Blake Green and James Gavet both return from injury to start in the Vodafone Warriors’ first NRL finals match in seven years when they face the Penrith Panthers in Saturday’s sudden-death play-off at ANZ Stadium (5.30pm kick-off local time; 7.30pm NZT).
Green missed the back-to-back wins over Penrith and Canberra while Gavet was ruled out last week.
Veteran Blake replaces Mason Lino providing the Vodafone Warriors with extensive big-game experience from eight NRL finals appearances since 2008 for Cronulla, Melbourne and Manly as well as title success with Wigan in the English Super League.
Gavet, a finals rookie, replaces Bunty Afoa in a side showing a number of players set to play finals football for the first time this week.
While Green and Gavet return, captain and just-crowned Simon Mannering Medal winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as well as the 300-game man Mannering have been included as they look to recover from injuries picked up in the 20-16 win over the Raiders.
Apart from prop Gavet, others named to line up in the finals for the first time are the NRL’s top try scorer of the year David Fusitu’a, fellow winger Ken Maumalo and centre Solomone Kata plus interchange forwards Jazz Tevaga, Vodafone Warriors 2018 NRL rookie of the year Isaiah Papali’i and Afoa. On the extended bench, Lino, Chris Satae and Karl Lawton also have no finals experience.
At the same time the selected 17 includes several players who have appeared in multiple finals including premiership winners Tuivasa-Sheck, Adam Blair, Tohu Harris and Gerard Beale. Mannering has played 10 finals matches including the 2011 grand final while Issac Luke also has vast finals experience although he missed South Sydney’s 2014 grand final win through suspension.
The Vodafone Warriors head into the play-offs after a seven-year absence to start the club’s eighth finals campaign following previous appearances in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
They finished level on 32 points with four teams in the most congested top eight finish in history with the leading four teams just one win ahead on 34 points.
The Panthers clinched fifth place on points for and against while the Vodafone Warriors were eighth after a season in which they were inside the top eight every week of the regular season en route to a 15-9 win-loss record.
In their two encounters in the regular rounds, Penrith beat the Vodafone Warriors 36-4 at its home ground in July but the Vodafone Warriors avenged the loss with a compelling 36-16 victory to clinch their finals berth at Mount Smart Stadium on August 24.
The rivals have met in the play-offs only once before, the Panthers prevailing 28-20 in the preliminary final in 2003 before claiming the premiership against the Roosters.
In 17 previous finals matches, the Vodafone Warriors have won eight and lost nine while the Panthers have a 13-14 record including two grand final victories in 1991 and 2003.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v PENRITH PANTHERS
5.30pm, Saturday, September 8, 2018
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
1 ROGER TUIVASA-SHECK (c)
2 DAVID FUSITU’A
3 PETA HIKU
4 SOLOMONE KATA
5 KEN MAUMALO
6 BLAKE GREEN
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 JAMES GAVET
9 ISSAC LUKE
10 AGNATIUS PAASI
11 ADAM BLAIR
12 TOHU HARRIS
13 SIMON MANNERING
14 JAZZ TEVAGA
15 ISAIAH PAPALI’I
16 BUNTY AFOA
17 GERARD BEALE
18 LEIVAHA PULU
20 MASON LINO
21 CHRIS SATAE
22 KARL LAWTON
HEAD COACH | STEPHEN KEARNEY