NRL 2021: 'It felt surreal': New recruit Dallin Watene-Zelezniak fulfills boyhood dream with NZ Warriors

Since his arrival at the team's base in Terrigal a few days ago, new recruit Dallin Watene-Zelezniak has embraced the little things, as he enters the first stage of life with NZ Warriors.

Last week, former Kiwis captain’s widely rumoured switch to the Auckland NRL side was finally confirmed, as he inked a three-year deal in a mid-season move from Canterbury Bulldogs, who opted not to extend his contract.

For Watene-Zelezniak, one of the highlights so far has been receiving the team kit and proudly donning the colours he'd dreamed of wearing since he was a kid.

"It's been pretty good putting on the Warriors gear," Watene-Zelezniak says with a grin.

"Being born in New Zealand and growing up there a while before I came to Aussie, you'd always follow the Warriors and you'd always hope they'd do well, because they're the only team in the country.

"Being in Aussie, you never really think you have the chance to play for the Warriors, so it's never really in the back of your mind, thinking you're going to pull on that jersey.

"When it did come knocking and the Bulldogs weren't interested in having me anymore, it felt surreal."

With his foot issues behind him, he'll likely pull on that coveted jersey as soon as Friday, when the Warriors take on St George Illawarra Dragons.

Born in Hamilton, Watene-Zeleniak relocated to Australia with his family when he was just five years old, but his connection to New Zealand has always remained deep, founded by great grandfather Steve Watene, who became the first Māori to captain the Kiwis in 1936.

Watene-Zelezniak followed in his footsteps to lead the Kiwis in 2018 and returning to the Warriors seems the ideal opportunity to relocate his young family to New Zealand, and enlighten his wife and soon-to-be three children on his Māori heritage.

"A big [factor] for me was to be able to take my family back to where I grew up, and be able to experience a bit of my culture and where I come from," he says.

"To feel that childhood dream of putting a Warriors jersey on is something I'm really excited about."

Watene-Zelezniak has also answered an SOS from the Warriors, helping fill the void left by departed stalwart Ken Maumalo, while bringing some much-needed versatility to the backline.

While fullback has been his focus in recent seasons, Watene-Zeleniak is happy to play wherever the side needs him, which is certain to be on the wing.

Either way, he's eager to link with the firepower on offer in the Warriors' outside backs - particularly Reece Walsh and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck - while reuniting with centre Euan Aitken, whom he played alongside for NSW at U18 State of Origin.

The prospect of joining forces with Kiwis cohort Shaun Johnson - who has signed a two-year deal for a shock return to the Warriors from 2022 - is another drawcard, as is the chance to mentor some of the young talent at the club.

"The leadership he brings and the spark [Johnson] has... being able to create things. He creates things for himself, but in doing that creates a lot of space out wide.

"That's something I'm really looking forward to. I've always wanted to play alongside Shaun in club football.

"I like being able to have a bit of influence on young boys coming through too, not telling them how to play or how to be, just being myself and hoping they see something.

He's adamant there's no bad blood with the Bulldogs, realising his sudden departure is simply "all part of footy" and the product of a need for change in an under-performming club.

Making his NRL debut as an 18-year-old in 2014, Watene-Zelezniak - who played more than 100 games for Penrith Panthers - seems to have been around the block and back again, but he insists his best years are still to come.

"They say your prime is 27-30… and I train very hard. I really just want to cement a spot and string together some games in one spot.

"The ultimate goal is a Premiership and that's never going to change."

Join us at 8pm Friday for live updates of the NRL clash between NZ Warriors and St George Illwarra Dragons.