A new administration and the invention of the Toyota Cup have been hailed the major turning points in New Zealand that has transformed the Warriors into a genuine rugby league powerhouse.
League in New Zealand hasn’t been stronger; the national team is reigning World Cup and Four Nations champions and the Warriors also hold the Toyota Cup and NRL Club Championship.
And they are showing no signs of slowing down.
The Warriors have just moved into the NRL’s top four, the Toyota Cup team is three points clear in the race for the minor premiership and the Auckland Vulcans are running second in the NSW Cup.
Former Warriors first-grade assistant, now Toyota Cup coach John Ackland has seen the revolution at the club firsthand.
“A lot of people forget that this is the longest the Warriors have gone without being bankrupt,” Ackland told NRL.com.
“When Ivan (Cleary) and I took over first-grade we started on minus four points and the club was about $2 million in debt. It was basically a shell.
“We have built and built every year and had a good administration with guys like John Hart and Wayne Scurrah and we have improved every year. This is the result, we were strong last year, winning the club championship, and we are up there again this year.
“The club championship was our first trophy as a club and then the Toyota Cup was our first competition, it helps the belief and the confidence of everyone in the place. It confirms to everyone that we are doing things right.”
The Toyota Cup has become pivotal to the Warriors in the battle for the hearts and minds of aspiring New Zealand athletes.
This year they will become the only side to have made the under-20s finals every season since its inception in 2008.
Ackland believes the national youth competition is more important to his club than the Australian-based counterparts.
“We have to take it seriously, we have come to understand that it is where we get our players from,” he said.
“It is a lot easier than having to go to Australia and buy players.
“The Toyota Cup has certainly impacted on the depth that we have in the squad now, it has been a byproduct from it. To compete at NRL level you need that depth and we have found that depth through the Toyota Cup.”
In recent years the Warriors under-20s side has unearthed stars such as Shaun Johnson, Russell Packer and Kevin Locke and the production line is set to continue with excitement machine Omar Slaimankhel leading the Toyota Cup try-scoring list (25). Konrad Hurrell and Sam Lousi also look like players of the future.
The team has a strong following in New Zealand and has encouraging television ratings, which is providing young footy players a clear pathway and offers an attractive proposition for any player weighing up a professional career.
“It has certainly helped the profile of our younger guys, it is an attractive vehicle that they can showcase themselves,” Ackland said.
“It has been a fantastic thing for our club, we’ve had some guys come through to first-grade and they have handled it almost immediately.
“Our team is on television a lot and we have attracted a solid following at home. We have our own jersey and it sells well, it has been a fantastic thing for the club.
“It is an ideal pathway for boys to make their way into a professional sporting environment.”
Warriors lock Michael Luck says the influence the Toyota Cup competition has had on his club is undeniable.
“While the Toyota Cup has had its critics, it has been a great thing for us at the Warriors, it keeps guys here longer than previously,” he said.
“If they didn’t see an opportunity here - they used to duck over to Australia and try their luck. But now we have a pathway from the Toyota Cup into the Vulcans into first grade which is quite achievable for these young guys.
“Our 20s won last year and they look to be up to it again this year, it is a big year for League this year as a game, obviously with the World Cup starting soon here, hopefully we can put a few good results in our column and take a bit off the rugby guys.”