After four seasons of failing to experience post-season football, there’s a shared and desperate desire among everyone connected with the Vodafone Warriors – players, staff, members and fans alike – to see the club back in the NRL’s top eight.
Since reaching the 2011 grand final, the club hasn’t been in the playoffs again despite being in contention at some point in each of the last four campaigns.
The closest was in 2014 when a win over Penrith – or even a close loss – in the final round of the regular season would have sealed a place among the final eight teams. The factors in the misses are too numerous and convoluted to go into now but no one would argue it’s time the pattern changed.
If the trial performance against the Dragons in Nelson on February 20 understandably took some edge off the levels of optimism which had been building, few would disagree the Vodafone Warriors have the means needed this year to advance to the finals for the eighth time since the first in 2001.
In the four years they’ve failed to progress only three teams – Melbourne, Canterbury-Bankstown and South Sydney – have been ever-present in the playoffs while the Sydney Roosters, Brisbane, North Queensland, Cronulla and Manly have missed the finals just once.
The Vodafone Warriors have found themselves in unwanted territory as one of four clubs which have been absent all four seasons (Gold Coast, Parramatta and Wests Tigers being the others).
However, as long as injuries aren’t the dominant influence they were in 2015, then there’s every reason to believe finals football is achievable. Not least is the quality of the squad, which answers the need for depth across all positions.
Experience is certainly in plentiful supply with new captain Ryan Hoffman, previous leader Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei and Jacob Lillyman all boasting 200-plus NRL appearances not to mention significant representative credentials.
Ali Lauitiiti, now back where it all started for him, has more than 400 top-level games combining his NRL and Super League careers while Thomas Leuluai is just a few games short of 300 using the same formula.
New signing Issac Luke is approaching his 200th NRL match, Ben Matulino has topped 170, Jeff Robson has 150-plus and Blake Ayshford, Jonathan Wright, Bodene Thompson and Shaun Johnson are all in the 100-club. Throw in the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Konrad Hurrell, Ben Henry and Sione Lousi plus impressive rookies such as Tuimoala Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Albert Vete and Sam Lisone and the Vodafone Warriors have sufficient troops to call on.
How the squad and the season overall plays out is open to all manner of permutations. That can wait.
What can’t, is the here and now, the opening gambit of the season against Wests Tigers on Saturday at a venue – Campbelltown Stadium – which has been brutal the last two visits; this is also the fourth straight season the Vodafone Warriors have been forced to start away from hime.
Another barrier to be broken down is starting a campaign with a win. That hasn’t been achieved since 2009 (against Parramatta) while the only other previous winning starts were in 2007 (Parramatta), 2002 (Sydney Roosters), 2000 (Melbourne), 1999 (Sydney Roosters) and 1996 (Illawarra); only the 1999 win was achieved away from Mount Smart Stadium.
If the top eight puzzle is to be solved now is the time to buck that trend as well.
FIVE KEY FEATURES
#1 ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK AND ISSAC LUKE | Two of the biggest signings in the club’s history form half of a spine which has the potential to deliver so much to the side this season. Their combination with halves Shaun Johnson and Jeff Robson will be fascinating to watch.
#2 BLAKE AYSHFORD | The tall centre was one of the game’s most promising prospects when he started out with Wests Tigers. He debuts for his new club against his old one known for his defensive qualities, an area the Vodafone Warriors are desperate to improve.
#3 BEN HENRY | No player deserves a change in fortune more than the popular Henry. Wretched luck – two knee reconstructions in two years – has impacted heavily on his plans. He returns for his first game since round four last season.
#4 JAMES GAVET | After playing for three NRL sides in the past four seasons, the punishing Gavet debuts for the Vodafone Warriors five years after first being in the club’s NRL squad in 2010 and 2011. He promises to add plenty of sting to the side coming off the bench.
#5 NATHANIEL ROACHE | The Mount Albert Grammar School product becomes the club’s latest NYC graduate to earn his NYC debut and one of few to do so while still eligible for the under-20 competition. Promises to provide real spark from the interchange bench.
RECORD | v WESTS TIGERS
Overall | Played 25, Vodafone Warriors 13, Wests Tigers 12.
Away | Played 13, Vodafone Warriors 5, Wests Tigers 8.
At Campbelltown Sports Stadium | Played 5, Vodafone Warriors 2, Wests Tigers 3.
Vodafone Warriors debuts | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Blake Ayshford, Jeff Robson, Issac Luke, Nathaniel Roache, James Gavet.
NRL debut | Nathaniel Roache.
Most NRL appearances for Vodafone Warriors | Simon Mannering plays his 237th NRL game (Stacey Jones’ record is 261).
250 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Simon Mannering plays his 237th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors.
200 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Ben Matulino plays his 174th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors.
200 NRL games (overall) | Issac Luke plays his 189th NRL game after appearing in 188 matches for South Sydney.
150 NRL games for Vodafone Warriors | Jacob Lillyman plays his 146th NRL game for the Vodafone Warriors, the 208th of his career including 62 for North Queensland.
150 NRL games (overall) | Blake Ayshford plays his 125th NRL game after appearing in 104 for Wests Tigers and 20 for Cronulla.
100 NRL games (overall) | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck plays his 85th NRL game after appearing in 84 for Sydney Roosters.
50 NRL games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Sione Lousi has played 49 games for the Vodafone Warriors; Tuimoala Lolohea plays his 27th game for the Vodafone Warriors; Solomone Kata plays his 25th game for the Vodafone Warriors.
150 NRL tries | Manu Vatuvei has scored 146 tries in 210 NRL. Only 10 players in history have scored 150 tries in the competition. Vatuvei is 12th on the all-time list, just behind the great Bob Fulton (147). The only current players ahead of him are Billy Slater (172 in 277 games) and Brett Stewart (162 in 222 games).
10 tries or more in a season | Manu Vatuvei has the all-time NRL record having scored 10 tries or more in 10 consecutive seasons from 2006-2015.
600 NRL points | Manu Vatuvei has scored 584 points; Shaun Johnson has scored 542 points.
500 NRL points | Issac Luke has scored 410 points.
50 NRL tries | Shaun Johnson has 45 tries; Konrad Hurrell has 41 tries; Issac Luke has 36 tries; Blake Ayshford has 34 tries; Jonathan Wright has 32 tries; Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has 28 tries.
50 NRL games as NRL coach (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Andrew McFadden coaches the Vodafone Warriors for the 44th time.
250 games at Mount Smart Stadium | 243 (240 regular season games plus three home finals).
2000 tries in the NRL since 1995 | 1913 (1995-2015)
VODAFONE WARRIORS v WESTS TIGERS
Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Sydney
5.30pm, Saturday, March 5
Referees: Ashley Klein and Chris Sutton
1 ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK
2 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA
3 BLAKE AYSHFORD
4 SOLOMONE KATA
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 SHAUN JOHNSON
7 JEFF ROBSON
8 JACOB LILLYMAN
9 ISSAC LUKE
10 BEN MATULINO
11 BEN HENRY
12 RYAN HOFFMAN (c)
13 SIMON MANNERING
14 NATHANIEL ROACHE
15 SAM LISONE
16 JAMES GAVET
17 BODENE THOMPSON
18 JONATHAN WRIGHT
20 ALBERT VETE
HEAD COACH: ANDREW McFADDEN
1 JAMES TEDESCO
2 DAVID NOFOALUMA
3 TIM SIMONA
4 KEVIN NAIQAMA
5 JORDAN RANKIN
6 MITCHELL MOSES
7 JACK LITTLEJOHN
8 AARON WOODS (c)
9 MANAIA CHERRINGTON
10 TIM GRANT
11 CURTIS SIRONEN
12 CHRIS LAWRENCE
13 SAUASO SUE
14 KYLE LOVETT
15 JOSH ALOIAI
16 AVA SEUMANUFAGAI
17 JACK BUCHANAN
18 MICHAEL CHEE KAM
COACH: JASON TAYLOR
BETTING – CHECK OUT ALL THE ODDS WWW.TAB.CO.NZ
Head to head | Wests Tigers $2.80, Vodafone Warriors $1.40
SKY SPORT 2: Live from 7.00pm (kick-off 7.30pm NZT), Saturday, March 5