By Richard Becht
Experienced centre Jerome Ropati and utility Ben Henry have been brought into the Vodafone Warriors’ squad for the first home game of the season against St George Illawarra at Eden Park on Saturday (5.00pm kick-off).
Ropati will line up in the centres while Henry comes onto the bench alongside Jacob Lillyman, Suaia Matagi, Feleti Mateo and Sione Lousi.
The 29-year-old Ropati, now in his 12th NRL season, is edging towards his 150th NRL appearance, this weekend’s match lifting his tally to 143 games.
Returning from injury after playing in the NRL trials against Wigan and Brisbane last month, Ropati will be stationed on the right edge. Like Ropati, Henry spent much of the 2013 season sidelined with injury. He made a successful return from knee surgery last week, being used at standoff and scoring a try for the Vodafone Warriors in their New South Wales Cup games against Wentworthville.
“Jerome has been pushing hard in the trials and at training to get himself ready for a return to the NRL,” said head coach Matthew Elliott.
“He’ll stiffen up our right edge with his experience.
“Ben has come back from a serious knee injury. We rate him really highly and he’s a big part of our club going forward.”
Elliott said the coaching staff and players were determined to produce a vastly improved display against the Dragons on Saturday.
“Our performance against Parramatta wasn’t what any of us saw coming,” he said.
“There was one team out there competing a lot harder physically than we did and that was the most disappointing aspect.
“It’s exciting now, though, for us to go back to Eden Park after being involved in the NRL Nines there last month. We’ve got three games coming up there and can’t wait to play in front of our members and fans.”
The first home game day of the year begins with the Vodafone Warriors facing Illawarra in the New South Wales Cup (12.40pm kick-off). It’s followed by the Vodafone Junior Warriors taking on the Dragons (2.45pm kick-off) and the NRL encounter (5.00pm kick-off).
Saturday’s football feast is the first of four tripleheaders being played in Wellington and Auckland. On Saturday, March 29 the action switches to Westpac Stadium where the Vodafone Warriors meet Wests Tigers. The next two home games are both at Eden Park against Canterbury-Bankstown (Sunday, April 13) and Canberra (Saturday, May 10).
After losing 16-36 to the Eels on Sunday, the Vodafone Warriors face another difficult assignment against a Dragons side buoyed by a 44-24 victory over the Tigers yesterday.
The Dragons have been the Vodafone Warriors’ most difficult opponents throughout the club’s existence. Of the 20 match-ups since the St George Illawarra franchise made its entry into the competition in 1999, the Vodafone Warriors have won only four. The last success was in 2007 with the Dragons winning eight straight since then.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Eden Park, Auckland
5.00pm, Saturday, March 15
1 SAM TOMKINS
2 GLEN FISIIAHI
3 DANE NIELSEN
4 JEROME ROPATI
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 CHAD TOWNSEND
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 SAM RAPIRA
9 NATHAN FRIEND
10 BEN MATULINO
11 JAYSON BUKUYA
12 SIMON MANNERING (c)
13 JOHN PALAVI
14 JACOB LILLYMAN
15 SUAIA MATAGI
16 BEN HENRY
17 FELETI MATEO
20 SIONE LOUSI
HEAD COACH: MATTHEW ELLIOTT