PETER JESSUP looks behind the scenes at the Warriors to discover why the club, at last, seems to have turned the corner towards success.
It's an oldie but a goodie, the call by former Parramatta Eels coach Jack Gibson that when a football club's front office is running right, the football team will run all right, too.
Gibson led Parramatta through the glory days of three premierships in the 1980s, so he knows what he's talking about.
The Eels then fell into a hole from which incumbent Brian Smith has rescued them. Smith's former right-hand man, Daniel Anderson, is undoubtedly one of the major reasons for the turnaround at Ericsson, where there is now a better-than-even chance the team will win on the paddock.
Out at Warrior headquarters there is a new feel: mean and lean.
Everyone who deals with the 2001 organisation - from sponsors, through the National Rugby League administration that governs the game, through the ARC that provides the ground, and down to the hotdog sellers - is happy with the change.
At times there have been up to 30 employees. Now there are eight, plus players. And no big-name buy-ins.
When the Warriors kicked off in 1995, up to $70,000 was spent on pre-match and half-time entertainment - bands, exploding cars and war games. Those days are long gone. People dealing with the Warriors, and those within the club, say the business model introduced by Eric Watson and his Cullen Investments is behind the turnaround.
In the past, the players were all over women's magazines but couldn't tackle and were guaranteed to lose once behind. They were coach-killers, pulling out a brilliant win every now and again to justify inflated salaries and egos.
In the front office there was in-fighting aplenty, but little accountability. There was trouble with with the Auckland Rugby League, the owners who knew plenty about league but little about the business of running a club. When Tainui took over, they brought a badge of honour that quickly turned to horror.
Former Kiwi and board member Dean Lonergan describes it well. "The Auckland Rugby League had no idea how to run the club, no idea how to appoint directors and no idea how to control anyone in the organisation."
He stepped in to force a clear-out, especially of big-spending boss Ian Robson.
Under Tainui, when Lonergan was promotions manager, there were "times when the club was tearing itself apart internally, arguments between the CEO and the board, the board members. You can't run a successful club like that."
Mad Butcher Peter Leitch has been their most ardent fan through thick and thin, and there's been plenty of the latter. "I've loved this year, really loved it," he says. "Not just because we're winning but because I can finally see the place being run properly. They're using me properly for a start."
He has 20 stores - either owned or franchised - which turn over more than $1.5 million a week and he has five office staff. "It was a laugh the number of people they used to have out there," he says of the Warriors of old. "Quite frankly it's great to be working with a professional outfit and they've never been professional up to now. There were all sorts of people there for the wrong reasons."
There were jock-sniffers who like to hang around athletes, and bosses who wanted to be friends with the players rather than bosses.
The first-year turnover was $15 million, profit $66,000. By 1998 the wage bill was out beyond $5 million and crowds were down to an average 8000. For the last home games of the 2000 season, the number of walk-up, paying patrons was in the hundreds, with the cash crisis coming at the worst time for Tainui.
The millions they lost in the club have yet to be announced.
Former fullback-turned-board-member Matthew Ridge says the new-look New Zealand Warriors will go close to break-even this year.
Much of that comes down to the work of three men - Ridge and CEO Mick Watson off-field, coach Anderson on it.
Ridge was asked by majority owner Eric Watson to check the club out in early September last year. They'd known each other for 18 months after being introduced at a party and had played the odd round of golf. Ridge first told Watson he was mad thinking about it.
Pressed, he introduced Mick Watson to the mix, the pair having known each other since Ridge was a junior Sea Eagle and Watson a rep for then-Manly sponsor Pepsi.
Anderson was not the initial pick as coach. Ridge was looking at Canberra Raiders assistant coach Matthew Elliott; his boss at Canberra, Mal Meninga, was also interested, along with the high-profile Phil Gould.
"We didn't want a name coach who would immediately want to bring name players," Ridge says. "We wanted someone who would grow the players, a career coach."
They began looking at the off-siders, with Wayne Bennett's Broncos' assistant Craig Bellamy among them. But Mick Watson knew Anderson, also through his sponsorship work with Pepsi then Kelloggs, and recommended him. Ridge had his Manly mentor, Bob Fulton, check Anderson out.
"To be honest, if Bozo [Fulton] hadn't come back with a good report I would have struggled with this guy, who was 'Daniel Who?' to me."
The report was so good that not only did Anderson get the job, he got a fairly free rein to rebuild the club.
Anderson was an ordinary player whose career stopped at age 27. He first coached the under-13s at St Gregory's College Campbelltown in Sydney's south-west, a renowned league school.
He joined Smith's Eels' team in 1995 as development officer and was assistant coach as the side made the playoffs last season.
The results Anderson achieved with the Warriors by the end of April, including a first-ever win over Brisbane, prompted Ridge and the Watsons to extend his two-year contract to the end of the 2005 season.
He has lifted players who were backups into the run-on side. At the beginning of the season a Sydney radio station ran a competition to "name four Warriors". Critics wrote them off.
Now the names of Warrior backs Henry Fa'afili, Francis Meli and Clinton Toopi, and forwards Ali Lauiti'iti, Monty Betham and newcomer Iafeta Paleaaesina trip lightly off the tongues of Aussie commentators.
People reckon it's the teacher in Anderson that is the key to his success, although he's not keen on that verdict. "I hope I don't speak like a teacher any more," he says.
But he uses teaching techniques to deliver his message simply. When he talks to the team, he stands looking into the sun and with the wind behind him so players can see and hear him. The players appreciate knowing exactly what's expected.
Anderson and assistant Tony Kemp, the former Kiwi five-eighth, spend up to 25 hours a week in video analysis of their last game and of the opposition. Then they do anything up to two hours with each player, instructing them on what they did wrong and where they can improve, as well as how the upcoming opponents play and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
He's happy that he's gained credibility because the game plans have worked.
The players regard him as cranky at times but they respect him because he knows what he's talking about - and they can't hide from that individual analysis. After they beat the Sharks 30-0, he gave prop Ali Lauiti'iti a bollocking for walking in the second half and some senior players asked if he wasn't a bit hard.
"But I have to nip it in the bud, keep them hard. I'm here to break cultures and set up best practices," he says.
Inside word from the NRL has the Warriors performing at number three financially, comfortably within the A$3.25 million salary cap and close to pre-season business plan figures.
Leadership has been a key word. Much of that has come from Mick Watson, former reserve grade player with South Sydney, married to Aucklander Melissa. Ridge introduced the two.
Watson has regular one-on-ones with co-captains Stacey Jones and Kevin Campion, and others.
"Leadership is not a natural ability," Watson says. "We aim to build character, ensure everyone knows the values we're about." He lists those as discipline and integrity.
Asked to list his coaching philosophy in three key areas, Anderson comes up with, "Skills, intensity, analysis."
When Cullen Investments took over there was talk they should pay out contracts agreed by Tainui. Why? Eric Watson wouldn't be where he is if he followed that line of thinking.
The new-look Warriors encourage players to negotiate their own deals. Flying wing Francis Meli went to Mick Watson's office with a big figure in mind. Watson wrote down a smaller one. Meli said he was worth what he was asking, that he was the only winger who could play prop in the latter stages of a game and make plenty of metres.
Which is quite right. He sold himself well. He didn't get the figure he asked for but he did get a good upgrade. He sold himself, with confidence, settling terms for two more years.
And that's the big difference this season.
The players have confidence that the people in the office and on the board know what they're doing, that bank accounts will be filled on time, and that Anderson knows what he's doing in directing them around the field.
"Be a player other players want to play with" is emblazoned across the wall of the Warriors' gym. This season, they all are. They've been given the opportunity to grow and they're growing. Starting with no stars, apart from Jones, they've become a star team.
"A high-profile millionaire takes the club low-profile and gets results," as Lonergan puts it.
Ridge has to take credit, too, Lonergan says. He was always the consummate professional on the field and is continuing that off-field.
Ridge says he has stepped back from individual or collective talks with players. They believe in themselves - he doesn't have to water down his message by repeating it.
The fans remember well the promises made and welshed on, of capitulations, and of big names who didn't deliver.
At the start of the season the Warriors promised that they'd have a better work ethic, that they'd play an 80-minute game, that they wouldn't blow out, that they'd represent their fans better.
Regardless of what happens from here, they've already delivered on that.