As a National Favorite Fumbles, New Zealand Falls for Another Rugby Team

The New Zealand fan was despondent. He had just witnessed history in Paris, where rugby’s greatest team, the All Blacks of New Zealand, had suffered its first loss in the group stages of the World Cup. But when asked if he had a message for his compatriots back home, he looked into the TV camera, grinned and cheered: “Up the Wahs.”

That would be a reference to the New Zealand Warriors, long a footnote in this rugby-mad nation’s sporting lore. But in recent weeks, as the All Blacks, the once-mighty national team, have struggled, New Zealanders have found inspiration in the Warriors, a professional outfit.

A rare streak of victories has brought the Warriors within reach of their first title in Australia’s National Rugby League, where they are the only overseas team. Their ascendance stands in stark contrast to the recent fortunes of the All Blacks.

“The All Blacks are performing at a World Cup, and everyone at home is wearing Warriors jerseys,” said Uzair Kalim, a longtime Warriors fan who lives in Auckland. “It’s amazing to see.”

Warrior fans raise “up the Wahs” banners.Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

As Warrior mania has gripped New Zealand, home games at their 25,000-seat stadium in Auckland have consistently sold out. Even casual fans are emblazoning themselves with the team’s tiki mascot, a team dance has gone viral on TikTok, a local brewery has produced and sold an unauthorized tribute beer, and the “up the Wahs” cheer has become a part of everyday conversations, even proclaimed in Parliament by the speaker.

Although both teams technically play rugby, in many ways, they could not be more different. The Warriors play rugby league, a variant of the game that is effectively a different sport than the rugby union played by the All Blacks. They have a much smaller profile, whereas the All Blacks play on an international stage.

The All Blacks sport a monochrome look, while the Warriors wear an eclectic blue kit striped with red, white and green. And the All Blacks perform their famous, ceremonial haka before each match, while the Warriors typically have fans perform it only before big games.

The All Blacks after losing to France in a group stage match at the World Cup in Paris this month.Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In their three-decade existence, the Warriors have not won a single league title. The All Blacks are one of the most successful teams in sports history, with a win record of nearly 80 percent.

But to some fans, the Warriors’ underdog status is the point.

“They’ve endured some harrowing lows, but they have a hold on you,” said Will Evans, the co-host of a fan podcast called “This Warriors Life,” who cried with happiness as the team took to the field at its most recent game. “There’s a sense that you want to be there for the success that seems so tantalizingly close.”

The Warriors have reached the championship game twice before — in 2011 and 2002. They ended last season almost at the bottom of the ladder. The new season brought with it a new coach, Andrew Webster, who came with limited experience in the job. But with his guidance, the skill of key players like captain Tohu Harris, and no small amount of luck, the Warriors now find themselves in the league’s semifinals this weekend.

“It’s one of the great turnarounds,” Mr. Evans said. “It was so amazing that they were there, with the stadium packed out and with that sense of unity. It was euphoric.”

The team has even become a talking point, however small, in national politics ahead of next month’s election. At a recent news conference, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was quizzed over his preferred chant — he chose “up the Wahs” over the less popular “let’s gone Warriors” — and agreed to appear in a video with his main political competitor to nudge the team on.

Warrior players celebrating a score during a match on Saturday.Credit…Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

For many longtime Warriors fans, the sudden support has been disorientating, but gratifying. “Everyone loves an underdog, and the Warriors are a perpetual underdog,” Mr. Kalim said. “I’ve got no problem with it. Welcome to the bandwagon!”

While many fair weather fans and recent converts seem to take for granted that the team will succeed in its quest for its first league title, some veteran supporters have found the cynicism bred by years of losses harder to shake.

“We’re winning, but we don’t trust it,” said “Fonzie,” Mr. Evans’s anonymous co-host. “It always feels like something is going to go wrong and we’ll fall off the wagon.”

Encouraged by the wave of enthusiasm, however, he couldn’t help but be hopeful. “The analyst in me says we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, but all your prior assumptions go out the window on the day.”

As Mr. Kalim put it: “Anything’s possible, right?”

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