However the 2020 season pans out, the NRL will owe a debt of gratitude to the New Zealand Warriors for years to come.
In a year full of stories, none have had more ups and downs as the Warriors, who have given more than any other team in the competition.
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New Zealand have long been seen as perennial also rans, and 2020 appeared destined for another year without success.
In the club‘s 26th season, it has made the finals eight times, twice finishing runners up.
Success has been even more elusive in the last few years with the club making the finals just once since 2012.
It appeared this season was heading the same way as no one expected the club to make any waves being away from home, away from family and in the uncertain world brought on by COVID-19.
The club even sacked head coach Stephen Kearney, an act that was widely slammed across the competition, having two wins and four losses by round six.
But after getting towelled up by the Melbourne Storm 50-6 in Round 7, a weird thing happened — the Warriors started winning.
Since that time under interim coach Todd Payten, the Warriors have won five and lost four including four wins in the past five matches to sit four points behind the Cronulla Sharks leading into Round 17.
A win against the Parramatta Eels today will have them two points shy of the Sharks with next week’s clash between the teams potentially deciding their fate.
Finals or not, the Warriors have done something miraculous in 2020, overcoming more obstacles than arguably any other team in rugby league history.
The Warriors were hit hard from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, immediately needed to decide on setting up a permanent settlement in Australia.
After committing to staying in Australia, the NRL had nothing but respect for the Warriors.
But it wasn‘t long before the game was shutdown after Round 2.
It allowed the team to return home and kicked off one of the biggest logistic challenges in rugby league history as the competition raced to get the game back on the field.
Despite criticising the NRL for a lack of communication as the club decided whether it would return to Australia or sit out the remainder of the season, the Warriors took a leap to return to Australia, unsure if or when their families would join them.
The Warriors landed back in Australia on May 3, now over four months ago.
Before the Warriors even left, a picture of New Zealand star Adam Blair hugging his youngest son Taika as he prepared to head to Australia was the picture that showed the real cost of the sacrifice the team was making.
It’s just scratching the surface.
While some players including Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu’a and Agnatius Paasi have left to return home, much of the squad have stayed with loan players helping fill out the squad.
After beating the Tigers 26-20 in late July, coach Todd Payten paid special tribute to captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
“I feel for Roger, I think he‘s doing a tremendous job. To be fair, he’s doing it tougher than all of us,” Payten said.
“He‘s the only Kiwi over here without his family and he’s got two babies under three. He‘s a personable kid. In Auckland, he doesn’t go out a lot. He lives on the edge of town. Home is his sanctuary, he‘s on his farm and likes to be home with his family.
“His numbers are good every week and I‘m just proud that he’s doing what he’s doing. I know he‘s not content, he’s not satisfied – he’s a little bit muddled with his feelings. Some days I can see the burden that he carries on his shoulders.
“He‘s always on his phone – it’s tough for him. He’s got to lead the club, lead a footy team.”
Payten said he had brought his family over and “it had been a weight off my shoulders”.
But Tuivasa-Sheck, assistant coaches Stacey Jones and Tony Iro and a host of other Warriors staff are also without their families.
Late last month, Tuivasa-Sheck was only able to watch his young son, who was born in October last year, start crawling for the first time through a mobile phone.
“Oh man, I think about going home all the time, especially when I‘m watching a milestone like that on my phone,” Tuivasa-Sheck has told NRL.com of watching his youngest child crawl for the first time.
“Just (the idea of) being with my kids and being with my partner.
“I‘m pretty lucky. My partner, she’s a tough girl. She’s got her parents and my siblings back home helping out. If she wasn’t then it’d be a different story.
“I‘m proud that I’m here, and my family is too, sticking it out for the club. The way we’re playing and growing as a team, it makes it worth it. You know you‘re doing it for the right reasons, it makes the weeks go a lot easier.”
The Warriors have had a hand in most of the biggest stories of the season, appearing to be the harbingers of disaster for struggling sides.
Upon the restart of the season, the side beat St George Illawarra 18-0, piling more pressure on the Dragons and its under-fire coach.
Then, the Warriors blindsided the NRL by sacking Stephen Kearney after a 40-12 loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The following week, the Warriors were pounded 50-6 by the Melbourne Storm in interim coach Todd Payten’s inauspicious start as a first grade coach.
But soon the tide started to turn. A win over the hapless Brisbane Broncos at their lowest point led to tight contest with the Round 12 win over the Tigers starting a run of four wins in five matches leading to round 17, where the side will play the Parramatta Eels to keep the finals dream alive.
In a season where the Warriors’ very presence was newsworthy in itself, the side also found itself in the middle of some of the biggest news stories of the year.
The coaching merry-go-round saw the Warriors offer Payten the job full-time, only for the interim coach to turn it down.
“I had a job interview 10 to 14 days ago. It went well. I’d been offered the job last Monday and I told the club I’m going to turn it down,” Payten said, dropping the major bombshell on Fox League’s NRL 360. “It just wasn‘t the right opportunity for myself and my family.
“It’s not an easy decision, something I agonised over for a few days but in the end, it was the first time I’ve put my family first in the decision. It just wasn’t the right timing.”
He also revealed he wanted to return to Australia as his father-in-law had been undergoing chemotherapy. Payten was ultimately signed as head coach of the North Queensland Cowboys following his side’s 36-6 win over Newcastle last weekend, its first win over a top eight side this year.
It led to the side signing Nathan Brown as head coach, while Phil Gould was hired in order to establish a development program similar to the one that’s been so successful for the Penrith Panthers.
GETTING TO THE END OF THE TUNNEL
Heading into the clash with the Eels, the NZ Herald reported that the 20 healthy players the team have all been named for the Central Coast clash with injuries mounting despite the finals seemingly now in the Warriors’ grasp.
“There are limited things we can do in terms of preparation. All teams enjoy that 13 v 13 … at the moment we‘re going edge v edge which can prove challenging, in terms of getting the detail around some of the shapes and sequences that teams will throw at you.
“We have scaled back training in terms of load and total distance pretty significantly in the past two weeks. As far as contact we have manipulated that in a way that they‘re not doing consecutive tackles in high numbers.
“Beforehand we might start at one end of the field and roll across the park and they might make 15 tackles or more in an eight v eight-type scenario. At the moment we‘re going four v four, and going two to three tackles tops.”
Payten admitted he’d never seen a team so depleted before.
And yet they keep winning.
With the disaster 2020 has been so far, could it be too much to hope for a fairytale?