By JAN CORBETT
As dusk fell on a packed Ericsson stadium that memorable Friday night in March 1995, a cacophony of machine gun fire, exploding cannons and thunder heralded a new feature in our sporting landscape.
The Michael Mizrahi-designed pyrotechnic battle scene spectacular, set to Edwin Starr's song War, sparked equally loud disputes on radio talkback on whether war, sport and alcohol were a suitable mix.
That lavish show preceded the opening match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Auckland Warriors - our first appearance in ARL competition.
It also marked the beginning of years of misery, ineptitude, intrigue, wretched excess, vile exhibitionism, and back-stabbing.
The Warriors, a team launched with unprecedented hoopla, descended rapidly into a national embarrassment. And they didn't play very well either.
They were written off as overpaid and overweight, but finally the Warriors are living up to their name.
The years of winning a bit and losing a lot have bloodied, but not broken them. And now, thanks to decent management, they are on the eve of facing the Cronulla Sharks in the preliminary final.
Who, apart from writers of schmaltzy cripple-gets-up-and-runs-marathon stories would have guessed it?
Tinged with this newfound success, the Warriors dark history is taking on a more endearing glow.
Hey, they've been a lot of fun haven't they? Enough to warrant a good-natured recall of their more absurd moments.
Remember Ian Robson? The tall, puppy-faced Australian, brought here as the inaugural chief executive.
Cute, charismatic, loaded with chutzpah, but there was an early indication Robson wasn't a details man when he was late for his job interview in Auckland because he had finished up in Christchurch by mistake.
Appointed in 1993 by a board that included Sir Roger Douglas, Robson soon marked himself out for his marketing flair and media nous, but as might be expected of an Aussie import, he had no regard for the sensibilities of the tangata whenua.
And it wasn't as if Maori did not warn him. They even protested outside major sponsor Dominion Breweries, complaining that the Warriors tekoteko logo as altered by Robson, was all wrong. Its curved tongue represented femininity, dare we say physical weakness.
Legend has it that when Robson refused to straighten the tongue, the protesters invoked the ancient gods and placed a curse on the Warriors.
Mostly, Robson is remembered for his extravagance, especially during the bidding wars that accompanied the arrival of Rupert Murdoch's rival competition, Super League.
Turnover for the 1995 season was a massive $16 million, but profit that should have been closer to $8 million, was a measly $60,000.
On Robson's watch the Warriors hired fading rugby and rugby league stars on huge salaries. After all, John Kirwan might have been good for publicity, but he failed to live up to his All Black standards. Ditto Marc Ellis.
He entered into a bidding war for English league star Denis Betts, and finished up paying an annual $800,000 salary to keep him.
Coach John Monie, declared Betts the highest paid league player in the world. And it didn't stop with his salary.
Robson gave him unlimited travel back and forth to Britain whenever he felt like it. Betts was such a leading underachiever he was eventually let go with two years still to run on his contract.
When they hired Andy Platt, Robson agreed to pay for his two pet dogs to be flown here and returned at the end of his contract. Platt had a lacklustre 1995 season and barely made an appearance in 1996.
If a player complained his car wasn't good enough, Robson simply upgraded it.
Players seemed more interested in the money than the game. The team came to resemble a pack of spoilt show ponies, impossible for a coach to discipline.
At one point the club was spending close to $1 million a year on pre-match entertainment, which might not have been entirely misplaced. After all there was seldom any reason to celebrate after a match.
By the start of the 1997 season Robson was gone, squeezed out of his job by a determined-to-get-rid-of-him newcomer to the board, Dean Lonergan.
Coach John Monie soon followed him out the door.
Remember winning, then losing the same game? In the third round of the inaugural 1995 season, two weeks after the razzle-dazzle opening the Warriors won their first game, beating Western Suburbs 46-12.
Only a sceptical head of news and current affairs at TVNZ, Shaun Brown, thought there was something odd. There seemed to him to have been too many replacements.
Sports reporter Mary Durham was asked to investigate. Her questions alerted the Australian Rugby League who reviewed the game and realised Joe Vagana was one player too many. He had gone on as the fifth replacement player when the rules allow only for four.
The Warriors were stripped of two premiership points and Mary Durham wasn't invited to Warriors functions any more. John Monie wore a dunce's hat to training.
Remember the Ruben Wiki affair? The Warriors signed the promising Junior Kiwi centre for the 1995 season. In the meantime his career with the Canberra Raiders had blossomed.
Wiki was keen to stay with them for the 1994 season and signed an extended contract for 1995, fearful he would spend all of 1994 on the sideline if the Raiders found out he was headed for the Warriors.
Rather than upgrade his contract there and then, Warriors boss Ian Robson let it head for the courtroom, where he was deeply embarrassed at having let Wiki sign the original contract in an airport lounge, witnessed by a staff member he couldn't later identify.
Wiki was allowed to stay with the Raiders, one of a number of promising players lost to other clubs because of contractual bungling.
Remember the sound of breaking arms? Smack in the middle of the 1999 international Tri Series, coach Frank Endacott decided to play a meaningless game against Tonga and treat it like a training run.
He fielded Stacey Jones, the Warriors' star player. Twenty minutes into the game Jones got pinned between Joe Vagana and a Tongan fullback.
Snap. His forearm broke clean in half. He was out of action for the next six months.
Remember the mascots? Wearing costumes resembling a cross between Xena Warrior Princess and something out of Star Trek, the mascots for the new millennium pranced onto the field in early 2000.
To the song that goes "What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man", acrobat Jason Te Patu cartwheeled through dry ice and lycra clad bimbos, pursued by the whip cracking female version - infomercial starlet Alison Audrey.
Remember Matthew Ridge? Opinions vary on Ridge's value as a player, but seldom is his career recounted without the word controversial.
He never quite showed the magic for the Warriors that he had produced in the last year of his Manly career.
His first Warriors game finished with a brush with the judiciary for attempting to kick the ball out of the hands of Bronco player diving for the scoreline.
Worse was to come with allegations of spitting (costing $45,000 in legal fees) manhandling a referee and scratching and tripping other players.
Sportstalk host Murray Deaker marked Ridge's departure from the team in January 2000 with the comment that the Warriors would not be sorry to see the back of him.
"Innumerable suspensions and even more injuries have meant his appearances have been cameo ones," he told his listeners.
"It would be interesting to tally up the number of minutes Ridgey has spent on the field in the Warrior jersey, against the amount of money he has received over the years with them."
Certainly with a $650,000 annual salary, he finished up as their highest paid player.
Remember Graham Lowe, Malcolm Boyle and Tainui?
Even with big spending Ian Robson gone, it looked as if the Warriors were going to need a $700,000 cash injection from Auckland Rugby League to make it through 1997.
The board began talking about selling the club. Lowe, an admired league coach, and Boyle, a wily public relations man, fronted the deal, putting in a mere $50,000 each of their own, in return for one third of the club.
Surprisingly they were not required to inject ongoing funding, unlike Tainui which put up the bulk of the money - $3.5 million - and in an attempt to lift the curse, straightened the tongue on the logo.
It might have been some unexplained law of the physics, that the country's two most dysfunctional organisations of the day, had gravitated towards each other.
Tainui was about to sink in the mire of its own financial ineptitude. Trouble-shooter Michael Stiassny was brought in to stop the rot. He took one look at Lowe and Boyle's favourable deal and kicked them out of the whare.
Unable to fund the Warriors any further or meet its financial commitments to Auckland Rugby League, Tainui was forced to put the team back on the market.
By this stage the Warriors were close to financial collapse with an $8.6 million debt and a $500,000 tax bill looming.
New Zealand Rugby League stepped in with a rescue package, until white knight Eric Watson rode in and took a 75 per cent stake.
He cut the salaries, reined in the egos and turned a three-ring circus into a serious team.
By JAN CORBETT