It’s a big weekend for rugby league and union fans this weekend, with the Warriors taking on Penrith in a qualifying final only a few hours after the All Blacks face France in the Rugby World Cup opener.
And in a bold prediction, Warriors chief executive Cameron George believes his side’s clash against the Panthers will be watched by more people than the All Blacks opening World Cup match.
“The movement in this country towards the Warriors is unbelievable,” George told the Daily Telegraph. It’s hard to explain without you guys being here (in New Zealand), but it is like nothing this country has seen before.
“The Melbourne Cup stops the nation in Australia. Well, I’m telling you, this Warriors-Penrith semi-final will stop New Zealand at 6pm (NZ time) on Saturday.
“The NRL and the broadcasters have made an unbelievable decision that is going to help the game no-end in New Zealand with that earlier timeslot this week. This weekend the All Blacks are playing (against France) at 6am on Saturday in their first World Cup match. I have no doubt our game at 6pm Saturday night will beat the All Blacks World Cup match.”
The match kicks off at 6.05pm NZT at BlueBet Stadium in Penrith and is a repeat of the Warriors’ last finals match in week one of the 2018 playoffs when both sides were placed in the bottom half of the top eight. The Panthers defeated the Warriors 27-12 that day.
The two teams only met once in the regular season this year, with the Panthers winning 18-6 in a tough contest at Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium on May 6.
Livewire middle forward Jazz Tevaga returns on the bench for the match, their first finals clash in five years. The 28-year-old missed the last three games of the regular season with a hamstring injury picked up in the round 24 win over the Wests Tigers in Hamilton. It was only his second match back in a season in which the imposing middle forward has been limited to just eight games.
The Warriors won’t be cutting any corners as they prepare for their biggest match in more than a decade either with the club deciding to use a private jet to transport the team to Australia later this week.
After finishing in the top four for the first time since 2007, if they beat the minor premiers, they will be one win away from the grand final, as they would receive a bye to the preliminary final, which in that case would be staged in Auckland. The carrot of that potential scenario – plus other logistical factors – has seen the club decide to take the huge step of investing in charter flights for the team, with the squad travelling in a 65-seat private plane.
Meanwhile, George also told the Daily Telegraph the Warriors’ merchandise sales had increased 200 per cent on last year and had run out of stock.
“You can’t buy a jersey unless you’re a small or extra small. I’m even going to the retail stores trying to get stuff. I went to Rebel in Brisbane and there was little or nothing there.”We’ve never seen any of this before. It is unbelievable what is happening over here.”
This is the ninth finals campaign in the Warriors’ history and only the third time they’ve finished in the top four.
Meanwhile, up on stage at the Warriors’ end-of-season awards function on Monday night, Shaun Johnson was almost lost for words.
He had just received the Simon Mannering Medal - for the Warriors’ player of the year - ahead of esteemed finalists Tohu Harris, Addin Fonua-Blake and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. It completed a sweep of three big gongs for the 32-year-old, who also won the coveted Players’ Player of the Season, along with the People’s Choice award.
The final honour came just after 9.30pm. As Johnson made his way to the stage for the third time to be met by former skipper Mannering, the entire room at the Viaduct Events Centre stood in applause. That acknowledgement just added to the emotion for the halfback, off the back of a spectacular career turnaround this year.
Warriors side v Penrith Panthers
Saturday, September 9 at BlueBet Stadium in Penrith from 6.05pm NZT
1 Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
2 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
3 Rocco Berry
4 Adam Pompey
5 Marcelo Montoya
6 Te Maire Martin
7 Shaun Johnson
8 Addin Fonua-Blake
9 Wayde Egan
10 Mitchell Barnett
11 Jackson Ford
12 Marata Niukore
13 Tohu Harris (c)
14 Dylan Walker
15 Jazz Tevaga
16 Bayley Sironen
17 Josh Curran