Gene Ngamu never experienced semi-finals football with the Warriors – his time was long before the club became an NRL force – but as premiership matches go their maiden game back in 1995 was as close it gets.
“It was just a massive buzz,” he recalled of that first game against Brisbane – a contest now famous in New Zealand and set to be revisited in the minds of many this weekend when the two sides line up again in Week One of the finals. “I didn’t get to play finals footy when I was at the Warriors but that first game was a similar sort of build-up. Everyone was behind us. It was an amazing experienced and we got so close. There were only three points in it (the Warriors lost 25-22).
“It was a great experience but unfortunately after that first year we probably didn’t go quite as well as we should have.”
Ngamu was a foundation member at the Warriors during those early years – playing 81 games for the club between 1995 and 1999 – and is best remembered for the strong partnership he formed in the halves with rising star Stacey Jones.
The pair went on to play Test football together with the Kiwis but despite boasting an all-star squad that included the likes of Greg Alexander, Phil Blake, Stephen Kearney, Dean Bell, Sean Hoppe, Andy Platt, Denis Betts and Richie Blackmore, the Warriors never fulfilled their limitless potential in those early years.
“I guess it’s like any club at the start but more so at the Warriors,” Ngamu recalled. “You’re under the spotlight – the public and the media just wanted us to do well. We went alright that first year too (finishing 10th) but then we tapered off a little bit. We lost a few games, probably more than we should have, but we tried out best.
“Having said that I think the club has learnt a lot as the years have gone by. They do things a lot different now and it’s showing on the field – they’re killing it.
“The travel doesn’t seem to bother them anymore. We really suffered with the travel back then.”
Still a passionate Warriors supporter, Ngamu had actually moved to Australia in search of an opportunity before the emergence of the new Kiwi club in 1995 provided an opportunity for him and a number of his fellow Kiwi stars to return home.
A classy five-eighth, he debuted for Manly in 1992 – playing nine games in the top grade – and enjoyed a brief stint at Souths in 1994 before heading back to be part of history in his home country.
“Playing for the Warriors was a dream come true,” he recalled. “There were rumours going around that they were going to be included in the competition – even when I got over to Manly and played there for a while. I was hoping they would come in and when they did I pretty much signed straight away.
“I desperately wanted to go home and be part of it. I wanted to be part of that first team that was part of the [premiership]… the bonus was playing top-line footy and being at home at the same time.”
Ironically, Ngamu’s career has just about brought him full circle: these days he bases himself back on Sydney’s north shore – right around Manly – where he fills his days looking after the very grounds on which he used to ply his trade.
“Yeah I’m a greenkeeper now,” he said. “I came back from the UK (after two years with Huddersfield in 1999-2000) and started doing it with my brother-in-law in NZ and ended up doing my apprenticeship back in Auckland. Eventually I moved over here and ended up working with a company called Green Options.
“I’m now the manager of our north side operations, so with winter sports we look after rugby league, rugby union, soccer, AFL, hockey fields – pretty much everything over winter – and then coming into spring it’s getting all the renovations done and then getting cricket pitches ready for the summer sports. The company I work for specialises in cricket wickets so we do Waverly, Coogee Oval, Manly Oval, Pratten Park out west, Redfern Oval and we look after Toyota Stadium as well.
“Even now I find myself driving around to various grounds all the time just to have a look and see what the other groundsmen are doing.”
“It’s funny though – when I used to play I never really thought about the grounds we played on. We used to get out there and train and kick balls 1000 times on the same spot. The groundskeeper used to come out all the time and repair divots straight away and I used to look at him funny, but now I understand exactly what he was doing.”
Still a passionate Warriors fan, Ngamu rates his former club a huge chance of knocking over old rivals Brisbane this weekend and believes this could be the year they give the competition a real shake.
“I’d really like to see them do well this year and watching the Broncos beat Manly last week when Manly had a few guys out – if the Warriors turn up they can definitely get a win up, for sure.
“Their little halves are doing the job at the moment – James Maloney is killing it, they’ve got big, mobile forwards, they’ve all got agility and they’ve all got an offload.
“There will be a huge crowd up there but they’ll be buzzing and there will be plenty of Kiwis up there too, so they’ve got a great chance to keep going.”