How Warriors restored pride in their culture
Pinned on the wall of Cameron George's Mt Smart office is a newspaper column. It's ruthless.
But it doesn't say anything about the Warriors that hasn't been uttered inside and out of league circles in recent years.
"To be called losers in your national paper, that doesn't sit well with anyone of the people in this organisation," George tells NRL.com.
"There's a lot of things that drive us, that kind of criticism included. But one of the most important things for us is to make our fans proud again. They deserve that."
The Warriors' turnaround is still only in its infancy. They host NRL leaders St George Illawarra on Friday, having surprised plenty with their own jump to a 5-1 start and third place on the ladder.
It's started with their top brass, not so much in the CEO's office, more the leaders – new and old, on and off the paddock.
Along with coach Stephen Kearney and existing senior figures Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Simon Mannering comes George, as their new CEO since Jim Doyle moved into an executive role. Alex Corvo as the famed fitness guru who whipped the Warriors into a shape few have seen.
Adam Blair, Tohu Harris, Blake Green and a number of new recruits, lifting the standards that had slipped over the years.
In short, leading. Restoring pride in the club, themselves, and a collective background and heritage no NRL rival can tap into.
The idea for weekly Maori language (Te Reo) lessons came from the players themselves.
"Just one of those examples where this club's at now, the players are really leading the way in certain aspects," George says.
Blair first detailed the hour-long classes in a Players Voice column last month titled 'No other club would do this'. No other club has such a unique culture to draw on as the Warriors, infamously derided as a "bro culture" by former Kiwi coach Graham Lowe.
"That's who we are as people, and something like the Maori classes, it's a great chance to embrace who we are and understand ourselves as people," Blair told NRL.com.
"For me coming home back to NZ was a big pull. I left when I was 16 so being able to get back into that aspect of my life with my family has been great.
"That connection with our heritage, it might seem a small thing. But the classes are a good chance to bring the boys together… not just the Maori boys, whoever wants to jump in does. The coaching staff has had a session too.
"You walk into class and there's no English spoken. You've got to pick it up and learn it.
"That's who we are as people and it's nice to be able to hear it again."
A thousand and one theories have been spouted about the club's recruitment strategies over the years.
Not enough Aussies. Too many Kiwis. Not enough Kiwis. Too many Aussies.
All too easy a dismissal of what Kearney, George and the Warriors truly needed.
"It was a two-pronged attack for us – create depth and attract quality people who could provide real leadership," George says.
"We've done so with Gerard Beale, Peta Hiku, Blake Green, Tohu and Adam Blair.
"We already had a quality squad with Roger, Shaun (Johnson) and Simon Mannering as the existing leaders, and then we've seen everyone else develop around them.
"... The discussion we've had with Australian players, Kiwi players, all of them, has been about leading the club to its first premiership. That's a massive challenge that not many clubs can put on the table, but we can."
A burden in some eyes, opportunity in others. Again, it's only been six weeks of competition, with another five months to come.
But the Warriors' fanatical fan base is on the way back, proud once more. The first 25,000-plus sell-out of Mt Smart Stadium in more than a decade came with round five's double-header and defeat of North Queensland.
When they thumped a heavyweight Roosters outfit at Allianz Stadium a week earlier, their Sydney-based fans dominated the turnstiles and decibels. A healthy 18,000 or so are expected for the Dragons on Friday night.
"Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, it's pleasing to see the fans proud and loud again," George says.
"That Roosters game in Sydney, that was one of the proudest days any sporting organisation could've had offshore.
"Someone else's territory and that kind of turnout and performance, followed by a sell-out double-header – our guys are standing up and have confidence in what they're doing out of that support."