Some might argue that altitude training is best scheduled for the preseason. The theory makes perfect sense: build your fitness to a high level before the games start, and then simply maintain and recover during the gruelling 26-week grind that makes up the regular season. But, even if you only take a passing interest in the Warriors, when you consider their results in recent years, an alarming pattern shines brighter than a full moon in the middle of the desert: year after year of slow starts and mid-season surges, followed by catastrophic collapse after catastrophic collapse as the finish line approaches. Clearly the status quo isn’t working. All signs point towards the need for some new tactics.
So, after spending four rounds based at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, USA, I return to Warrior Nation with both a renewed lung capacity and a sense of endurance that certainly did not exist upon my departure. Again, you may wonder why anyone would voluntarily decide to leave the comfortable shores of Warrior Nation from Round 4 to Round 7, why anyone would forego two opportunities to sit in hope with nervous excitement in the East Stand for winnable games against Parramatta and the Gold Coast. To give that up for a little extra fitness sounds crazy, I know, but if you dig a little deeper, the rationale becomes clear.
The most important attribute a fan can possess is the ability to endure, the capacity to stay the path, no matter the weather, in the good times and the bad. A true fan absorbs years of heartache, even agreeing to store it in a locked compartment of their soul and carry it around with them every day of their lives simply based on a blind faith that one day their team will find the key to release all that hurt in a single euphoric moment. For most of us, if we stay loyal, if we can endure for long enough, that moment makes all those years of hurt worth it a million times over.
But that doesn’t make the hurt easy to stomach. Just because we know a pot of gold exists at the end of the rainbow doesn’t mean we don’t despair in chasing it. Every season, every match even, comes with its hurdles. At times it can feel like you’re the only person sitting in your plastic seat, shivering as the rain pours down and the errors mount. At other times it feels like no matter how hard you try, no matter how much effort and energy you expend, you can’t see the benefits. You try to tell yourself that hard work will be rewarded, but the footsteps from behind get louder and louder, then soften quickly as they rush past you and into the distance as you languish at the bottom of the ladder.
As I squeezed into United Airlines economy class, my knees pressed against the seat in front of me, I couldn’t have been more depressed about the start to the 2017 season. In the few days between Round 2 and Round 3, I’d gone from defending the team as if my life depended on it, justifying a loss against a good side in tricky conditions, to feeling like the club had reached an all-time low after failing to put away a Bulldogs team who were incredibly poor on the night. I’ve seen bad losses before, but there was something about that game against the Bulldogs that left me in a very dark place.
Despite my mood at the time, the decision to leave Warrior Nation was not made lightly. Even after arrangements were made and plane tickets were purchased, there were still times when I felt I simply couldn’t bring myself to go, couldn’t picture a Mt Smart without me in attendance. But after a few days gasping for breath in the thin mountain air, I lay in bed and listened to the 2GB radio commentary with the same excitement I always feel on game day.
A loss to the Dragons was tough, but then there were back-to-back wins and suddenly it seemed like the tide was turning. The Warriors rollercoaster was on the upswing. Even the Australian-based commentary team were praising the men from Mt Smart for an impressive first half display on the road against a Canberra side touted as one of the best in the competition. It was almost 3am in Colorado, it was cold outside, but I wasn’t lonely. I could feel the presence of Warrior Nation beside me.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the second half didn’t go so well, and sometimes you can’t help but worry about things like that. Throw in an upcoming five-game stretch that reads: Storm (A), Roosters (H), Panthers (A), Dragons (H) and Brisbane (H) and it’s enough to make anyone scared of it all sometimes. With only three wins from the first seven rounds, there’s a real possibility that this season could slip away before we’ve realised what’s happened.
But, as I’ve said, there’s no greater attribute on this journey than endurance. Time away gives you a lot of time to think — about what has happened, about what is happening and about what might happen in the future. I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that time away gives you time to consider if life might be more comfortable by taking a step back and watching on from afar. But when you are out there in the wide open spaces, your lungs filling with fresh Rocky Mountain air, it becomes clear that nobody ever achieved anything without a bit of hard work, and that great things are achieved by those who step out of their comfort zone and commit fully to what they believe in.
I have faith that one day we’ll find the key, and it will be worth every second you’ve ever spent agonising over knock-ons and missed tackles and last-minute losses. The Anzac Day clash with Melbourne will be tough — casting the mind back to 2016 incites shudders of horror — but we must press on, block out the doubts and the off-field noise, and settle into our seats at 9pm on Tuesday with the same excitement we felt on 10 March 1995, hoping beyond all hope that this will be the moment we uncover that key.