Once were Warriors: Celebrating 20 years
Just over 20 years ago this week there was a game of rugby league in Auckland which created a wave of interest, the size of which has rarely been matched again in New Zealand.
After years of lobbying, anticipation and preparation, 17 men ran out in Auckland Warriors' jerseys for the club's first-ever game in the Australian Rugby League competition.
That breakthrough occasion on March 10, 1995 will be celebrated this Sunday when the current Warriors, now carrying the name of New Zealand rather than Auckland, take on the Brisbane Broncos at Mt Smart Stadium.
Original players Dean Bell, Duane Mann, Stephen Kearney, Gene Ngamu, Tony Tuimavave, Tony Tatupu, Gavin Hill, Whetu Taewa and Tea Ropati are all expected to attend the grand occasion.
Much of the pre-game entertainment will be recreated to match that night two decades ago.
"I couldn't hear anything at that time, it was all just a blur," Warriors' number 10 Hitro Okesene recalls of the first game.
"The crowd were going wild, the flames and the guys doing the haka – it was just one of those memories you never forget."
Like four of his teammates on the night, that game against Brisbane was Okesene's first taste of professional rugby league.
The club's entry into the competition gave local players a chance to earn a living from the game they loved in their own backyard.
"That first game in the changing room when you received the jersey, putting it on and actually going on the field was a proud moment for me and my family as well," Okesene added.
"It was immense, it was fantastic to be a part of. It was amazing to have the whole country behind you and wishing the team well, it was just great being there.
"Going from working to playing league for a living, I would have done it for free, getting paid was a bonus for us."
To this day most people who were watching that game recall two main points, all the glitz of the pre-game show, and bloody Allan Langer ruining the party.
The cheeky Broncos' half produced a solo masterclass in the second 40 minutes, scoring two tries and kicking a field goal to turn a 22-10 half-time deficit into a 25-22 victory for his side.
But it's not that which stands out in his memory.
"We knew it was going to be a great atmosphere and certainly when we turned up to the game the pre-match entertainment was amazing," Langer said.
"With the helicopters and the ammunition going off it was something to talk about after the game.
"We were lucky enough to get away with the game in the last five minutes.
"It was always great to play footy over there and it's still a good spot to go over there because they're very parochial the New Zealand supporters."
The sense of occasion won't be lost on today's players either.
Warriors fullback Tuimoala Lolohea, who was only a matter of weeks old when the first game took place, says he is honoured to be part of it.
"The older guys at the club don't talk about their history much, but I know they were there from day one and are still supportive of us now," Lolohea said.
"Running out this week…all of the players who have done that in a Warriors jersey are going to be with us on Sunday in our hearts."
Original 17 Warriors – then and now
Then: A renowned trainer who would bring the ultimate professional attitude to the club. Had good speed despite getting towards the end of his career.
Now: Defence coach for the Leicester Tigers rugby union club in England.
Then: A pure try-scorer who was proven in the Australian competition from his time with the Canberra Raiders.
Now: Working on a gas plant in Gladstone.
Then: A home grown success story, Bell was regarded as one of the best Kiwis playing overseas at the time of his signing from Wigan. Brought over as the ideal leader for the first ever Warriors side.
Now: General manager of football at the New Zealand Warriors.
Then: A versatile back who could cover wing, centre or fullback, who was proven at the level after stints with South Sydney and Western Suburbs.
Now: Truck driver in New South Wales.
Then - Fleet-footed and evasive, a genuine threat in open space. Like Thompson he could cover other backline positions if required.
Now - Builder in Otago.
Then - Had spent some time playing over in Australia and showcased passing and kicking skills which the Warriors viewed as valuable to their project. A good partner for the veteran half Greg Alexander.
Now - Groundskeeper in Australia.
Then: Arrived in Auckland near the back end of a career which had seen him win the Dally M Player of the Year award, represent NSW and Australia and win a premiership with the Panthers. The tactician to direct the talented Auckland forwards and backs around the park.
Now: Fox Sports commentator and analyst.
Then: The first player actually signed by the Auckland Warriors, a big man to lead the pack up front.
Now: Works for the Duffy Books in Homes charity in New Zealand.
Then: A mullet-growing hard-hitting prop or hooker, Okesene became the first cult hero of the club. Remains a fan favourite to this day.
Now: Works in construction in Cumbria, North West England.
Then: - A natural leader with attacking flair out of dummy-half, Mann also had a solid understanding of the style the big Kiwi forwards liked played.
Now: Academy and pathways manager at the New Zealand Warriors.
Then: Signed from the Western Suburbs Magpies, Kearney added some ball-playing ability to the powerful Auckland back-row.
Now: New Zealand Kiwis coach and Brisbane Broncos assistant coach.
Then - A mobile back-rower for his time, Tatupu could play in the forwards or backs equally. Ended up leaving the club and returning for a second stint later in his career.
Now - Police officer in Auckland.
Then: A barnstorming forward renowned for his toughness, 'The Chief' brought some mongrel to the team.
Now: Still living in Auckland.
Then: A big-bopper who wouldn't back down, was seen as a vital cog to then coach John Monie's front-row rotation.
Now: Living in Townsville where he is a psychologist working with local kids.
Then: Had the gift of versatility which the club desperately needed on their interchange bench. Technically sound and a strong runner of the ball.
Now: Executive manager of the Koru Trust in Auckland.
Then: A home-grown talent who never really kicked on at the club, playing in the inaugural team before spending most of his time in Auckland playing reserve grade.
Now: Working in the mining industry in Queensland
Then: A talented prospect from the Waikato region, Moana only spent one year at the club before heading to England. A powerfully-built weapon used mainly off the bench.
Now: Living in the UK where son Jordan is a member of the Leeds Rhinos' academy.