On the morning of the day the Warriors would beat the Newcastle Knights, a plane load of rowdy league fans piled on to Air NZ flight 1204 - ‘The Wahs Express’.
I was one of them, and I soon found there was a lot to learn from such an experience.
Everything I learnt while on 'The Wahs Express'
'Up The Wahs' are sacred words
Families, fellas, couples, pilots, flight attendants, Air NZ’s CEO and Warriors legend Awen Guttenbiel were all on board, carrying on loads of anxious energy.
However, once the pilot let rip an "Up The Wahs!", it was party time.
Those three magic words were screamed by everyone on the plane, constantly.
If one of the attendants didn’t say it at the end of an announcement, a groan would rush through the plane. Attendants never forgot to say it two times in a row.
Warriors fandom is a fever
Once the giveaways started, things got rowdy. Guttenbeil first announced that whoever “had the most enthusiasm” would get a free Warriors jersey. It was impossible to pick a winner.
There was a guy punching himself in the head (not recommended), parents were yelling and waving their hands and kids were ruining their vocal cords forever. Luckily, there was plenty of merch to go around - the crew had come prepared.
Whenever Guttenbeil drew a seat number out of a hat, the lucky winner would stand up and celebrate, causing the whole plane to roar as if Shaun Johnson had just fooled the defence with a perfectly thrown try assist skip pass to DWZ.
Kiwi league fans have earned it
I had never seen such wild behaviour on a plane. What was it about the Wahs that had people partying in the sky at 10 AM?
I asked Guttenbeil - who helped the Warriors reach the 2002 NRL Grand Final - why the 2023 team, besides their winning ways, has drawn in such a positive reaction from fans.
“The fact we were on a hiatus for a few years,” he answered. “The Warriors have taken their games around the regions this year. It’s just that thing that our team is back - everyone’s brought into it.”
“Obviously winning helps and everyone enjoys the positivity and the stories that have been coming out of the camp this year. They’ve just been extremely uplifting and enlightening and everyone wants something to be a part of that’s positive.”
Even before the win, the fans thought the season was a success
Before the flight, Alice - who became a fan after watching Manu Vatuevei score a hat trick in 2010 - was tapping her foot up and down as she stood by the gate entrance, asking anyone who’d listen if they were also nervous. Everyone was.
The crowd at the airport was like a parent about to watch their child’s first recital. Tense and excited but so unashamed to voice their support.
“Whatever happens from today on doesn’t matter to me,” Alice told me. “I’ve felt so many emotions [watching the team] but I’m super, super proud of the attitude they’ve had this year. Even if they have lost, they’ve just not dwelled on it.”
Air NZ need to run it back
Although the flight landed in Tāmaki Makaurau at 1:30 - four and a half hours before the game - the momentum carried over to the stands at the match.
Although there won't be a plane full of fans flying to Brisbane for the preliminary final, Air NZ said they’re keen to get another Wahs Express going next season. As they should, it obviously works.