The Warriors have always had a following that probably ranks as the most loyal of any sport in New Zealand. The All Blacks' support is larger but also quicker to turn on the team when it loses. Warriors fans are more like those who support professional sports in other countries, sticking by their club through thick and thin, loyal long past the point at which it offers them any realistic hope of success from one year to the next.
In fact it may be said the Warriors franchise has been more successful in the grandstands than on the field. Anybody who has been to Mt Smart to watch a game can attest to the buzz and vocal enthusiasm that is not as evident in Kiwi crowds at other sports. Sadly, that support is being tested this season more than ever before. A long run of losses looked briefly to be over, then came Anzac Day and a performance in Melbourne that was nothing short of shameful.
It did not look like the sort of off-day that any side can suffer. It was a performance so inept, so lethargic as to suggest something is deeply wrong in the culture of the squad. The coach and leading players have made the right noises of regret and personal reproach this week. But no words can dispel the crisis of faith they have caused. The team does not lack talent. It has acquired superb young Kiwi players from rival NRL clubs this season. Their loss of form in the Warriors adds to the concern that the culture around the team is not what it needs to be.
Let's acknowledge that the Warriors are probably in the toughest competition faced by a New Zealand team in any sport. Australia dominates rugby league as much as New Zealand dominates rugby union. Four of New Zealand's five franchises are in top six on points in this season's Super Rugby competition going into this weekend. Only the Blues are languishing, for yet another year, and the Blues do not have an Auckland following with the patience of Warriors fans.
The Warriors are New Zealand's sole standard bearers in the NRL, just as the Wellington Phoenix are our sole presence in Australia's top football competition. The Phoenix received a reminder of how much it is Australia's competition a few months ago when their contract was going to be renewed for a shorter period. Thankfully, there has been no suggestion yet that the NRL might review the value the Warriors are providing in return for the expense of sending teams here. But New Zealand sports cannot take this for granted.
When the Warriors face the Dragons from Sydney at Mt Smart this afternoon, they need to have found a new spirit. They need to show they have had a shock and they have changed. Their fans are waiting.
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