about the difficulty of competing week-to-week in the Australian premiership were soon cleared up.