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After over 1,000 days, it’s home sweet home for the New Zealand Warriors

Nearly three years – 1,038 days to be exact – since their last home game in front of their fans in Auckland, the New Zealand Warriors have finally returned home and will on Sunday return home to their faithful with the match against the Wests Tigers declared a sell-out.

Both sides might be sitting in 15th and 14th on the ladder respectively, but the amazing effort by the Warriors to sell this match out would make it look more like a semi-final match than a battle for the wooden spoon.

Many NRL fans will know and remember the plight of the Warriors over the past two-and-a-half years, and the sacrifices they had to make in order to keep the competition running in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The club was preparing to face the Newcastle Knights in Newcastle when they were suddenly shut out of their own country by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, meaning any returning residents would be forced into a fortnight’s quarantine.

This meant the Warriors would not have been able to return home afterwards, and in turn it would’ve had a major impact on the season.

Instead, they remained in Australia and set up camp in Kingscliff, later playing their Round 2 match against the Raiders – which was supposed to be part of a Super Rugby-NRL double header – on the Gold Coast.

Their sacrifice and commitment in remaining in Australia earned them the respect and trust of the sporting community, with non-supporting fans signing up to become a member even if it meant not attending any of their games.

Then, after Queensland closed its domestic borders following Round 2, the season was suspended and the Warriors returned home to quarantine for a fortnight, after which it was uncertain as to when or how the season could continue.

Come May, by which point the initial COVID-19 outbreak had slowed down, the Warriors were granted permission to fly to Australia under strict conditions, setting up a quarantine camp in Tamworth ahead of the season restart and playing its home games on the Central Coast.

In its first match since the season resumption, the Warriors produced one of their cleanest efforts in recent years, performing at a 100 percent completion rate for all but five minutes as they put the Dragons to the sword by 18-0.

Under testing circumstances, the club did well to finish 10th on the ladder with eight wins from 20 matches, despite coach Stephen Kearney being dramatically sacked mid-season and replaced with interim coach Todd Payten (now at the Cowboys).

The uncertainty surrounding whether they could play any home games at all continued into season 2021, and they again set up camp on the Central Coast before a major COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney saw them finish the season based in Redcliffe.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 30: Shaun Johnson of the Warriors  (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Again they won eight games as they finished 12th on the ladder under Nathan Brown; by the end of the season, Australia’s vaccination program had started to ramp up in the wake of prolonged lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria.

The club started this season promisingly, including defeating the Broncos and Cowboys in consecutive weeks, but the toll of having had to stay in Redcliffe for a prolonged period has played a major factor in the side slumping to 15th on the ladder with ten rounds still to be played.

Injuries and poor form have also played their part, with the club losing its past seven games and also suffering a record 70-10 loss to the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park on Anzac Night (not part of the current losing streak).

Brown was relieved of his duties when he made it clear he could not commit to relocating to New Zealand full-time, leaving club legend Stacey Jones to take over as caretaker coach until the end of the season.

In two matches under his watch, the Warriors were beaten heavily, first by the Sharks, and most recently by the Panthers, both times in Redcliffe.

Their opponents, the Wests Tigers, have not fared any better since Michael Maguire was sacked and replaced by former Test halfback Brett Kimmorley, with the joint venture going down to the Sea Eagles and Bulldogs in their past two matches.

This will be the teams’ second meeting this season, after the Warriors won by 16-12 at Campbelltown Stadium earlier this year; in that match, Luciano Leilua was controversially denied a clear try after the referee waved it away without consulting the NRL Bunker.

While this will be the first NRL premiership match in New Zealand since Round 24, 2019, this will be the Tigers’ first trip across the ditch since round 9, 2018, when they lost to the Warriors by 26-4.

An earlier season double header at the same venue saw the Tigers edge out the Storm by 11-10.

Fast forward to now and while both sides are in the bottom three, you won’t believe that is the case when Mount Smart Stadium is packed for a Warriors homecoming which has been over 1,000 days in the making.

And after days, weeks and months spent on end away from the comforts of home, there is nothing the locals would love to do than to repay their fans with a win over the Wests Tigers on Sunday afternoon.

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