Blockbusting centre Solomone Kata and first-choice hooker Issac Luke will return to action for the Vodafone Warriors in Friday night’s round 19 clash with the Penrith Panthers at the temporarily renamed “Manu Vatuvei Stadium”.
Luke missed his side’s round 17 loss to the Sea Eagles in Perth with a shoulder injury while Kata is back after a two-game absence following the death of his brother in Tonga.
With veteran back-rower Ryan Hoffman sidelined due to a foot complaint, Bunty Afoa will once again start in the second-row.
“It’s certainly been a tough time for Solomone and his family and our thoughts and prayers go out to them,” Vodafone Warriors coach Stephen Kearney said.
“We are really happy to have him back and I know he’s very keen to play.
“Issac’s shoulder has healed well and he’s ready to rip in too.”
Sam Lisone, who missed the Sea Eagles game due to a family engagement, will return on an extended bench which includes Ata Hingano, Ligi Sao, James Gavet, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Chris Satae, Jazz Tevaga and Mason Lino.
In other team news, departing Vodafone Warriors legend Manu Vatuvei has been named in the No 5 jersey for the final time.
The iconic winger confirmed on Monday his exit from the Vodafone Warriors after signing with Salford in the English Super League.
He leaves New Zealand on Sunday but will be farewelled in style by Vodafone Warriors fans on Friday night.
Vatuvei’s new contract precludes him from being able to play against the Panthers. But Kearney has honoured him all the same by naming “The Beast” in the No 5 jersey he made his own in 226 games for the club.
The NRL has also given the Vodafone Warriors special dispensation to include Vatuvei on the team list, although Ken Maumalo, in jersey No 21, will actually start.
“While Manu isn’t contractually able to play for us on Friday night, I really wanted to honour him by including him in our team list,” Kearney said.
“He’s one of the club’s greatest players and we are really looking forward to giving him a fitting send-off on Friday night.
“He won’t play but he’ll certainly run down the tunnel before kick off one last time.”
Among the festivities planned for Vatuvei’s farewell, the Vodafone Warriors will be giving out inflatable hands at the gates and in the membership clubrooms as a tribute to “The Beast’s” signature try-scoring celebration.
Members are also being encouraged to check in at the membership clubrooms where a small number of limited edition Vatuvei posters will be available on a first in, first served basis.
Vatuvei’s teammates, meanwhile, will have his name, Vodafone Warrior number and signature embroidered into their playing jerseys. They will warm up in special Canterbury tees with Vatuvei #115 on the back.
Before kick off, Vatuvei will also walk onto the field he’s graced for more than a decade one last time.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v PENRITH PANTHERS
Manu Vatuvei Stadium, Auckland
8.00pm (NZT), Friday, July 14
1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c)
2 David Fusitu’a
3 Blake Ayshford
4 Solomone Kata
5 Manu Vatuvei*
6 Kieran Foran
7 Shaun Johnson
8 Jacob Lillyman
9 Issac Luke
10 Ben Matulino
11 Bodene Thompson
12 Bunty Afoa
13 Simon Mannering
14 Mafoa’aeata Hingano
15 Sam Lisone
16 James Gavet
17 Ligi Sao
18 Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
20 Chris Satae
21 Ken Maumalo
22 Jazz Tevaga
24 Mason Lino
*Manu Vatuvei’s selection is honorary only. please note he will not play against the Panthers. Ken Maumalo will start on the left wing in jersey no 21.