Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Warriors want a smart option

Warriors say more should be done to make stadium viable, writes Michael Burgess.

The Warriors were happy to return to their traditional Mt Smart base a week ago. Photo / Getty Images
The Warriors were happy to return to their traditional Mt Smart base a week ago. Photo / Getty Images

The Warriors are confident they can stay at Mt Smart beyond 2018, despite the council's stated intentions to shift them to Eden Park.

Last week, the NRL club announced they would play all their Auckland games at the Penrose venue in 2015, after experimenting with three games at Eden Park this year.

It feels like a temporary fightback, ahead of the inevitable move - their Mt Smart lease expires in 2018 - but Warriors owner Eric Watson doubts the council would evict them from their traditional home.

"If they don't [offer a new lease], we would have to deal with that when it happens but I would be surprised if they would do that," Watson told the Herald on Sunday. "They would be forcing us out of our stadium. You can't force sporting organisations to bend to your will to do things that are not right for the business, stakeholders, players and fans. I can't see them doing that."

Watson also feels the club - in their 20th year as anchor tenants of the stadium - have certain rights that can't be ignored and hopes the council don't take the Warriors for granted.

"Most cities that don't have an NRL team bend over backwards to host a game or two," Watson said. "They know the opportunities the sport can bring."

His comments come in the wake of new tension between the council and the club, after the council booked an Eagles concert for mid-March next year, allegedly without any consultation with the club. It has complicated Warriors' plans to stage a blockbuster 20th anniversary re-enactment of their inaugural game on the same weekend and they are currently investigating whether to take legal action against the council.

"It seems to reflect local authority disorganisation," Watson said. "The fact they could book something when you have a tenant there that has the right to use that stadium for another event, it indicates to me they don't really know what they are doing."

The club have said the dialogue remains "open" on the longer-term potential of using Eden Park but it's clearly not the preferred solution with the ground in its current state.

"Eden Park is not suitable," Watson said. "It's not suitable for rugby either, to be honest, unless it is a massive test match. If Auckland wants to be regarded as a sporting capital, it should have a Suncorp Stadium, or something like what Dunedin or Melbourne has."

"Our preference would be to renew our lease, that they invest in [Mt Smart] and find other ways of making the stadium work well. There are other opportunities, rather than what they were trying to do [the stadium merry-go-round involving speedway, cricket and league]. I'm not sure it made a lot of sense, anyway."

For their part, the council feel they have little option, like they are forced into their own corner. They are aware that the proposed shifts are unpopular with many stakeholders, but need to do something to ensure that Eden Park is utilised more and reduce some of the massive debt ($50 million) associated with the stadium -- the real, enduring legacy of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Regional Facilities Auckland chief executive Robert Domm said he respected the Warriors' commercial decision not to move regular games to Eden Park for 2015.

"The RFA is encouraged that the Warriors are still prepared to discuss Eden Park as an option beyond 2015," said Domm. "This is a difficult decision for the Warriors, and RFA is committed to working with them, the NRL, Eden Park, ATEED and others to provide the best stadiums solution for Auckland. Domm added that the "significant changes" to the utilisation of Auckland's stadiums will take time to be resolved.

Meanwhile, Watson feels there are untapped commercial possibilities at Mt Smart and private equity partners could be interested if the deal was right.

"We should be saying, 'how can we turn it into - in the medium-term - an asset that is well cared for and commercial," he said. "[The council] should start looking at Mt Smart as an investment. It should be looked after. There will be commercial opportunities and we are happy to work with them to explore what they might be.

"That is the attitude they need to take."

- Herald on Sunday

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