Experienced Ben Matulino makes his return from injury when the Vodafone Warriors take on Parramatta in their third consecutive home game at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday (7.30pm kick-off; match day sponsor: TNT).
The 18th-round ‘Back in Black’ match will be the 25-year-old Matulino’s 144th career outing after missing the last two victories against Brisbane (19-10) and Penrith (30-20) following minor knee surgery.
The ‘Back in Black’ theme marks the Vodafone Warriors’ return to their official black strip which they have previously worn this year only in their ‘home’ game against Wests Tigers in Wellington and away against St George Illawarra.
The tripleheader programme kicks off with the NYC’s seventh-placed Vodafone Junior Warriors facing the Eels at 3.10pm, followed by the New South Wales Cup clash between the sixth-placed Vodafone Warriors and Wentworthville at 5.10pm.
Matulino, whose last appearance was in the second row against South Sydney in Perth on June 7, has been named on the bench. The only change to the starting line-up sees prop Suaia Matagi replacing veteran Sam Rapira (back injury).
“Ben’s return is right on schedule,” said Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden.
“He had some cartilage trouble (in his right knee) but it’s been sorted and he’s ready to go again this week having missed just the two games.”
Matulino’s return leaves him on target to make his 150th appearance this year; he would be the 10th to achieve the feat for the club.
Reaching the 50-game milestone on Saturday night is 22-year-old centre Konrad Hurrell, who boasts 33 tries in 49 games so far. He has scored four tries in the club’s three games at Mount Smart Stadium so far this season.
With a double against Penrith, Hurrell has eight in 12 games this season, two behind Manu Vatuvei. Vatuvei – with 128 career tries – goes into Saturday’s game having scored 10 tries or more in each of the last nine NRL seasons; he is only the second player in the competition’s history to achieve the feat behind North Sydney and Manly winger Ken Irvine who scored a record 212 tries.
Vatuvei plays his 186th NRL match on Saturday, moving into outright fourth on the club’s list of all-time appearances; only Stacey Jones (261), Simon Mannering (203) and Logan Swann (195) are ahead of the giant winger.
Mannering is also close to another milestone. His five tries in his last five games – he has six in all this season – have him sitting on 49 career tries; only Vatuvei (128), Jones (77), Francis Meli (60), Lance Hohaia (57), Clinton Toopi (57) and Jerome Ropati (54) have topped 50 for the club.
The Vodafone Warriors begin the final nine-game phase of their regular season campaign sitting inside the NRL’s top eight on 20 points, only four points behind the top three sides Penrith, Manly and Canterbury-Bankstown.
The competition is the most congested it has been at this stage of the season since the Vodafone Warriors made their debut in 1995. Only four points separates the top 10 sides and 12 points covers the entire field.
The Vodafone Warriors and the Eels are level on points but the Vodafone Warriors have a points for and against record on plus 22, the Eels minus 34. While the Vodafone Warriors have won their last two matches and six of their last eight, Parramatta has lost its last two matches and lost four of its last eight.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v PARRAMATTA EELS
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
7.30pm, Saturday, July 12
1 SAM TOMKINS
2 DAVID FUSITU’A
3 KONRAD HURRELL
4 DANE NIELSEN
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 CHAD TOWNSEND
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 JACOB LILLYMAN
9 NATHAN FRIEND
10 SUAIA MATAGI
11 JAYSON BUKUYA
12 SIMON MANNERING (c)
13 SEBASTINE IKAHIHIFO
14 FELETI MATEO
15 BEN MATULINO
16 BEN HENRY
17 CHARLIE-PAUL GUBB
18 RAYMOND FAITALA-MARINER
HEAD COACH: ANDREW McFADDEN