By Richard Becht
Experienced Vodafone Warriors utility Thomas Leuluai will make his first appearance of the year in Saturday’s fourth-round NRL game against Wests Tigers at Westpac Stadium in Wellington (5.05pm kick-off; match day sponsor: Vodafone).
After playing every minute of the club’s 24 matches last season, the 28-year-old veteran has been sidelined since picking up a groin injury during the Kiwis’ 2013 Rugby League World Cup campaign last year.
He was close to making a return last week but has now been fully cleared to make his comeback at a ground where he made his NRL debut as a 17-year-old against the Bulldogs in 2003.
He has been named on the interchange bench alongside props Jacob Lillyman and Suaia Matagi and centre Konrad Hurrell, who was used predominantly as a back rower in last Saturday night’s win against North Queensland.
The starting line-up named is unchanged from the one used in the courageous 20-16 win over the Cowboys.
Back rower Feleti Mateo finished the game in Townsville but was ruled out this afternoon with a knee complaint, ending a run of 79 consecutive appearances since joining the Vodafone Warriors in 2011.
“We were hoping Feleti would be clear to play but his knee isn’t quite right,” said Vodafone Warriors head coach Matthew Elliott.
“That’s disappointing but, on the other hand, it’s great having Thomas back.
“He was a really important part of our spine last year. He’s obviously very handy in the halves and also gives us cover at hooker.
“We probably made a mature decision not to play him last week. He’s a fairly useful bench player.”
While Leuluai’s return is significant the match also provides two notable individual milestones with captain Simon Mannering leading the side for a club record 92nd time and former Cronulla and Melbourne centre Dane Nielsen making his 100th NRL appearance.
Mannering equalled Steve Price’s record of 91 games as captain last weekend. He is not only just eight appearances away from 100 games in charge but he’s also just eight short of becoming only the second player to rack up 200 NRL games for the club (after Stacey Jones, who made 261 appearances).
“Simon commands so much respect from everyone in the club,” said Elliott.
“He’s such a high-quality player and leader as well as being a fine person.”
Mannering, in his fifth season as captain and his 10th as an NRL player. will achieve his record in a city which was briefly home for him before he moved to Auckland after signing with the Vodafone Warriors.
Returning home for his second outing as a Vodafone Warrior at Westpac Stadium will be the only genuine Wellington product in the side, prop Ben Matulino who was born and raised in Lower Hutt. He’ll be making his 136th NRL appearance.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v WESTS TIGERS
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
5.00pm, Saturday, March 29
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 SIONE LOUSI
14 JACOB LILLYMAN
15 SUAIA MATAGI
16 KONRAD HURRELL
17 THOMAS LEULUAI
HEAD COACH: MATTHEW ELLIOTT