Home at last: Emotions run high as Warriors are welcomed

The handshakes and hugs began outside the gates of Mount Smart Stadium well before the official welcome ceremony began on Tuesday morning, when Warriors staff reconnected with colleagues for the first time since the team returned from Australia.

Later that morning, the entire squad was greeted by a vigorous pōwhiri (Māori welcoming ceremony) by the local iwi (tribe) Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, marking their return home after two and a half years across the Tasman.

The highly anticipated return home was a particularly emotional experience for the club’s New Zealand players, including playmaker Shaun Johnson, who had spent less than a week in total this year with his wife Kayla and young daughter Millah, who remained in Auckland.

“Watching my little one grow up through FaceTime was not ideal. We’ve all had our different challenges,” Johnson said.

“It was sometimes a challenge not to have them in my corner this year.

“I’m just so grateful to be in this position now and get to be a father and share this week with my family.


I can rock out to Mount Smart Stadium with a smile on my face, knowing I’ll be going home afterwards and seeing my little one.



Shaun Johnson

“Every hard day you’ve had (in Australia) brings you back to this moment where we’re at home now, with my family and I’m embraced by the people I play for.”

After spending three seasons with Cronulla (2019-21) and then being stuck in Australia for the first half of his comeback season with the Warriors this year, Johnson also thought his days of being welcomed at Mount Smart Stadium were over.

“I never thought I’d be able to walk through Mount Smart again and see the faces I’ve seen for the past eight years,” Johnson said.



Shaun Johnson hugs Warriors fan Mark Dekker.

©Photosport


“Even as I drove up the path from my house to the stadium, I called my dad and said, ‘Dad, I’m doing it again’.

“I’m exactly where I need to be and I know it.”

Jazz Tevaga, Adam Pompey and Chanel Harris-Tavita are the only players still in the Warriors’ books to take the field the last time the club played in Auckland in Round 24, 2019, while prop Bunty Afoa was there yet, but that match has missed .

For veteran winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, this is the first time he has seen the club’s HQ as a Warrior, after years of experience as a member of the visiting team.

“It was actually good to come in here and see my locker, see the place and really feel like you belong and belong somewhere,” Watene-Zelezniak said.

“A big part of the reason I came back here was to come back to where I come from and to let my wife and kids experience that too.



Stacey Jones excited for homecoming

“We had only heard stories from the guys about what it’s like to have a packed crowd on Mount Smart behind you, so to be back here and play our first game in the colors on our home ground will be great . †

Club captain Tohu Harris, meanwhile, spoke of the honor of leading the club back out to their devoted fans.

“It’s a privilege to be honest, to be in this position to lead the guys on the field,” said Harris.

“I don’t think anyone would have thought it would take that long… I certainly wouldn’t have picked two and a half years to be the length of time before we could play at Mount Smart again.”

Tickets for the homecoming game are already sold outwith a crowd of over 26,500 expected on Sunday afternoon.

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