Manu Vatuvei’s return from a month-long injury lay-off not only comes at a critical time in the Vodafone Warriors’ 2016 campaign but it also coincides with the NRL’s longest trip all the way from Auckland to Perth.
It adds another dimension to his latest comeback in a contest when he will combine with fellow beast-like wing Ken Maumalo and fullback David Fusitu’a to form quite likely the biggest back three the NRL has seen.
The 30-year-old try-scoring record holder is certainly familiar with the 5340km, seven-and-a-half-hour flight to Western Australia.
He first made the trip as a 19-year-old in 2005 when the Vodafone Warriors took on the Cronulla Sharks at the ground now known as nib Stadium, where they’ll meet Manly in this Saturday’s 19th-round clash (3.30pm kick-off local time; 7.30pm NZT).’
And today (Thursday) he flies out with the team for the fifth consecutive year following hauls to Perth for games against Manly in 2012 and then South Sydney in 2013, 2014 and 2015; while he travelled in 2013, a shin injury ultimately forced him out of the side.
‘The Beast’ has had a disrupted season with injury and unavailability restricting him to just seven games so far and, in three of those games, he was forced off the field early. A rib injury limited him to 44 minutes in the second-round match against Brisbane with hamstring issues forcing him off in the 66th minute of the away win over the Sydney Roosters and in the 49th minute of the big win over the Knights in Newcastle.
Vatuvei’s value is underlined by the fact he has still averaged 110 metres a match despite being limited to 69 minutes a game. Tasked with making so many demanding runs out of defence it’s a further measure of his effectiveness that he’s averaging close to 10 metres a run, not to mention giving his side the benefit of consistently fast play the balls as well as attracting so many defenders every carry.
He’s tantalisingly close to another major achievement as he eyes this week’s contest needing just one more try to become only the 11th player since the competition began in 1908 to score 150 career tries.
Across his career Vatuvei has also maintained an outstanding strike rate, more so since he truly established himself in 2006. Now in his 13th NRL season, his try-scoring rate has been at its best in the second half of his career with 90 tries in his last 123 games since the start of the 2010 season.
Overall he averages a try every 1.45 games but since 2010 that rate is down to a try every 1.37 games and that despite the Vodafone Warriors having struggling seasons in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 when they failed to make the finals.
His overall career strike is close to the best in the game today but Vatuvei’s sole objective on Saturday will be his overall contribution to the side, getting the sets started and doing it in combination with two other strong returners of the ball in Fusitu’a and Maumalo (the first time they’ve been together in the back three).
It’s the first since last August that Vatuvei and Maumalo have been paired on the wings. Ironically the first time was when the Vodafone Warriors were last in Perth taking on the Rabbitohs last season.