Ninety-five years since the formation of professional rugby league in Australia and eight seasons since their inception, the Warriors created history by making the 2002 grand final.
But it was the Sydney Roosters' night as they powered to a 30-8 victory for the club formerly known as Eastern Suburbs' first premiership since 1975.
The Warriors won the minor premiership and the hearts and minds of rugby union-mad New Zealanders by waltzing into the grand final courtesy of playoff wins over Canberra and Cronulla.
But momentum for the grand final was on the side of rookie coach Ricky Stuart's Roosters. The foundation club entered the October 6 decider seeking a ninth straight victory, a run that included a 44-0 rout of the Daniel Anderson-coached Warriors in round 24.
This was an arm wrestle much closer than the 22-point margin would ultimately suggest.
The Sydneysiders led 6-2 at half-time on the back of Shannon Hegarty's 23rd-minute try, sparked by a 20-metre burst from Roosters captain Brad Fittler after which wingers Anthony Minichiello and Brett Mullins (in his final game before retirement) combined to send centre Hegarty free.
Looking back at the 2002 grand final
Fullback Ivan Clearly kicked a late first-half penalty goal before Warriors halfback Stacey Jones hauled his team to a 8-6 lead in the 46th minute with a mesmerising try from 40 metres out.
It was a superb solo run full of dummies and steps and superlatives from TV commentator Paul Vautin: "...this is unbelievable, this is one of the best grand final tries you'll ever see. He's beaten five, six, seven players, no one's laid a hand on him in the end. Brilliant stuff from the captain."
But as the decider entered the final quarter, Fittler took over the mantle of grand final magician.
The Roosters regained the lead via halfback Craig Wing in the 58th minute with a try scored just four tackles after a brilliant, game-swinging 40-20 kick from Fittler. Craig Fitzgibbon converted and then buried the Warriors' comeback hopes with a third – and the most important – grand final try of his decorated career, significantly scored off the back of a repeat set of six courtesy of a Fittler grubber that saw Jones trapped in goal moments earlier.
Another deft Fittler kick set up Chris Flannery's 71st-minute try before Sydney scored their fifth and final four-pointer via Bryan Fletcher five minutes before time – all of them converted by Fitzgibbon.
It was a tough pill for the Warrior and Anderson who had been named Dally M Coach of the Year while Stuart deflected praise despite his brilliant introduction to first-grade coaching.
"We started off with a lot of adversity early on in the piece with all our injuries and to be able to hang in there and come back like we have on the back end of this season, I think it's a great credit to all the players. I've got great staff and I'm just very lucky that I've got good people around me," Stuart said.
"The players deserve all the credit, they were fantastic tonight. We probably didn't play our best football but the effort, the dedication, the commitment was 100 per cent."
Clive Churchill Medal
Craig Fitzgibbon's grand final heartache was still raw ahead of the decider against the Warriors after the goal-kicking second-rower had scored tries in St George Illawarra's 20-18 loss to Melbourne in 1999 and again in 2000 when he transferred to Sydney and the Roosters lost 14-6 to Brisbane.
But he wasn't about to let a third grand final appearance in four seasons slip, the Kangaroos and Blues rep kicking five from five and scoring a decisive 65th-minute try to emulate his father as a premiership winner after Allan Fitzgibbon won with the Balmain Tigers in 1969.
Fitzgibbon paid tribute to goal-kicking guru Darryl Halligan afterwards.
"I've been practicing with Darryl a lot, so I've got to thank him. I was probably struggling with the boot this year, he just really straightened me up and thank god it worked on the night," Fitzgibbon said after the win.
"This is unreal, this is the highlight of my life so far. The way we're going to send Fletch [Bryan Fletcher] and Simon [Bonetti] and all those boys off, ah, it's just unreal."
Fitzgibbon might have been adjudged man of the match but Brad Fittler proved the Roosters' Piped Piper, quite literally waving the Tricolours on to victory after that pivotal 40-20 kick in the 55th minute.
The five-eighth played a key role in four of the Rooster's five tries including expertly judged grubber kicks that indirectly led to Fitzgibbon's try and directly to Chris Flannery's score six minutes later.
"That first half was a bit dodgy but we knew if we just stuck in there, we knew we were going to win," Fittler said. "I was thinking before the game how I was going to feel [afterwards], [jubilant] like this or crying and the difference is like a mile mate, it's just so different, and I'm just so happy."
Play of the Day
Pretty much whenever Brad Fittler touched the ball, it turned to gold for the Roosters. But the 40-20 kick, with the Warriors leading 8-6 and the final finely balanced, completely shifted the momentum back the Roosters' way.
The 'what if' moment
The Warriors will eternally wonder what might have been had Stacey Jones had more ball to weave the type of magic that led to the "Little General's" brilliant second-half try. But the incident that rebounded on the Warriors most was a cheap shot by benchman Richard Villasanti on Brad Fittler on the hour. With the Roosters star prone on the floor after a heavy collision with Wairangi Koopu, Villasanti went to finish off the tackle but led with his head to leave Fittler dazed and bloodied and his Roosters team-mates livid.
"The Richard Villasanti flying headbutt on Freddie was actually a great moment for us," Roosters half Craig Wing said.
"It had been an arm wrestle up until then and that got our backs up. Villasanti had a target on his head after that. He got smashed. Adrian Morley put one on him but Moz put one on me as well. He never missed, Moz!"
Brad Fittler, speaking to sideline TV analyst Paul Harrigan, in the immediate aftermath of Sydney's five tries to one victory: "I looked at a few of the boys [after Stacey Jones' try], I could smell some doubt but when we ran away there [back to halfway for the restart] we knew that defence was going to get us back in there and it did.
"We just kept defending like we have been defending all year and it's won us a grand final.
"Mate, that is the greatest thing you'd ever do. I love everyone for making me feel this good, this is beautiful. Everyone who loves footy, who follows footy, you made this moment so good for us, we've worked so hard and that's what it all comes down to man. It's the best..."
Recollections of a champion
Roosters halfback Craig Wing recently revealed the extent of the hand injury he took into the 2002 grand final.
"I played with a broken hand that I had busted two weeks earlier against the Broncos and it got progressively worse," Wing said.
"During the week at training I had to catch a ball with my [other] hand and my wrist at training. I had six needles before the grand final and my whole hand went numb – I couldn't do up draw string on my shorts but I got the feeling back for the game. Took another jab at half time. Sore as hell next day but who cares."
Wing wasn't the only Rooster nursing a serious injury in the decider with home grown lad Luke Ricketson cleared late to play his 231st first grade game on a dodgy leg.
"I had a pretty horrible week trying to deal with injury so it wasn't until this morning at midday and Rick [Ricky Stuart] just said get out there and play and that's why I thanked him a little bit more [in the aftermath] for helping make up my mind a little bit better," Ricketson said.
"I've been looking at grand finals since I was old enough to watch TV and I'm Rooster through and through and I couldn't have dreamt about anything as big as this, so I'm over the moon."
Recollections of a runner-up
"We were ticking all the boxes – made the top eight then the top four, we had a home semi-final then reached our ultimate goal of making the grand final," Toopi said.
"But once we got there I personally felt like I'd accomplished what I needed to accomplished. Even though you're there in that moment and you want to win, I got caught up in the moment and was just happy to be there.
"Our first time ever being in the semis was the year before so a lot of our players had never experienced Sydney finals footy before.
"At the time the only guys I think had experience of being in a grand final were Kevin Campion and Ivan Cleary, amongst 17 players.
"Then you flip over to the Roosters who have a 100-year history of being involved in semi-finals footy and that big occasion – they had experience in how to approach the week and the mental side of it as well.
"I got caught up in the moment – especially when I walked out into the stadium and there were 80-90 thousand people there, I was like a little kid in a candy shop just looking around thinking 'Wow this is awesome'. Then before you knew it the game was over.
"I was very proud to be a part of the first ever grand final for a team that had only been around for 15 odd years if that.
"Being the only NRL team in the country it felt like all the attention came to our team – it was the buzz of the town. It was excited times for rugby league in New Zealand.
"It was almost like we had gathered so much attention and excitement for the country that people were feeling proud of rugby league again. I'm very grateful that I got to be a part of that early era of the New Zealand Warriors – we had some wonderful players in our team.
"Stacey Jones for us is one of the greats that should be immortalised in New Zealand rugby league and it was a privilege playing alongside him and defending outside him. He was the kind of guy that put a lot of players on the map.
"Our owner at the time brought about 10,000 tickets and gave them away to all of our supporters that were travelling to the game.
"We were gearing up against the likes of some outstanding players. Brad Fittler, Bryan Fletcher, Luke Ricketson, Craig Fitzgibbon – that a NSW/Australian line up right there. And then you had Anthony Minichiello who at the time was the Billy Slater of days era.
"Making the grand final that year instilled faith in us that we were very much capable of being able to do it again – we almost got there but we fell short in the preliminary final to the Panthers who ended up going through to win the grand final in 2003."
The following year
The Warriors did indeed rebound strongly in 2003, finishing the regular season in sixth place with a 15-win, nine-loss record before thumping the Canterbury Bulldogs 48-22 in Sydney in the first leg of the playoffs. The Auckland club went on to reach the preliminary final with a 17-16 win over Canberra before missing out on the last dance following a 28-20 loss to Penrith.
The Panthers went on to deny the Roosters back-to-back NRL titles with an 18-6 triumph in the 2003 grand final. The Roosters had finished runners-up to Penrith in the minor premiership race with a 17-7 record.
Earlier, the Roosters thrashed 2002 Super League winners St Helens 38-0 in the 2003 World Club Challenge. With a try and nine goals for a 22 point solo haul, Craig Fitzgibbon won man of the match honours at Bolton's Reebok Stadium.