It’s been one hell of a year for Warriors chairman Rob Croot. He talked to Michael Burgess about the Warriors current reality.
The Warriors remain hopeful of staging at least one game in New Zealand in 2021, but admit the most likely prospect is that they will see out the season based across the Tasman.
While the club are desperate to return to Mt Smart – both to reconnect with their fan base and re-establish themselves in the commercial market here – there are limited practical options on the table, given the ongoing uncertainty around the border situation.
News of the impending transtasman bubble (April 19) has been welcomed, but the volatile nature of the Covid-19 virus means that not too much has changed in terms of relocating the NRL team to Auckland.
“At the moment I would see considerable risk with it,” Warriors chairman Rob Croot told the Herald. “It’s a nice first step but it’s difficult to have the confidence that the borders are going to stay open.”
The Government offered no guarantees during their bubble announcement last Wednesday, saying that any plans would be made at travellers’ own risk. That kind of gamble might be fine for a family trip, but not a professional sports franchise.
“If we can’t go in and out free flow, we can’t base ourselves here, because essentially the competition would fall over if they can’t produce the games each weekend that they are contracted to broadcast,” explained Croot.
“There’s nothing I can see in the short term that would suggest that we’re going to have that free flow across the border regardless of community spread or outbreak, and we’ve got to have that security.
“Anything less puts our position of being able to play week in and week out in jeopardy. So, the reality is, what we are expecting, is we will see out the season based in Australia.”
That’s not the preferred option, and the club will explore all avenues in the next two months, before they have to make the final stay/go call.
“We are committed to getting back here and we’ll leave the door open as long as we can,” says Croot. “We are a New Zealand club. We’ve been away all of last season. We want every opportunity to be playing in front of our fans here. So, if we can do it, I can tell you we will.
“But there’s a lot that would need to go right and come together for us and the NRL to have the confidence to say ‘Okay boys, get on a plane, you are all good’.”
If relocation is impossible, the Warriors are exploring the option of a one-off Mt Smart match before the end of the season.
“There’s potential for that, where both teams fly in and fly out,” says Croot. “We are keen to look at that but need a huge amount of support, from protocols, to being able to have a good level of assurance that we can get in and out without border restrictions if we were to choose that path.”
The Warriors are tentatively scheduled to return home after the round 15 game on June 19 versus the Knights, but Croot says the fluidity of the situation is understood by the squad.
“We discussed fairly openly with the team and management that the commitment for us going over [this season] needed to be on the basis that there was a possibility that we would be there for the season.
“At the moment the feedback I’ve got is that the team are happy with what’s going on. They’re happy to be in camp, and they’re happy to commit to the season if that’s what’s required.”
Ask Croot about the last 12 months and you’ll get a carefully worded response – followed by a laugh. He tends to accentuate the positive, but it’s been a hell of a year.
Just six months after Autex Industries – where Croot is managing director – had gained sole ownership of the Warriors, Covid-19 hit, leading to the unprecedented border closure, then the NRL competition suspension and restart.
As well as navigating Autex, which has significant offshore operations, through their own challenges, Croot had to find a way to keep the NRL club way afloat and alive despite the massive disruptions.
“You’re talking at the moment, millions of dollars of financial effect on our organisation,” says Croot of the Covid-19 impact on the Warriors.”It’s not tens of millions, obviously, but it’s certainly a few million. We’re not in a hole that we can’t get out of but it’s certainly not comfortable.”
In that light, Croot is particularly grateful to the Warriors’ commercial partners.
“We’ve retained all of our sponsors,” says Croot. “Nobody’s left us because we’re away, which has been incredibly humbling, considering what they can’t have access to.
“There’s a lot of love for the Warriors but commercial arrangements are commercially driven. Love will take you so far but if you’re not delivering, it’s pretty hard to be asking for the money.”
The Warriors were always big on community engagement – one of the most proactive in the NRL – but have virtually disappeared, with only a skeleton staff based in Auckland and the players living offshore.
The roadshows, school visits and endless promotions are a thing of the past, but Croot is confident their fanbase remains strong.
“When we come back we’ll fill the stadium, there’s no doubt about that,” says Croot. “We have the loyalty of our fans behind us. I don’t have too many issues about getting crowds back at Mount Smart and getting that same fanfare behind our home games.
“It’s more the commercial infrastructure behind the club that’s probably going to take a bigger dent. If we are away for the rest of the season, that’s two full seasons away from home. That’s a big chunk out of anybody’s organisation.”
Looking further ahead, the club are progressing with their bid to stage an expanded number of matches in New Zealand next year, contingent on rivals trading their hosting rights.
“There’s been a few clubs that have been willing to stand up and say, yeah we’ll back that,” says Croot. “Obviously, financially, it needs to make sense and there’s a bit of work going into that but we’re trying everything to give back to New Zealand and make sure we’re seen as a national team.
“It’s not easy but it’s not impossible and there’s a lot of different ways that you can cut it. There is a return likely out of sponsoring those games and we will certainly need partners as we can’t stump up for every game.”
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