Former Warriors chief executive Ian Robson spent a whole weekend "chasing" John Kirwan around Queenstown in an attempt to get the All Black winger's signature.

A 17-year-old Stacey Jones was offered $1500 cash, upfront, in his lounge room, in a sweetener to get him to sign for his hometown club.

And a big money English import only agreed terms with the club after his wife had been satisfied that Coronation Street was screened in New Zealand.

These are some of the revelations in the first of a three-part documentary series charting the first 25 years of the Warriors, Keeping the Faith.


Much of it is almost hard to believe; if it didn't actually happen, it would belong more readily in a Hollywood production.

But it's history and needs to be celebrated, even if some of it is hard to watch, as you sense the wheels coming off even before the franchise has any momentum.

The controversial CEO

The controversial Robson succeeded spectacularly in building a brand — the hype around the Warriors was comparable with the All Blacks in 1994 and 1995 — but failed in his core role, which was to build a competitive stable club.

His appointment in 1993, two years out from entry into the Winfeld Cup, was a surprise.

"I was 31 years old," says Robson in the opening footage. "I'd never played league, never been a CEO, never been to New Zealand before."

The Australian helped to put the club on the map over the next few years, culminating in the unforgettable occasion of the opening game against the Broncos on March 10 1995, but, along with the football staff, made some bad recruitment calls that haunted the club for years.

Robbie Paul was a teenage hot shot at the time, having signed with Bradford Bulls as a teenager after making his name with the Te Atatu Roosters. Paul says he was offered a $3,000 contract by Robson, when he was already on £25,000 in England at the time.

Frano Botica and Warriors CEO Ian Robson in 1995. Photo / Photosport
Frano Botica and Warriors CEO Ian Robson in 1995. Photo / Photosport

Paul was almost persuaded — "he painted the picture in such a brilliant way, he was a such a brilliant salesman" — before his agent Peter Brown threatened to "give him a hiding" if he signed such a deal.


Paul's older brother Henry, who had made his debut for the Kiwis as an 18-year-old, also slipped through the net.

He was signed by the club, but then given up as part of a trade with Wigan for 32-year-old prop Andy Platt. Robson jokes that Platt's wife had to be reassured that Coronation Street screened in New Zealand before she would agree to come — Robson wasn't sure, but promised that it was, thinking he would get video tapes sent over each week if necessary.

Everything that was wrong with the Warriors

Platt's signing, and that of fellow Wigan and England forward Betts, encapsulated everything that was wrong with the Warriors in the first few years.

The club could have built a team around the Paul brothers and Stacey Jones but threw a fortune at the English pair, who departed after 35 and 42 games respectively. The club also lost Ruben Wiki to the Raiders, via a court case, though this was not covered in the programme.

At least Jones was captured, with Robson revealing they offered the Auckland teenager $1500 as a sign on fee as they sat in the lounge room of his parents house in Point Chevalier.

The documentary captures the mayhem, magic and excitement of an incredible episode in New Zealand sport.

Robson's hype machine sold the dream beautifully. The scenes before and during the opening game against the Broncos won't ever be seen again in New Zealand.

Around $1 million was spent on the incredible array of pre-match entertainment, with tanks, a mock war between more than a 100 'soldiers', a gymnast hanging from the roof of the main stand and army cannons.

The Warriors performed heroically in that first match, undone by the smarts of Allan Langer who scored two late tries to steal a 25-22 win.

"We should have won," said foundation halfback Greg Alexander. "'Alf' killed us at the end. If we had of won that game…wow."

After that magical night, which Alexander described as one of the biggest club games of his career, reality set in.

"We had two years to prepare for game one," said Robson. "Then we had five days to get ready for game two."

The Warriors congratulate the Brisbane Bronco's at the end of the opening game of the 1995 Winfield Cup Competition. Photo / Photosport
The Warriors congratulate the Brisbane Bronco's at the end of the opening game of the 1995 Winfield Cup Competition. Photo / Photosport

Chasing an All Blacks great

In 1994, Kirwan came on the team's radar.

Robson knew the All Blacks winger would be box office gold — at the time, no one had scored more tries for the All Blacks than Kirwan — and was dogged in his pursuit.

He recounts the story of going to Queenstown to catch up with Kirwan, then spending the weekend trying to track down the 30-year-old in the days before mobile phones.

On the ground he kept hearing of Kirwan's whereabouts — "he's with Mike Brewer, he having coffee with Richard Loe" — before he eventually sat down with Kirwan after two days. Kirwan turned the offer down, only to have a change of heart a few weeks later.

"I said no," recalls Kirwan. "Then every night I'd lie in bed and say 'what if'

"I went back to them and said 'It's not sitting well with me'."

Kirwan would later say he would "rather have a go, and not succeed" than never know.

The former butchers' apprentice noticed some immediate differences in the 13-a-side code.

"There was a real professional attitude around fitness and training," said Kirwan, explaining that the training intensity was considerably higher in the professional ranks. "I went in and I could bench 80 kilos ... six months later it was 160 kilos.

"But the mental side of it was way looser than what I was used to in rugby. We were pretty intense from a mental preparation side [on game day] whereas the league boys were really loose, music was going, they clicked in and clicked out."

Kirwan wasn't a raging success, but he wasn't a failure either. He was much better than other ex-rugby men like Mark Carter, Marc Ellis and Mark Robinson, who mostly flopped.

Warriors signing John Kirwan in 1995. Photo / Photosport
Warriors signing John Kirwan in 1995. Photo / Photosport

Kirwan worked incredibly hard to adjust to the new code, and was the leading try scorer at the club in his second season, with 10 tries in 19 games.

Kirwan was later caught up, along with the rest of the players, in the civil war between the breakaway Super League competition and the Australian Rugby League. The Auckland club aligned with the News Corporation backed competition, and reaped the financial benefits.

It was an open cheque book, as the squad was individually ushered into an Auckland hotel room to discuss their deals.

"[For me] it was a 50 per cent increase," said Kirwan. "[The agent said] I'll meet you behind the toilets at Cronulla on Sunday to sign the deal. I was thinking, okay."

Chaos and carnage of the Warriors' early years

On balance, the 1995 team did well. They were docked two points for an interchange stuff up in their third game — as Joe Vagana recalls: "I'd go down in history as the guy who lost the game because I went on as the extra subs" - which ultimately cost them a place in the playoffs.

There's plenty of humorous moments, with then Penrith coach Phil Gould complaining about the Warriors drummers, only for Robson to tell the media that he has passed a message onto the drummers – to play louder.

There's also insight from former captain Matthew Ridge, who complained that after being a cog in the wheel at Manly, he arrived at Mt Smart and "now I was the wheel".

Footage from the 1999 season launch was priceless, with Jones and Ivan Cleary barely concealing their disdain as they watched a group of 'Warrior man' dancers — in costumes that were a cross between Star Trek and Flash Gordon parade on stage.

Another memorable moment was then CEO Trevor McKewen addressing the crowd at the 2000 end of season soiree, wearing a cowboy hat and a white puffy shirt.

The documentary, which took three months to put together and features interviews with 35 people, accurately reflects the chaos and carnage of the first six years, with the ownership battles between Graham Lowe, the late Malcolm Boyle and the Tainui group the undoubted nadir.

Given that, it was a miracle that the Warriors achieved any kind of results on the field, and no surprise that they unravelled most of the time.

Keeping the Faith premieres tonight on Sky Sport 2 at 7.30pm and 6pm free-to-air on Saturday on Prime