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Warriors set for emotional NRL return home

New Zealand’s most tested fanbase will be rewarded for their loyalty when the Warriors return home to Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday after a hiatus of 1000 days.

Sixteen rounds into the NRL season, the Warriors host Wests Tigers in what is expected to be an emotional homecoming in front of a capacity crowd.

To say the 2022 season has been difficult for the Warriors is an understatement, with various off-field issues including the departure of coach Nathan Brown contributing to a four-win, 11-loss record so far.

Halfback Shaun Johnson says it’s a relief to be back on home soil.

“What’s happened in the past couple of months, none of us wanted,” said Johnson.

“So to come home is really special. Being able to reset and have something to look forward to … excitement is a bit of an understatement so we can’t wait.”

Johnson admitted the team didn’t know how they were going to be received after their up-and-down season, but says the welcome they received since touching down in Auckland has been special.

“People in the shopping centres and wherever we’ve gone have been so excited to have us back,” he said.

“Certainly felt the love already and I know the boys will experience that this weekend.”

There are players in the Warriors squad approaching 50 games for the club who have never been to New Zealand before this week.

The team has been based in Redcliffe, Queensland, since the start of the pandemic and while trans-Tasman travel restrictions have eased this year, the decision was made to stay in Australia until the end of the season.

Warriors CEO Cameron George acknowledged how hard that call proved to be since nobody imagined it would be two and a half years before they could return home.

“To finally get here and have the boys here is certainly an emotional feeling. We’re back and we’re excited … we’ve got to rebuild the game,” said George.

The game against the Tigers comes a week after another huge rugby league match at Mt Smart – NZ hosted Tonga in their first international Test since 2019.

Over 25,000 are expected through the gates on Sunday in what should be a pretty even match-up given the Tigers and Warriors are 14th and 15th on the NRL ladder respectively.

The Warriors were dealt a blow on Friday when star fullback Reece Walsh was ruled out after testing positive for COVID.

Johnson says while the Tigers will be a challenge, it pales in comparison to what the team has had to deal with over the last two years.

“Watching my little one grow up through FaceTime hasn’t been ideal, but we’ve all had our challenges, some boys haven’t been home for two years, some boys are without their families.

“But we’re taking a breath knowing that’s behind us now, so I’m going to rock up to Mt Smart with a smile on my face knowing that I’m going to go home and see my little one afterwards.”

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