Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Season of Eden fails to reap any rewards

Eden Park has not been a happy hunting ground for the Warriors, their latest loss to St George last weekend. Photo / Getty Images
Eden Park has not been a happy hunting ground for the Warriors, their latest loss to St George last weekend. Photo / Getty Images

The decision to forgo a Warriors game at Mt Smart this season until round 12 in June may have been made for sound commercial reasons but carries a substantial footballing risk and is already having an impact.

It's hardly a secret; the 2014 draw was made in October but reality has started to bite for the club and their fans.

In the first 11 rounds, they have tough away games against the Storm, Titans, Sharks and, on the evidence of last week, the Dragons. They play the Bulldogs and Raiders at Eden Park, as well as facing Canterbury in Hamilton. Next week, they face a resurgent Tigers outfit in Wellington.

The implications are obvious; if they don't get some profit from the remainder of their 'season of Eden' and grab some results on the road, their season will be all but over before the halfway point.

The structure of the Warriors season made commercial sense. Playing three games at Eden Park early to maximise crowds and clustering the fixtures together meant special deals could be marketed — an Eden Park "season ticket", a Mt Smart "season ticket" and an overall season ticket, plus optimising promotional activities.

"We looked at every possible option," says Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah. "When you are staging games in New Zealand's biggest stadium, it makes sense to have them when the weather conditions are most likely good. We also wanted to avoid the end of the season — so results were possibly less of a factor — and we wanted to sell separate memberships, which would be impossible if we spread the three matches over six months."

There were other contributing factors, with the Bruce Springsteen and (scheduled) Rolling Stones concerts also removing access to Mt Smart for weeks at a time.

But it was a risk that with the glorious benefit of hindsight probably should not have been taken.

The lessons were there last year; during their horrible start, the only relief came at Mt Smart.

After losing their opening three games, the first victory under Matt Elliott came at Penrose. They won two of their initial three games at Mt Smart (as well as a last-gasp loss to the Rabbitohs) but came up empty in their first seven matches away from their traditional base.

In 2012, Brian McClennan's team won just one game away from Mt Smart in their first 11 matches, against eventual wooden-spooners Parramatta. History does repeat.

Over the past decade, not only have the Warriors been notoriously slow starters, they've been awful away from Mt Smart in the first half of the season. Only twice since 2004 have they won more than two games away from Mt Smart across the first 11 matches of the season, in 2005 and 2011.

This current Warriors team is a fragile beast. They are not the kind of team that can win whatever the circumstances (like the Sharks last year) or defy a run of injuries (like Manly and Brisbane in recent weeks) or turn up with the same performance in every corner of Australasia (like the Storm across their history).

They are a confidence team, relying on momentum during a game to maintain belief.

They feed on the atmosphere created by the Mt Smart crowd metres from the sideline and benefit from the fact that many Australian teams don't enjoy playing there.

Playing one or two of their early games at Mt Smart would hopefully bank a win or two before getting into the Eden Park 'swing'. Or at least one Eden Park clash could be saved for the second half of the season. The decision may have been made to maximise financial returns but how much damage will be done to the balance sheet if there is another less than spectacular season?

In terms of Eden Park, it's stretching things to talk about hoodoos (just four games across four years) but the Warriors continue to find new ways to lose at the home of rugby.

As pointed out by long-time commentator Allen McLaughlin, many of the statistics favoured the Auckland team last Saturday. They had 110 more touches of the ball than the Dragons, made 48 fewer tackles, 23 more tackle breaks and missed 15 tackles, a relatively small amount, but still lost comprehensively.

However, the club is in an unenviable position. The council stadium roundabout master plan makes staying at Mt Smart for the long term untenable, as the council will only commit to basic maintenance of the ageing stadium. A sudden, complete switch to Eden Park would be unpalatable, so the club are taking a step-by-step approach.

"Neither model is perfect or future-proofed," says Scurrah. "At Mt Smart, there is no level of future funding and at Eden Park, there are residential, parking and cost issues, as well as the size and shape of the stadium. It's a real dilemma."

- Herald on Sunday

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