It’s 4pm on Sunday 11 September and the sun decorates Mt Smart Stadium with light as we huddle together in our seats. The field is all but empty; isolated security guards dot the corners while cheerleaders fan out from the home tunnel in V-formation. The scene looks quiet, a calm before the storm you could say, but the turf is the only silent part of this ground — a constant, excited murmur is sporadically interrupted by bursts of raucous cheering as each new name from the team list is announced on the big screens at either end.
There are the inevitable boos as the opposition emerges, but the background hum of chatter returns quickly as the sweet sound of drums prompts Warrior Nation to rise as one.
For a few glorious minutes, nervousness is replaced with a surge of adrenaline, a realisation that we’re finally here, on the big stage. On home soil. Today, the eyes of the world are on Penrose. For these glorious few minutes we forget the job at hand, don’t think about what’s at stake, are oblivious to the fact that it’s win or we’re out. Sudden death. During this short window of time, the people of Warrior Nation stand together proudly, together as one to enjoy the moment, to soak in the occasion. To celebrate the here and now. To celebrate that we are here. Right now.
Soon the whistle will blow, the game will begin and there’ll be a job to do, but, until that time, we stand, we applaud and we smile.
There’s nowhere else on Earth I’d rather be.
Just imagine it, Warrior Nation, in seven weeks that could be us.
Can you feel it?
How good would that home semi-final be?!
Canberra enters this clash on an impressive run, with their last defeat coming in Round 14. And while Saturday’s game shapes an important one for the men from Mt Smart’s push towards the Top 6 and that home semi-final, there’s equal motivation for Canberra, who’ll be just as eager to prove they are realistic Top 4 contenders and to show everyone that their surge up the table wasn’t just a quirk of the draw that included two bye rounds, a golden point victory against cellar-dwellers Newcastle, plus wins against the Titans and an Origin-depleted Cowboys side.
In Warriors’ team news, Jacob Lillyman returns from injury to replace the suspended Charlie Gubb, while Tui Lolohea remains on the interchange bench. The Lolohea story has dominated the build up this week, but, as frustrated as he must be with his lack of game time lately, it feels a little overblown. No doubt there’ll be opportunities for him to make an impact against the Raiders, and I’ll be stunned if he isn’t starting in the halves come Round 1 2017. Watch how quickly the story disappears once the Warriors get back to winning ways. Whispers are circulating the late mail reports about an eleventh-hour Bodene Thompson inclusion, but that appears less than a 50 per cent chance at this stage.
Despite two golden point losses in their last three games, I’d argue that the Warriors are playing their best football of the year. The effort and composure that was sorely lacking during the early rounds has come to the forefront in recent weeks, as the men from Mt Smart begin to look like a team that can compete with anyone in this competition. There’s still plenty of room to improve, and maybe I’m just a dreamer, but this looks like a favourable fixture. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m not ready to give up on that vision of the happiest place on Earth. I’m not ready to remove that mid-September event from my calendar quite yet.
C’mon you Warriors!
New Zealand Warriors v Canberra Raiders, GIO Stadium, Canberra, Saturday 23 July
Holden Cup: 10.40am (local, 12:40pm NZ)
NSW Cup: 12.40pm (local, 2:40pm NZ)
NRL: 3pm (local, 5pm NZ)
All matches live on Sky Sport in NZ
Warriors break their Eden Park hoodoo in style back in 2014:
Warriors: 1 David Fusitu’a 2 Ken Maumalo 3 Blake Ayshford 4 Solomone Kata 5 Manu Vatuvei 6 Thomas Leuluai 7 Shaun Johnson 8 Jacob Lillyman 9 Issac Luke 10 James Gavet 11 Bunty Afoa 12 Ryan Hoffman (c) 13 Simon Mannering Interchange: 14 Tuimoala Lolohea 15 Sam Lisone 16 Ben Matulino 17 Jazz Tevaga
Raiders: 1. Jack Wighton 2. Edrick Lee 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joseph Leilua 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Blake Austin 7. Aidan Sezer 8. Junior Paulo 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Shannon Boyd 11. Josh Papalii 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Shaun Fensom. Interchange: 14. Iosia Soliola 15. Luke Bateman 16. Paul Vaughan 17. Joseph Tapine