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It seems like eons ago now when the New Zealand Warriors were at the pinnacle of the proverbial rugby league mountain. Yet you only have to hark back four seasons to the clubs halcyon days of 2002 - 2003 when they seemingly had the rugby league world at their feet.
Having debuted in the finals for the first time in their short history in 2001 (squeaking into eighth place) only to bow out for the season to the tune of a thorough 56-12 shellacking at the hands of minor premiers Parramatta, the Warriors went into 2002 with renewed confidence and vigour. So much so, that they only felt the bitter taste of defeat seven times in twenty six matches to emerge as minor premiers for that year, albeit due to the now famous (or infamous to most league fans) Bulldogs salary cap scandal. Subsequent victories over Canberra (36-20) in week one of the finals, and Cronulla (16-10) in week three ushered in their maiden (and to date solitary) grand final appearance, only to crash to a 30-8 defeat to the Roosters in an ultimately one sided affair.
2003 saw a run of nine losses from twenty six games, with the boys from Ericsson finishing sixth this time around. A stunning display against the Bulldogs (48-22 with winger Frances Meli scoring a finals record five tries) and a hard fought 17-16 win over Canberra saw them face minor premiers and eventual champions Penrith in the grand final qualifier, only to be defeated 28-20. By this time the Warriors had built a reputation as the new entertainers of league, exhibiting a razzle dazzle style of footy which enthralled league fans on both sides of the Tasman. So after 2 very successful seasons Warriors fans had every reason to think that 2004 would be onwards and upwards. Yeah right.
2004 saw a total and utter reversal. Over the off season coach Daniel Anderson had issued an edict of ?Bigger is better?, with virtually the entire squad putting on several kilograms of extra muscle, which may have looked great and improved their strength, but the team sacrificed a lot of speed as a result. All of a sudden it seemed like the club had entered an anomaly in the time-space continuum and ended up in the dark days of the late nineties, winning only six games all season and suffering several forty plus point drubbings. Adding to the woes were the release of star second rower Ali Lauiti?iti to the Leeds Rhinos after a rather public spat with coach Daniel Anderson, as well as the mid season sacking of the said coach. Along with chief executive Mick Watson?s flirtations with Rugby Union (with the proposal of Warriors players playing in a ?Pasifika? union team to be added to the Super 12 format) and boxing, the fickle New Zealand sporting public who had previously being singing the teams praises were now pouring on the scorn and vitriol like never before. A sad turnaround indeed, as the Warriors were saved from the wooden spoon on points differential only.
2005 ushered in the recruitment of two of the top echelon of forward talent. Ruben Wiki and Steven Price were brought into the squad amongst much fanfare. Signs of improvement from the previous season were evident, but with Price missing a chunk of the season with injury and seven games being lost by margins of eight points or less, the Warriors ended the season in eleventh place, a mere four points out of the top eight.
So here we are now, eight rounds into the 2006 NRL Telstra Premiership, and the Warriors have failed to register a win at the former ?fortress? Ericsson Stadium. With the four points deducted for the salary cap indiscretions of early this year, the Warriors now sit in fourteenth position and look like missing the finals yet again. The question on every Warriors fan?s mind, as well as the New Zealand rugby league following public is ?Can the Warriors return to their former selves?? In this writer?s humble opinion, they are certainly more than capable of doing so. The potential is there, with stacks of individual talent, and a vast pool of juniors to pick from. The real question is can they fulfil that potential? Only time will tell.