The prospect of the Warriors playing a home finals match at Mt Smart is still on the cards as the NRL get closer to a decision.
It had been assumed the governing body would opt for Eden Park – given its greater capacity – but that is not necessarily the case.
While commercial objectives will be the ultimate determining factor, there are other factors at play.
The club have made it clear to the NRL – both privately and publicly – their preference is to stay in Penrose for their first finals match in this country since 2008. The NRL will be wary of the PR backlash of forcing them away from their spiritual home for such an important occasion, especially after the sacrifices made during the Covid years.
They are also aware of recent precedents for non-Sydney clubs, with Canberra, North Queensland and Melbourne permitted to stage home playoff matches in their traditional venues, all of which have similar capacities to Mt Smart.
The NRL have been in negotiations with both Auckland stadiums, who have submitted offers to host a potential Warriors playoff game in the second or third week of the finals.
The Herald can reveal the Mt Smart bid includes the option of 3000 extra temporary seats, which would take the capacity to more than 29,000. It can currently hold 26,100, which includes around 800 on the grass embankment at the northern end.
Eden Park is much bigger, with room for up to 50,000 fans, though it also costs around twice as much for hirers to utilise.
The NRL prefer venues of at least 25,000 for early finals matches, then targets bigger stadiums as the playoffs progress. Unlike regular-season games, the NRL retain the gate revenue from playoff matches.
When contacted by the Herald, the NRL declined to comment on the timing of the decision or the potential factors behind it.
There are two scenarios for the Warriors. If they beat Penrith on Saturday night, they would host a preliminary final in the third week of the playoffs, with the winner progressing to the grand final. The Warriors have reached that stage on four previous occasions (2002, 2003, 2008 and 2011), with all those matches in Australia.
If the Warriors fall to the minor premiers, they will host a semifinal the following week, with the victor travelling for a preliminary final in either Brisbane or Melbourne.
According to those close to the negotiations, it seems increasingly likely Mt Smart will be the preferred option for a week two finals match. That will follow the tradition of teams being able to use their home stadium in the first fortnight, while Eden Park also has a golf event advertised for September 16, which is a complicating factor.
In the case of an Auckland preliminary final, however, the NRL accountants may lean towards Eden Park. Sydney clubs have been moved to bigger venues in recent years, though that hasn’t always applied to teams outside the city, which makes it more difficult for the NRL to justify.
Last year, the Cowboys hosted a preliminary final against the Eels, drawing a capacity 25,000 crowd. It was the same scenario in 2019 as the Canberra Raiders staged a preliminary final at their regular ground, Gio Stadium, which holds around 26,000.
The Storm may be the most pertinent example, as there are several alternative larger venues available in the Victorian city. They were permitted to host preliminary finals in 2016, 2017 and 2018 at their usual home ground of AAMI Park, which has room for 29,500 fans.
“They know our preference,” Warriors chief executive Cameron George told the Herald. “Our home is Go Media Stadium Mt Smart. But they don’t have the emotional attachment that we do. They are just doing the numbers, and it is something that is completely out of our hands.”
The Warriors played their first home finals match in 2002, hosting the Canberra Raiders on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with Ali Lauiti’iti and Stacey Jones sparkling in a 36-20 win.
The next came in 2007 – a 12-10 loss to Parramatta – before the most memorable of all, the emotionally charged 30-13 win over the Roosters in 2008. All of those games were staged in Penrose, while every playoff match since (one in 2010, four in 2011 and one in 2018) has been played across the Tasman.