Five players are in line to make their Vodafone Warriors debuts in Saturday’s NRL season-opening clash against the Newcastle Knights at Hunter Stadium (4.30pm kick-off local time; 6.30pm NZT).
Head coach Andrew McFadden has named experienced recruits Bodene Thompson and Ryan Hoffman to start in the second row in their first appearances for their new club with captain Simon Mannering moving to loose forward.
Solomone Kata has been confirmed to make his NRL debut in the centres playing on the left edge alongside the club’s try-scoring record holder Manu Vatuvei, who is heading into his 12th campaign in the Vodafone Warriors’ 20th anniversary season.
Named on an extended bench are young props Sam Lisone and Albert Vete who, like Kata, are products of the club’s NYC system; Kata and Lisone were both in the premiership-winning Vodafone Junior Warriors side last year.
If all five players make the final side, they’ll take the club’s number of NRL players up to 197 since the Auckland Warriors made their debut appearance on March 10, 1995.
“Ryan and Bodene have made a huge impact since joining us early in the New Year,” said McFadden.
“They bring so much to the squad in terms of not just their ability but their attitude and work ethic. They certainly have all the qualities we want to see across the board in our club.
“Solomone, Sam and Albert have also made a big impression with their work in the offseason and their efforts in the trials. They’ve really earned their selection.”
Returning to the side after three NRL appearances last year is Tuimoala Lolohea, who has been named on the right wing teaming up with explosive centre Konrad Hurrell. Lolohea was also in the club’s grand final-winning NYC side last year.
Veteran utility Thomas Leuluai will start at hooker with Nathan Friend on the bench. The 34-year-old Friend is only three games away from his 200th career appearance.
The Newcastle clash is the first of back-to-back away games for the Vodafone Warriors to kick off their 21st campaign. On Sunday week they’re in Canberra to take on the Raiders before having consecutive home games at Mount Smart Stadium against Parramatta (5.00pm, March 21) and Brisbane (2.00pm, March 29).
“It’s a tough start to the season but for us it’s all about preparing well and being in a position to produce the level of performance we expect of ourselves,” said McFadden.
“The players are getting restless, as they always do at this time of the year. They just want to get out there and play. They’ve worked hard, really hard, the trials are over and now it’s time to put everything we’re striving for to the test.”
While Friend is nearing a major milestone so too are Hoffman and Vatuvei. Hoffman is five games short of his 250th NRL appearance while Vatuvei is six away from becoming only the third player to appear in 200 NRL matches for the Vodafone Warriors.
After winning only two of their first 14 clashes against the Knights, the Vodafone Warriors have experienced a greater level of success since winning 13 of the last 18 encounters between the two sides.
The last one at Hunter Stadium ended disappointingly, though, when they lost 22-28 last year, a result that seriously dented their top eight plans. The overall record in 32 games shows the Vodafone Warriors winning 15 times with one draw and 16 losses.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS
Hunter Stadium, Newcastle
4.30pm, Saturday, March 07
1 SAM TOMKINS
2 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA
3 KONRAD HURRELL
4 SOLOMONE KATA
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 CHAD TOWNSEND
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 JACOB LILLYMAN
9 THOMAS LEULUAI
10 BEN MATULINO
11 BODENE THOMPSON
12 RYAN HOFFMAN
13 SIMON MANNERING (c)
14 NATHAN FRIEND
15 BEN HENRY
16 SAM LISONE
17 ALBERT VETE
18 SUAIA MATAGI
HEAD COACH: ANDREW McFADDEN