Code Wahs: Is league winning battle for hearts and minds in New Zealand?

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Outside the Warriors’ Mount Smart stadium, a banner reads “no place like home”. After more than 1000 days on the road in Australia, the Warriors finally returned to Auckland last year and are now enjoying the comforts of home and the delirium of a long-awaited run in the NRL finals.

On their website, replica jerseys are almost sold out – there are no adult male jerseys left in stock, with only extra small female ones available. Saturday’s semi-final against Newcastle is virtually guaranteed to be a sell-out.

Meanwhile, the hitherto all-conquering All Blacks, for so long the pride and joy of New Zealand sport, are in unfamiliar territory having lost their first game of the Rugby World Cup to hosts France. They will almost certainly face a challenging quarter-final against defending champions South Africa or world No.1 Ireland – providing they qualify from their group, that is.

Sir Peter Leitch is a successful New Zealand businessman who set up a chain of butcher shops across the country. He is known by his nickname “the Mad Butcher” and has been a hugely passionate supporter of the Warriors since their foundation in 1995.

He believes the sporting landscape in New Zealand is gradually shifting from the historical domination of the All Blacks.

“Everywhere you go, you are hearing ‘Up the Wahs’, and it’s absolutely amazing for people like me to see,” he said.

“It’s exciting to see the passion of the fans. I don’t think the All Blacks have the free run that they used to. For many years rugby [union] ruled, but now other sports have stepped up like league and even other sports like basketball.

“We have another sell-out crowd at home this Saturday against the [Newcastle Knights] and as it gets nearer it’s so exciting. We’re embracing this period and riding the wave.”

The Warriors have traditionally enjoyed loyal support in Auckland, particularly in its southern suburbs, but the club’s reach is starting to be felt in traditional rugby heartlands on the south island, too. Canterbury Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge tweeted that the two codes could co-exist happily together and share support.

Warriors CEO Cameron George believes that the club’s support is growing across the country and their run to the finals has helped them reach new fans.

Warriors supporters getting behind the team at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.Credit: Getty

“The engagement we’re getting right around New Zealand and even globally is unbelievable. From the deep south [island] to the top of the north, then east to west, it doesn’t matter what town, everyone here is riding high on the momentum of the Warriors.

“We are in a very privileged position that we can put so much joy into this great country of ours. And whether you’re a league fan, a rugby fan or just a sports fan, you’re part of our footy club, we’re making you feel engaged through a lot of things that we’re doing and we’re really proud of that.”

George understands that the Warriors are competing with rugby for a captive audience in New Zealand, but believes that both codes ultimately complement each other.

“We always have a dig at each other, but the All Blacks players and our players love each other, they inspire each other and they support each other. At the end of the day, we all want our country to be great and we all play our role in that.

“The All Blacks are doing their thing in the World Cup and we’re supporting them and cheering them on. They’re the national brand for rugby union and we’re flying the flag for league in the NRL. It’s a one-in, all-in approach in New Zealand. We all want to win and we all want to do our country proud.”

Aaron Lawton has a unique perspective on the rise of the Warriors. He spent four years working for the club in their engagement and communications department, before moving to his current position as CEO of Counties Manukau Rugby Union based in Auckland.

On Saturday, he hosted guests in the lounge before a home National Provincial Championship game for his club against Southland and everyone was glued to the Warriors clash against Penrith. Like George, he believes that the psyche of the New Zealand sports fan plays a strong role in the codes’ ability to complement one another.

“There’s no sense they [the Warriors] are going to usurp rugby or anything like that. Kiwis are really good at getting behind our teams when they go well. I definitely think that union people want the Warriors to do well,” he said.

“For the broadcast of the Rugby World Cup here on Saturday morning for the post-match [analysis] I think I heard ‘Up the Wahs’ nine times. It’s become sort of part of the modern vernacular.

“I definitely do not run into those negative anti-rugby league sentiments, very rarely in fact, I can say that this is a very traditional rugby union province but everyone wants the Wahs to do well.”

The last time the Warriors reached the NRL grand final was in 2011, when the All Blacks won the World Cup at home in Auckland. New Zealand sports fans will be hoping this year brings a similar treasure trove of fixtures to enjoy.

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match ad-free, live and on demand in 4K UHD from September 9.

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