Ahead of the start of the NRL season, ex-Warriors players tell Chris Rattue how the club came good in 2002.
It was almost as if the Warriors had won the grand final.
There was still a week to go before the 2002 NRL finale in Sydney, but the Warriors were experiencing the sort of adulation that many of their young home-grown players could only dream of.
Having beaten the Sharks in the preliminary final in Sydney, they were greeted like conquering heroes at Auckland Airport, even though the title game was still a week away.
Perhaps the only comparable situation was in 1991, when a young and unfancied Kiwis side scored a shock first test win over the Kangaroos in Melbourne and returned home in an unprecedented glare of publicity.
Kiwi league rarely experiences these sorts of days in the sun, and the light has never been brighter around the Warriors than in 2002.
"I've never seen the airport like that before," recalls Motu Tony, the mercurial five-eighth who had made his debut for the club as a 19-year-old in 2001.
"I lived just down the road in Papatoetoe. For a kid from South Auckland to see that sort of reception was amazing."
The scoreboard says they were brought back to earth with a mighty crash.
Although the Warriors were competitive for a decent portion of the 2002 grand final against the Brad Fittler-led Roosters, they went down in a 30-8 blowout. There has been just one trip back to the big game for the Auckland club since.
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Sadly, there have been more bad days than good for the Warriors.
But this has only served to increase the golden glow around the 2002 season, when a new owner, young club leaders and a talented team spiked with exceptional Auckland juniors nearly grabbed the ultimate prize.
Eric Watson had bought the club for a song two years earlier and installed the larger-than-life character of Aussie Mick Watson as CEO.
The unheralded 34-year-old - Daniel Anderson — an assistant coach at the Parramatta Eels — was appointed coach in 2001.
And the Auckland-raised NRL superstar Stacey Jones had been handed the team leadership alongside the Aussie hardman Kevin Campion.
The unwavering professionalism and experience of Campion and Ivan Cleary was designed to bring out the best in the local talent, where Jones and Ali Lauiti'iti, in particular, represented the brightest and the best.
And it worked, all the way through to that Cronulla game.
"We'd taken the club to the finals for the first time in 2001 and it just kept building in 2002," says Tony.
"Daniel was a coach who understood he had players who could use the ball. He was a very smart man and the best coach technically that I've come across.
"He managed to get the balance of when to play rugby league that suited the players in club, and made sure guys like Campion and Cleary came to the fore when it was needed, to calm things down."
Tony says Anderson relied heavily on games at practice sessions rather than over-doing the endurance training, something Tony believes suited the Pacific Island and Maori players.
"They encouraged the skills, a will to win and were also enjoyable.
"They say that biomechanically Pacific Island people aren't made for long distance running — maybe that's why you haven't seen a Samoan running the Olympic marathon."
Tony remembers certain games such as one where each ball carrier had to have a support runner alongside, and another where offside was allowed but only one opponent could touch you.
"That was man-on-man marking ... it built up fitness but also competitive drive. If I was marking Stacey [Jones], I didn't want him to make me look silly.
"The other thing I remember was the level of competition throughout the squad. I was competing against Lance Hohaia and Brent Webb. Justin Murphy got in ahead of Henry Fa'afili. That's when we noticed we were a good rugby league side.
"Guys like Justin Morgan, Brent Webb and Iafeta Paleaaesina couldn't get in the grand final squad."
The whole was a sum of some interesting characters.
One was Campion.
Tony's first encounter with the former Broncos and State of Origin forward was at a pool recovery session where Campion noticed Tony wasn't touching the walls as required.
"I got f-bombs galore from him about touching the effin wall ... I thought 'so that's what you do — this is the standard'.
"For a kid growing up in South Auckland, I didn't know any better. Nobody told us to make sure you did those things
"If you take a shortcut at a recovery session, then you will do it somewhere else. Campo set the standards but he was also one of those guys who would put an arm around you."
Then there was key back and goalkicker Cleary. "I've been quite lucky with the guys I've had as roommates," says Tony.
"Steve Kearney was my first roommate at the Kiwis, when we played France at Mt Smart in 2001.
"He was a super professional guy who was ahead of his time. He had notebooks which set goals for each training session, a book for the extra training he was going to do and afterwards he would review what he had done. Nobody was doing that sort of thing.
"The other guy like him back then was Ivan Cleary who I roomed a lot with at the Warriors.
"I remember telling Ivan I was feeling bad after running out of time to do extras. He told me not to worry and visualise I was doing the actions instead.
"It's commonplace now — mental skills have been a massive part of the sport for the past 10 years. But this guy was saying it 20 years ago.
"The world could be falling down around him and Ivan would be cool and calm. He had that mentality, but also the preparation."
The joker was centre Clinton Toopi.
"He would take the Michael out of everyone, even the coach, even himself," says Tony.
"He was bloody competitive. He hated to lose more than most people — drills, table tennis, anything.
"But he was also the comedian, the guy that could make an angry Daniel Anderson laugh or [become] not so angry. He'd just crack a joke, usually a one-liner. Daniel was quite a fiery coach at halftime, and after the game Clinton might impersonate what Daniel had done at halftime. But only after we won, of course."
Tony's most special memories involved playing outside Jones.
"I had the best seat in the house, when Stacey was at his peak," says Tony.
"There was this one game I always remember in 2001 when Stacey beat a man, kicked to himself, beat another man, scored himself. That was becoming normal for Stacey.
"He was just a humble superstar ... when some superstar players like him call for the ball they expect it to be given to them at all times.
"But Stacey would say if 'you see an opportunity overcall me, get your hands on the ball'.
"The other thing with him which I still can't work out — and the great ones have this — is the way he could talk to you on the field like we are talking now. It felt like we had minutes whereas we only had seconds. He was always chatting, organising three plays ahead."
It came together in a short period of glory.
In retrospect, the high point was probably the Cronulla game.
A key moment was a double tackle by Tony and Richard Villisanti which led to Tony robbing Sharks wing Paul Mellor of the ball and running away for a famous try.
As he tried to rest his head briefly on the ground, to soak up an incredible moment in his young career, big forward Villisanti yanked him skyward by the collar in celebration. Game on.
But a tricky week followed, particularly for such a young and inexperienced team.
There was the flight back, the hoopla, then a trip back to Australia, where there were more duties such as the grand final breakfast.
The Herald also contacted Warriors prop Mark Tookey, the big Aussie who now lives in Brisbane, for his recollections.
"It was all a bit of a blur and there was not much training but we'd done the travel all year, it was no handicap," says Tookey of the grand final week.
"It was absolutely the highlight of my career. But the Roosters were the better team on the day. They were the standout team that year anyway.
"Brad Fittler turned it on and we couldn't stem the flow. They had an in-your-face defensive style and took it to us. A few things didn't go our way and they put us to the sword.
"We had a crack at them and just weren't good enough."
It was just the second night NRL final, meaning a long and anxious day for players and the Roosters handled it by far the better.
There was a brilliant individual try from Jones just after halftime, but Fittler engineered a storming Roosters finish which he kick started with a 40/20 after having been flattened by Villisanti.
There was also an infamous halftime tactic from Warriors coach Anderson, which Campion blasted a few years later.
As Campion recalled it, the players entered the sheds at 6-2 down with no inkling about what was in store.
Campion says Anderson produced a tape recorder which had a mock commentary of the Warriors beating the Broncos, then "walked out without a further word" as the Sunday News story put it.
"It goes down as one of the worst things I have ever heard — it was just ridiculous," Campion was reported as saying, adding that young players were visibly confused.
"He never addressed us at halftime. It starts playing 'Welcome to the 2002 grand final, the Warriors versus the Broncos'.
"I flipped out, I was going 'turn that s*** off'."
When the Herald put this to Tookey, he seemed to remember the halftime drama at the then-Telstra Stadium differently.
"It was video and audio," says Tookey, who is temporarily working as an Uber driver between sports promotion projects.
"It was an end-of-season video, a bit emotional, saying goodbye to a few players. It was a weird halftime speech and I hadn't had that before.
"There was backing music and things which happened through the year.
"We didn't know that was coming. It was something different but it didn't work. Looking back, he'd probably change that."
And yet Tony doesn't remember any of this.
"I can't recall any of the stuff I've heard that about a video or commentary," he says.
"I remember going into a team room like an auditorium, with different levels of seating. It all went so quick.
"Maybe it's an indication of how much I was thinking about what I had to do."
Tony's office — he now works for New Zealand Rugby League — is just down the road from one of the Mt Smart Stadium entrances, and he lives in hope the battling club can recreate the run of playoff appearances it achieved in the early 2000s.
"It's a fond memory but the grand final was also a chance which slipped away," he says.
"What I learned from 2002 — and what I mentioned to Warriors players when I spoke to them recently — is don't take opportunities for granted.
"One day you could be playing in a grand final as a 22-year-old, the next moment you are retired and looking back at your career.
"What I remember most is the support we got on our journey to the grand final. We were winning off the field, too, with the rugby league community and the New Zealand public.
"I still get asked to reminisce on those 2002 days. It was just the way it made people feel."