Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden has made several line-up changes for Sunday’s 23rd-round NRL encounter with the Knights at Hunter Stadium in Newcastle (2.00pm kick-off local time; 4.00pm NZT).
As foreshadowed experienced halfback Shaun Johnson returns for his 80th NRL appearance after missing the last three matches with a groin injury.
Two other backline changes were forced with Dane Nielsen (concussion) and Tuimoala Lolohea (hamstring) both ruled out this week. They left the field in last Sunday’s 16-12 win over Cronulla, a result which has pushed the Vodafone Warriors up to sixth on the ladder with four rounds left in the regular season.
With first-choice centre Konrad Hurrell still unavailable with a hamstring strain, McFadden has brought valuable utility Ben Henry into the starting line-up while rookie David Fusitu’a returns on the right wing for his 12th appearance; he has been out with a groin injury since the 22-28 loss to Brisbane on July 19.
There are also four changes to the starting forward pack.
The most notable sees Thomas Leuluai named to start at hooker for the first time in what will be his ninth game this season and his fifth since returning from a three-month lay-off with his groin problem. Nathan Friend goes to the bench.
Returning in the second row is Jayson Bukuya, who was 18th man against the Sharks last week, with Ben Matulino his starting second row partner. Captain Simon Mannering switches to loose forward. Friend is joined on an extended interchange by Feleti Mateo, Sam Rapira, Sione Lousi, Sebastine Ikahihifo and Dominique Peyroux.
“Shaun was close to being right last week. We could have played him but didn’t want to risk it,” said McFadden.
“It’s great to have him back. He’s obviously important to our team.
“With Konrad and Dane both out, Ben (Henry) is a natural choice in the centres and David (Fusitu’a) has another chance after missing a few games.
“We’ve made some other changes as well in a bid to lift our performance. It wasn’t at the level we expect of ourselves against Cronulla. That effort was really disappointing but at least we came away from it with the two points.”
In Newcastle, the Vodafone Warriors face another side sitting well down the table in 14th place on 18 points after what has been a challenging season for the club.
Despite that the Knights have had two outstanding victories in their last two homes games beating the defending premiers the Sydney Roosters 16-12 and last week coming back from the clouds with two tries in the last two minutes to beat the formidable Melbourne Storm 32-30; that win came on the back of a 10-50 loss to South Sydney the previous week.
The Vodafone Warriors have an impressive record against the Knights having won seven of the last eight clashes between the two sides and 13 of 17 stretching back to 2005. They’ve also won five of the last seven encounters at Hunter Stadium but this is their first trip to Newcastle since 2011.
The teams met in the first match back at Mount Smart Stadium on June 1 when the Vodafone Warriors marked Mannering’s 200th appearance and his 100th as captain with a 38-18 win.
Matulino plays his 149th NRL match on Sunday leaving him in line to play his 150th game when the Vodafone Warriors host the Sydney Roosters on August 24.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
Hunter Stadium, Newcastle
4.00pm, Sunday, August 17
1 SAM TOMKINS
2 DAVID FUSITU’A
3 NGANI LAUMAPE
4 BEN HENRY
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 CHAD TOWNSEND
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 JACOB LILLYMAN
9 THOMAS LEULUAI
10 SUAIA MATAGI
11 BEN MATULINO
12 JAYSON BUKUYA
13 SIMON MANNERING (c)
14 FELETI MATEO
15 SAM RAPIRA
16 SIONE LOUSI
17 NATHAN FRIEND
18 SEBASTINE IKAHIHIFO
21 DOMINIQUE PEYROUX
HEAD COACH: ANDREW McFADDEN