New Zealand Warriors feeling welcome in new Redcliffe home

Warriors captain Tohu Harris takes part in a Maori welcome ceremony at Redcliffe. New Zealand Warriors

They are the lost boys of the NRL, and that is not a reference to the iconic 1987 Vampire film. For the Warriors, it's a far more literal description.

Gilligan's Island might even be a more fitting pop culture reference to describe the plight of the New Zealand club- who have spent the better part of the COVID era residing anywhere but their own home base. Marooned, as it were, on the world's largest island. And no clear path home exists, for at least the majority of another whole season.

"We won't have been home in three and a half years to play a game a footy (by the end of next year)," Warriors CEO Cameron George tells ESPN, describing a period in the New Zealand club's existence that- one day- could definitely make for an excellent Hollywood screenplay.

"The last game we played in Auckland at our home ground was in August 2019. We haven't even been home since Christmas last year, and we couldn't get back to New Zealand post this season."

There isn't a hint of bitterness in his voice as he recounts the most burdensome period in the history of the Warriors. His tone quickly becomes enthusiastic, as he describes the closest thing to a permanent base the Warriors have seen in a long time. Because since November 29, George, coach Nathan Brown and staff, plus the Warriors playing group have been residents of Redcliffe. They're keeping the Dolphins' world class facilities warm for at least half of the 2022 season, ahead of the local teams' entry in 2023.

"It's a beautiful region, the facilities are tremendous and the people have been fantastic in making us feel at home," George says, alluding to a series of thoughtful welcoming ceremonies- arranged by the Redcliffe Dolphins and Moreton Bay Regional Council, which the squad has participated in since arriving.

"All those welcomes have made it really easy for us to settle in as a footy club- and most importantly for our families to settle in."

Being made to feel welcome is one thing- and to be fair you'd expect nothing else from an Aussie to a visitor from our Trans-Tasman neighbors. It seems the Redcliffe and Moreton Bay community has pulled out all the stops to let the Warriors know they are in friendly territory. And there are other factors that will help create a sense of home for the team in 2022.

"There's a really strong sense of connection with New Zealand here," George says. "More than 20 thousand passport holders live within the region. We'll get to engage a lot with the community.

"We've got over 100 people that have now moved to the region- staff, players and family. Some of them have bought places, some are renting or staying with relatives. Kids are going to the schools, people are working in the region as well."

Throughout the COVID era, for Australian-based teams, shorter term interstate relocations have generated a strong internal focus. Bunkering down, huddling together and focusing on their own wellbeing, teams have used footy as an emotional outlet, encouraged by being there for team mates who may be struggling, embraced allowances for extended families to enter various inner sanctums- that type of thing. For the Warriors though, the new HQ brings with it a sense of duty, towards a club that- before too long- will become an NRL adversary.

"It's really important to understand that we're here to promote the region as well as play footy, and help them (The Dolphins) become a really strong NRL team next year," George explains. "The partnership is really strong, and we want to help grow rugby league in the community."

History will confirm that some teams coped better with the NRL's COVID induced circumstances than others. The Storm relocated to the Sunshine Coast for much of the 2020 NRL season and ended up claiming the premiership. Penrith broke a title drought at the end of an extended stint in South East Queensland this year. Meanwhile the Warriors finished 10th in the shortened 2020 edition (8 wins, 12 losses) and 12th this year (8 wins, 16 losses). Not exactly title winning output, but given their plight, a lot of outside appraisal hasn't been results driven. Instead, there has been widespread commendation for bravery and dedication, almost a bit of a 'cut them some slack' mentality. As far as George is concerned, head coach Nathan Brown and his squad won't be holding their hands out for this kind of feedback in 2022.

"We represent a wonderful nation in New Zealand, and we want to inspire that nation. When you're in adversity like we are and we have been for a while, you can make the most of it. As a collective we want to be a club that everyone's proud of, but we also want to win the competition."

Anyone bar the most sentimental rugby league person would concede winning the competition isn't necessarily the most realistic prospect for the Warriors. But even the most dispassionate fan would admit that rugby league wouldn't be rugby league without a long history of fairytales, and coach Nathan Brown will have the advantage of being within shouting distance of a man who has engineered plenty of them at Dolphins HQ. Despite their well documented differences over the years, could Brown and Bennet come together in a collaborative fashion?

"We've got a job to do and a game to win every weekend," George says. "Wayne will be busy putting the blocks together for the Dolphins. I'm sure they'll cross paths- our door's always open for their staff to come and have a look and understand what goes on."

A lot has been made of the Dolphins' slow start to recruitment since being invited into the NRL. One can't help but wonder; what if, come the end of season 2022, some of the Warriors decide they don't want to leave?

"It's a funny game rugby league, things change and change quickly. But we've got a great understanding with the Dolphins around what's right and wrong in terms of recruiting."

But Cameron, what if they don't want to leave?

"If a player wants to stay in Australia for whatever personal reason, we'll consider that on his merits; but I'm sure it's not a strategy with the Dolphins to try and poach our players, and we're certainly not here to cause any drama."

The other side of that coin, is of course attracting players to a club with a warm hearth to gather around, but no genuine current home base. Any eagle-eyed observer driving past Moreton Daily Stadium in Redcliffe over the past fortnight may have caught a glimpse of an elite rugby league squad- draped in a dark blue, green, red and white training kit. Among them; eight recently resigned players and five new recruits, new faces and returning sons among them.

Former million dollar Titan Ash Taylor has a spring in his step that surely isn't entirely related to his $1,000 per week train-and-trial deal, while ex-Shark Shaun Johnson looks a man at peace. The remainder of the squad- some who have been along for the whole ride, some who have chimed in late, are looking settled and preparing for another year of being asked to go above and beyond.

"They're feeling good," Cameron George reports. "I think the stability we've got will really help us.

"Now that we have more of a permanent setup- both living and working- everyone is feeling much better."

Business as (COVID) usual for the Warriors, ahead of game one for season 2022- a clash with the Dragons at Sunshine Coast Stadium on March 12. From there, the next six home games will be in Redcliffe. Beyond that, and despite the feels and vibes on the peninsula, George is daring to dream of a return to the team's true home, sometime around June.

"At the end of the day, we're still hoping to be able to go home to play games at the back end of the year," he says. "Otherwise we'll stay in Redcliffe."

"We've only got plans as far as this year. Beyond that, depending on borders, we're praying and hoping we can be back home. We've been a long way from home and on a long unknown road for a long time."