‘Get on the wave and ride it’: Why there’s nothing in rugby league like a finals night in New Zealand

Australia World

During his long and decorated career, Brent Tate played footy just about everywhere it matters — and if you ask him the best place for rugby league, he doesn’t hesitate.

Number one is Lang Park on Origin night because Tate is a Queenslander before he’s just about anything else.

“But to me, the second best is Mt Smart Stadium, even if there’s only 8,000 people there,” Tate said.

“You run out, the drums are beating, and 8,000 at Mt Smart can feel like 50,000 at Lang Park when you run out and see all the black shirts and jerseys.

“They’re the greatest supporters in the world, Warriors fans, and they never stop making noise. It’s an unbelievable stadium, a great place to play and they’re great fans to play for.

“When they go to games, they’re so passionate. They cheer so hard. The level of noise and the way they cheer for their team is incredible. That’s what separates them.

“The Cowboys won their first grand final in 2015 and I was up here for it, but I don’t think there could be a better place to be than New Zealand when they win their first grand final.

“They’ll own the country if they can ever win a comp.”

Tate was a Bronco, a Cowboy, a Maroon and a Kangaroo, but he was also a Warrior, and he says nothing — not even a State of Origin crowd — is quite like a finals night in Auckland.

The Warriors faithful – and given what’s happened to them since they entered the league back in 1995, they really are the faithful – haven’t had many of those nights. The club has only ever had three home finals and the last one was 15 years ago.

A group of rugby league fans support their team

The Warriors have captured New Zealand’s imagination this season. (Getty Images: Dave Rowland)

It’s been a long wait, but it’ll end on Saturday. The Knights, after enjoying a glorious homecoming of their own, are about to cop the full force of everything New Zealand’s got. And after waiting this long, they’ll have plenty.

After years in the wilderness due to the pandemic and poor performances, the league’s sleeping giant has awakened. The loss to Penrith last week was disheartening but not demoralising. What’s happened across the Tasman won’t disappear overnight. It’s been a long time coming but they’re here now and not many, if any, fans can flow like this.

The club is attracting its largest crowds since its inaugural season. “Up the Wahs” has replaced “hello” and “goodbye”. There are scores of fans getting mystery Warriors tattoos. The faith is being rewarded. 

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Things are getting hectic in the best possible way, and by Saturday night Mt Smart Stadium will feel like the centre of the rugby league universe, a gateway to footy paradise at the edge of the world.

It hasn’t been that way in Auckland since one fateful night in 2008, the last time the Warriors played a home final. Tate was there as part of a New Zealand side who scored an incredible upset win over the minor premiership-winning Storm side in Melbourne the week before.

Due to the vagaries of the McIntyre System, the eighth-placed Warriors earned a home final against the fourth-placed Roosters, who were coming off a loss. Confused? Don’t worry about it. Why it happened doesn’t matter so much as what happened next.

“If there’s 25,000, like there was on that night, it’s almost the greatest ground of all,” Tate said. “It was intimidating running out there that night and I was playing for the Warriors.

“You could feel the whole country behind you. It was one of the first times they had the Black Out, where all the fans wear black, and it was an unbelievable atmosphere. I’ll never forget it.”

A man runs the ball during a rugby league match

The 2008 clash with the Roosters remains one of the greatest nights in the Warriors’ history.(Getty Images: Phil Walter)

Sometimes semifinals are a brutal ordeal while they’re happening, and even if there’s joy in the struggle, it only feels fun once the game is over. This was not one of those. The Warriors overturned a 13-6 halftime deficit to turn the second stanza into a party.

Lance Hohaia, the club’s little big man, scored a double. Manu Vatuvei got one of the record 152 tries he scored over his long career, and his wing partner, Aidan Kirk, took an intercept a long way back to score the seventh of what would be his eight career touchdowns.

Five-eighth Michael Witt was kicking sideline conversions from the running track because it was the kind of match where he couldn’t have missed if he’d wanted to. 

For Tate, those glorious moments can blend together a little bit – except for one.

“The game is a bit hard to remember,” he said.

“The build-up and the excitement stands out to me because rugby is so big over there and getting rugby league on the front of the paper and being the hottest ticket in town, that stands out to me.

“But for the game itself, that Ruben Wiki run always stands out in the memory.”

By 2008, Wiki was a hero of New Zealand rugby league, a hard-as-nails front-rower who looked and played like he was carved out of stone while combining inhuman toughness, a whole lot of kava and as much mana as a man can possess until he seemed like something more than a man entirely — he was a legend his team could believe in and that legend preceded him the way lightning precedes thunder.

Wiki had announced he would retire at the end of the season, so every game, every carry even, could be the 35-year-old’s last. So when he returned a second-half kick-off, with the Warriors leading 24-13 and flying high, there was only one way things were going to happen.

He picked out Roosters centre Sia Soliola, let out a roar that shook the stadium, and charged.

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“I remember him getting the ball and screaming, growling, roaring when he was running. He was hard as nails and everyone loved him. It just set the tone,” Tate said.

“There was always a lot of emotion with Rubes so we all wanted to send him out as good a winner as he could.

“The level of respect he had – not just in footy, but in the community over there — it made it a special time. He was literally a living legend and he always led from the front. It always inspired you.”

By the time the dust settled, the Warriors had a 30-13 win in the bag after one of the greatest nights in the club’s history.

Now, 15 years later, Andrew Webster’s side has a chance to do it all again.

Recovering from the loss to Penrith won’t be easy. Shaun Johnson is expected to play but his calf injury means he’ll be far less than 100 per cent fit.

Three Warriors NRL players celebrate a try against Canterbury.

Johnson’s fitness will be crucial for the Warriors in Saturday’s clash with the Knights. (Getty Images: Phil Walter)

Newcastle might be coming off an extra-time win over the Raiders that took them to hell and back, but they’ve won 10 matches in a row for a reason. They are dangerous and dynamic and just as hungry for success as the Warriors.

But in New Zealand, in Auckland, in Mt Smart Stadium, in the people with the best signs in rugby league and the mystery tattoos and the black shirts and jerseys, the Warriors have their greatest weapon.

This is a club that carries a nation on its shoulders, and that can be a lot, but in times like these a transformation takes place.

If the Warriors can lift New Zealand, eventually New Zealand begins to lift them and it can carry the team so high that it must feel like Ranginui, the sky father of Māori tradition, is bearing them home. And to win on Saturday, they must run towards it, embrace it and let it take them where it will.

“You have to ride the wave,” Tate said. “There’s no need to feel pressure. Just get lost in the excitement. Love the fact you have the country behind you and it’s a semifinal, so there’s pressure anyway because it’s do-or-die.

“Get swept up in the wave of emotion and the love you get from the people. It’s a great feeling to have when you’re heading out to play footy.

“Be open to enjoying it. Of course you need to prepare well for the game physically and mentally, but enjoy this moment. Allow yourself to get lost in it a little. Feel it. You don’t get this very often.

“It might only happen once or twice in your footy career. Don’t take it as pressure. Get on the wave and ride it.”