Warriors trumpet their arrival in the big time

Dave Hadfield sees a spectacular start to the Winfield Cup in Auckland
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It can happen to even the best-organised of parties. Someone you never invited to join the fun comes along and spoils it.

Parties do not come any better conceived or more atmospheric than the Auckland Warriors' entry into the Winfield Cup yesterday. Only the result - a 25-22 defeat by the Brisbane Broncos, unarguably the best team in the competition - dampened the celebrations.

Anxiety for last night to be a success started on the other side of the Tasman Sea, with the Australian Rugby League authorites, whose gamble it is to admit four new sides to the Winfield Cup, crossing their fingers for the event to be all that it had been hyped up to be.

They can sleep contentedly. So what if Tina Turner, whose video message sent us on our way, still calls it the Windfield Cup. Or if the ARL chairman and the most powerful man in the world of rugby league, Ken Arthurson, almost became the most powerful man stranded at Sydney airport when he forgot his passport.

So what if the pre-match entertainment, with gymnasts hanging from the stand roof at the Ericsson Stadium, a lone choirboy warbling and men bursting into flames during elaborate war games, verged on the surreal.

What was more to the point was that the Warriors had sold 31,000 tickets through their official supporters' club alone for their debut match, filling the ground without ever releasing them to the general public.

Auckland's rugby union side, for so long the dominant force in New Zealand's biggest city, claim to have shifted 13,000 for their match at the same ground today.

It is not just a reversal of the first two digits that we are talking about here, but of turning long-standing and deeply rooted assumptions on their heads.

"For so long, rugby league has been seen as the poor man's sport, only fit for those in south and west Auckland,'' the Warriors' chairman, Peter Macleod, said. "This shows that the game has come of age."

Crowds started rolling in to the refurbished stadium in suburban Auckland fully four hours before the kick-off and there were banners declaring support from other areas of New Zealand even from as far away as Invercargill, at the far end of the south island.

That degree of acceptance does not surprise the club's coach, John Monie.

"The more people see rugby league, the more people like rugby league," Monie said. His sure touch, which was seen previously at Parramatta and Wigan, had been much in evidence throughout the Warriors' two-year preparation for this big day."We've got a great product and a very good football team," he said.

There was no arguing with that assessment yesterday, when the only thing missing from a perfect start in the Winfield Cup was the right result.

Trailing 10-0 after 15 minutes, the Warriors regrouped superbly to build up a 22-10 lead, thanks to tries from the former Warrington and Wigan full-back, Phil Blake, the local heroes, Sean Hoppe and Tony Tatupu, and the ex-St Helens' talent, Tea Ropati.

In the last half-hour, however, the Broncos' Australian Test scrum-half, Allan Langer, took control of a situation that was rapidly galloping away from his side.

Just as it seemed that New Zealand was going to extract a little more revenge for all the slights and insults from its bigger neighbour over the years - from Trevor Chappell's under-arm bowling to the joke that their country only differs from yoghurt because it has no living culture - Langer struck with two quick tries to put Brisbane level.

Then he was obstructed chasing his own kick to give the Broncos the penalty that put them ahead and Julian O'Neill completed Brisbane's escape with a drop goal.

"I'm always shattered and disappointed by losing," Monie said. "But I can't have any complaints about the performance."

Nor, it seemed, could the capacity crowd.

"We would have beaten any other side," was the most popular verdict as they made their way into the muggy night.

That was probably true and when Auckland have Andy Platt, Frano Botica, Denis Betts and Richie Blackmore available - not to mention the intriguing prospect of a union icon like the record-breaking former All Blacks winger, John Kirwan, in a rugby league shirt - they will be more formidable still.

"If someone had told me three or four years ago that we would be launching the Winfield Cup across the Tasman Sea, I would have said they were crazy," Arthurson said.

On the evidence of last night, the expansion of Australia's national competition, the most demanding in the code, to another country as well as two distant parts of Australia itself is a guaranteed success.

They certainly thought so as they milled about in a circus big top erected for the purpose behind a main stand at the Ericsson Stadium.

At midnight, Aucklanders who can remember all too clearly when club games here attracted crowds in the hundreds rather than the thousands, were still lining up for Dean Bell and his team-mates to sign their replica shirts.

And the chief executive of the ARL, John Quayle, was parading a grin as wide as the Tasman as he repeated: "It's so good, it's so good."

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