Vodafone Junior Warriors coach Stacey Jones has been forced to make four line-up changes for tonight’s NYC preliminary final against Parramatta at ANZ Stadium (5.15pm kick-off local time, 7.15pm NZT).
Jones originally named the same side which had earned the club victories in the first two play-offs against the Sydney Roosters and Newcastle.
But he has lost three of his established starting combination which has resulted in four changes on a day when the Vodafone Junior Warriors are within 80 minutes of their second straight grand final and the club’s fourth in five years.
Fullback Brad Abbey made good progress from a hip pointer injury but hasn’t fully recovered to be able to play and experienced winger Metia Lisati has been ruled out after picking up a hamstring strain at training. Also unavailable is second rower Marata Niukore following a family bereavement.
Their absences see 17-year-old Ata Hingano returning from an injury lay-off to start at standoff, Paul Ulberg coming back on the right wing and Michael Ki in the second row.
Moving to fullback to replace Abbey is Tuimoala Lolohea, who was due to start in the halves; along with David Fusitu’a, Lolohea has the distinction of playing for the club’s NRL, New South Wales Cup and NYC teams this year.
Abbey’s run of consecutive appearances has ended at 26. The team’s top try-scorer had been the only squad member used in every game so far this season.
Hingano impressed in 15 matches earlier in his rookie season, Ulberg had six tries in his first 12 appearances this year and Ki will make his 17th appearance in a season in which he has also played for the club’s NSW Cup side.
This match is the 19th play-off in the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ history. The only club to make the finals in each of the competition’s seven seasons, the record shows 13 wins so far including two grand final victories.
Jones expects this to be his side’s sternest challenge to date. The Eels trounced the Vodafone Junior Warriors 50-24 in the opening round of the season and then completed the double with a last-minute 22-19 win at Mount Smart Stadium.
Co-captains Mason Lino and Sam Lisone will stay on track for major milestones if the team succeeds today. Victory would give Lisone the opportunity to make his 50th NYC appearance in the grand final while Lino has two points-scoring marks in his sights; he needs 11 more points to reach 200 in an NYC season for the first times and he is 20 points short of 500 for his career. In this his third and final NYC season he has become the second highest points-scorer in the competition’s history.
Live coverage of the match starts on SKY Sport 2 at 5.00pm.
(3) NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS v (8) VODAFONE JUNIOR WARRIORS
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
5.15pm, Saturday, September 27
Referees: Chris Butler and Jon Stone
VODAFONE JUNIOR WARRIORS
6 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA
2 NGATAUA HUKATAI
3 NATHANIEL ROACHE
4 SOLOMONE KATA
23 PAUL ULBERG
18 MAFOA’AEATA HINGANO
7 MASON LINO (c)
8 SAM LISONE (c)
9 KURT ROBINSON
10 KOUMA SAMSON
22 MICHAEL KI
12 ADAM TUIMAVAVE-GERRARD
13 JAZZ TEVAGA
14 JAMES BELL
15 TOAFOFOA SIPLEY
16 KEN MAUMALO
17 IULIO AFOA
COACH: STACEY JONES
Live coverage starts on SKY Sport 2 at 7.00pm.