As the only regular NRL event to be held in New Zealand, the Auckland Nines have a special significance for the Warriors. For one thing, this is the only chance that the Warriors really get to show off their home city – and their home stadium – to the competition at large. For another thing, it is the one time in the year when the Warriors no longer feel like an outlier team or an afterthought, but the driving force of the competition, thanks in part to their greater tendency to field prestige players at the risk of pre-season injury. Even more basically, however, the Nines affirm the Warriors fanbase as a local community, something that tends to get a bit lost during the NRL year. More than even AFL, NRL is defined by the importance of local community, and while that’s particularly clear in Sydney – especially in the Western and Southern suburbs where heritage teams jostle for catchment areas – the rest of the competition has tended to finds its own way of tapping into that local spirit as well. In particular, the Queensland teams have each developed their own local identity, while Queensland Rugby League as a whole has a bit of a local, provincial, grassroots character compared to its New South Wales counterpart. While the Titans, Broncos and Cowboys are brutal when they go neck to neck – as last year’s Grand Final proved – they’re capable of unifying under the banner of Origin in such a way as to make the sheer fact of being a Queenslander into something of a local identity. While there are various factors contributing towards the Maroons’ ascendancy over the last decade, one of them has to be this unity and community spirit amongst their fanbase as a whole.
Apart from the New South Wales and Queensland teams, there are two other outfits in the competition that have had to find a way to import this local community spirit into their brand image. On the one hand, there’s Melbourne, who have the additional challenge of being situated in a city in which local identity is overwhelmingly associated with AFL. In part, the Storm have responded with the fortress mentality needed to actively craft and retain a loyal local fanbase, but their continuity with the Maroons means that they have also managed to tap into something of the grassroots spirit of Queensland Rugby League as well. The other team, of course, are the Warriors, who two decades into their NRL existence still don’t seem to have gelled with the rest of the competition. For while the Warriors are indubitably an Auckland-based team, to most NRL fans they are more or less a national New Zealand team, just because of the anomalous fact of New Zealand fielding an outfit in the NRL in the first place. At the same time, New Zealand already has a national Rugby League team, and while there might be continuities between the Kiwis and the Warriors, there’s no way that the Warriors will ever supplant the Kiwis in terms of national pride. On top of that, local sporting spirit in New Zealand tends to revolve around Rugby Union, with the result that the Warriors are left in a kind of no-man’s-land in which they’re not quite an international New Zealand team but not quite a local Auckland team either.
Clearly one thing that could alter that situation would be the introduction of a second New Zealand team into the NRL, ideally from the South Island, a possibility that has been touted by various Christchurch Rugby League outfits for ages. Until that happens, however, the Nines are the perfect way for the Warriors to turn this odd position between local and international representation to their advantage. Perhaps that’s why the Warriors have always been keener to field their bigger players, as well as why the Nines always feel like the unofficial launch of the Warriors season. Of course, the Warriors also have one of the best Nines players in Shaun Johnson, who has always seemed to shine more brightly on the international stage than in the NRL arena, a quality that – somewhat paradoxically – makes him feel like even more of a Warriors player at heart. Coming up through touch and making a name for himself with heartstopping sidesteps and magical passes, Johnson was made for the kind of short-format Rugby League that make up the Nines, not least because the compressed timing and modified rules also bring Nines League just that litte bit closer to Rugby Union, another of Johnson’s many sporting skill sets. Each year that he’s played at the Nines he’s seemed to bring the Warriors just that little bit closer to the elusive synergy that could turn them from a collection of great players into a top tier team. At the same time, his long list of injuries always makes the Nines feel like a particular risk for him as well, turning him into one of the most suspenseful and exciting presences on the field.
This year, things were made even more exciting by the addition of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to the Warriors lineup. While nobody seems able to predict just how well Johnson, RTS and Issac Luke – who was absent – will work as a threesome, it wasn’t hard to predict that RTS and Johnson would have a special kind of synergy. Although RTS was out after Day 1 with a mild injury, their brief debut already suggested the sheer amount of speed and pace they can cover in tandem, while their combined abilities to dodge, sidestep and seemingly offload in any direction and at any moment meant that their few matches together had the kind of excitement that’s usually reserved for finals football. In a Rugby League format in which split-second speed is everything, Johnson and RTS seemed to move as effortlessly and gracefully as if they had a good eighty minutes ahead of them, most beautifully in Johnson’s already iconic final try against the Broncos at the end of the first day. More than anything, the Warriors need players who are able to set up fluid lines of communication between their big men, and Johnson seemed to carve out his own corridor in whatever direction he chose, opening up space for Konrad Hurrell, in particular, to gain some spectacular forward momentum over the second day, as well as providing Henare Wells with enough space to make a case for himself as one of the NRL’s great unsung wingers.
In fact, with Hurrell now replacing RTS in All Stars as well, the Warriors’ Nines performance begged the question of how Johnson and RTS might back up this veteran player’s game as well in turn. Time and again, Hurrell has felt like a wasted asset for the Warriors, a brilliant player who hasn’t really been used to his full potential. In the wake of his brilliant performance in the Indigenous v All Stars match – I thought he was the breakout player on the All Stars side – you have to wonder whether the real threesome will be Johnson, RTS and Hurrell, or whether they will combine with Luke to create the kind of foursome that might have held sway if Greg Inglis or Will Chambers had spent more of their career alongside Smith, Slater and Cronk at the Storms. And if the Warriors’ performance in the Nines taught us anything, it’s that we need to start asking some difficult questions about Origin. Seeing Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck light up the field last weekend left no doubt that they’re Origin material, while the fact that both RTS and Luke played their first matches for New South Wales makes me wonder what they might be able to do for the Blues. At the same time, the anomalous position of the Warriors – like the anomalous position of the Storm – within the NRL begs the question of how Origin would look if it was opened up to Pacific and international players, as more and more commentators are suggesting: how do you decide whether to put a player in the Blues or the Maroons if their first representative match was for Auckland or New Zealand? Perhaps the answer is a parallel competition to Origin between Pacific teams, or between Pacific and Indigenous teams, but until that happens the incredible Warriors talent on display last weekend shouldn’t have to confine itself to the Nines as its sole NRL platform outside the regular NRL season.