Rugby league legend Ruben Wiki has been named to captain a Vodafone Warriors side laced with experience for the Downer NRL Auckland Nines at Eden Park on February 4 and 5.
Wiki’s comeback for the fourth edition of the event was revealed just two days before his 44th birthday and today Vodafone Warriors head coach Stephen Kearney added further lustre to the former Kiwi captain’s comeback.
Wiki, who finished his NRL career in 2008, will lead a Vodafone Warriors squad studded with Nines experience while also featuring a collection of the club’s young players.
The experience is provided by Shaun Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Tuimoala Lolohea, Solomone Kata and Blake Ayshford who have played in each of the previous three NRL Nines tournaments. Wiki was in the Kiwis’ title-winning side at the World Nines in 1996 and 1997.
“I’m still buzzing about having the chance to play the Nines and now being asked to be captain as well takes it to another level,” said Wiki.
“It was humbling to be selected in the first place. To be leading the boys at Eden Park will be one of the highlights of my career.”
Kearney said Wiki’s appointment added another dimension to the occasion.
“The Nines is such an exciting event as it is and having Rubes there just adds to it,” he said.
“Having selected him to make his comeback it was natural to make him captain.
“He’s a leader whatever he does and has so much mana. I can’t wait to see him running out with the lads next week and I’m sure everyone else feels the same.”
Also in the squad are wing Matt Allwood and front rower James Gavet – who have both played in the Nines previously – plus 2016 NRL rookies Jazz Tevaga, Ata Hingano, Bunty Afoa and Toafofoa Sipley. Hingano (19) was in the club’s 2016 Nines squad.
The remaining players are 2016 Intrust Super Premiership regulars Mason Lino and James Bell along with Junior Pauga (20), Lewis Soosemea (18), Ofahiki Ogden (20) and Isaiah Papalii (18); the last four were all frontline NYC players last year with Papalii and Soosemea still NYC-eligible this year.
“We have a core of players with a lot of NRL experience as well as a good knowledge of Nines football,” said Kearney.
“We’ve also rewarded a lot of younger players for the way they’ve trained throughout the offseason.”
The Vodafone Warriors reached the final last year only to lose to Parramatta, which was later stripped of the title due to salary cap breaches.
The Wiki-captained side has been drawn in Pool Piha alongside Manly, Parramatta and St George Illawarra. The Vodafone Warriors open their campaign against the Sea Eagles at 1.15pm on Saturday, February 4 before facing the Eels at 5.10pm. Their last pool match against the Dragons kicks off at 11.50am on Sunday, February 5.
The full squad will visit the Mount Albert Rugby League club at Fowlds Park in Auckland next Thursday (February 2) where they’ll be involved in a signing session and other activities from 5.00pm-7.00pm. The North Queensland Cowboys – including Johnathan Thurston – will also be at Fowlds Park with the Vodafone Warriors.
All 16 teams will make appearances at the annual fan day at Aotea Square next Friday (February 3). The Vodafone Warriors are scheduled to be there at 3.00pm.
VODAFONE WARRIORS | 2017 DOWNER NRL AUCKLAND NINES
1 Ryan Hoffman
2 Junior Pauga*
3 Matt Allwood
4 Blake Ayshford
5 Ata Hingano
6 Solomone Kata
7 Shaun Johnson
8 Ruben Wiki (c)*
9 Mason Lino*
10 Bunty Afoa*
11 James Gavet
12 Tuimoala Lolohea
13 Jazz Tevaga*
14 Ofahiki Ogden*
15 Lewis Soosemea*
16 Toafofoa Sipley*
17 Isaiah Papalii*
18 James Bell*
- Asterisk denotes players making NRL Nines debut