Since leading the Warriors onto the field in their inaugural game in 1995, Dean Bell’s connection to the team has remained strong. Regarded as one of the best centres of his time and a legend of New Zealand rugby league, Bell was the perfect choice to captain the fledgling squad on their journey into the unknown.
Reflecting on that historic moment, Bell acknowledged the significance of the occasion: “It was such a big deal for us as a country, the realization of so many people’s dreams who never thought they’d be alive to see it. Standing in that tunnel on that first night, I felt so humbled to be part of a moment rugby league had been looking for in New Zealand. I played in seven Challenge Cup finals in England and won them all, and I always say the best two moments of my career are my first Wembley final in 1988 and that first night with the Warriors in ’95.”
Now, almost three decades later, Bell has witnessed the resurgence of the Warriors, who are poised to make the finals for only the second time in 12 years. This revival can be attributed to the efforts of Tohu Harris, Shaun Johnson, and Andrew Webster, who have set the tone for the team’s success in the 2023 season.
Bell credits coach Andrew Webster for the team’s turnaround, citing his clear communication and efficient approach as key factors. He emphasises that a team’s performance ultimately falls on the coach, and in this case, Webster deserves recognition for the Warriors‘ achievements.
Regarding individual players, Bell praises Shaun Johnson for his transformation on the field, noting that he has elevated his game to new heights and is currently the best halfback in the NRL. He also highlights the leadership of Tohu Harris and the contributions of bench players Dylan Walker and Jazz Tevaga, whom he describes as “two of the best bench players you could have.”
For the Warriors, reaching the finals has been an elusive goal since their loss in the 2011 Grand Final. However, in 2023, they have surpassed their win totals from the previous two seasons combined and secured a top-four finish for the first time since 2007. Impressive performances from Johnson, Addin Fonua-Blake, and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak have contributed to the team’s success.
Pending the results this weekend, the Warriors will head to either Brisbane or Penrith for the first week of the playoffs. This potentially sets the stage for a home final in Auckland, a significant event for both the team and New Zealand sports fans. Notably, Ivan Cleary, who coached the Warriors to a 30-13 victory in the 2008 semi-final against the Roosters, now coaches the Panthers, adding an intriguing subplot to the playoffs.
Andrew Webster, previously an assistant coach under Cleary at the Panthers, took over as head coach of the Warriors and has made a significant impact. While acknowledging that the Warriors aren’t quite on the same level as the Panthers yet, Bell draws parallels between the two teams, emphasizing their ability to consistently win matches. He commends the Warriors for their defensive approach, teamwork, and overall brand of football, which has made them a team worth watching.
Bell also recognizes the importance of this finals campaign in gaining respect for the Warriors. He highlights the support of the fans throughout the difficult years and emphasizes the team’s desire to achieve more than just making the playoffs. With a home final on the horizon, the Warriors have the opportunity to elevate their performance and continue to make their mark on the sporting landscape of New Zealand.
In the words of Bell, “They have to raise the bar now. It’s turn up or go home.”