Emotion will be running high for a homecoming 1038 days in the making when the Vodafone Warriors host Wests Tigers in front of a sold out Mount Smart Stadium on Sunday.
The Vodafone Warriors faithful will be out in full force to cheer on their side on home turf for the first time since round 24, 2019 after the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the squad and its staff to Australia in an ultimate sacrifice to keep the NRL running.
It's been a lean two-month period for the Vodafone Warriors with a seven-game losing streak not ideal leading into their New Zealand return.
They'll take on a Wests Tigers side who haven't been much better with just one win in their past seven outings.
Both clubs have interim coaches after the departures of Nathan Brown and Michael Maguire on the same day earlier this month. With a rebuild for both clubs under way, neither will want to drop this match on Sunday.
Vodafone Warriors: Fullback Reece Walsh is out after returning a positive Covid test with Chanel Harris-Tavita shifting to fullback and Adam Pompey in the centres. Euan Aitken (concussion) is back on deck and will shift to the backrow with Aaron Pene the new man on the bench. Forwards Jazz Tevaga, Addin Fonua-Blake and Bunty Afoa all got through their international appearances on Saturday.
Wests Tigers: James Tamou (calf strain) is out, replaced by Alex Seyfarth in the starting side. Interim coach Brett Kimmorley has named another debutant - Austin Dias - on the bench after calling in Fonua Pole earlier in the week. James Roberts made a successful return from back surgery two weeks ago in NSW Cup and has been named to play his first NRL game since round six. Stefano Utoikamanu (foot) is also good to go. Fa'amanu Brown has been named to start at hooker with Jacob Liddle going to the reserves.
Match: Warriors v Wests Tigers
Round 16 -
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
Josh Curran v Joe Ofahengaue: Josh Curran played his first 80-minute game in three months last round — chalking up a try and 36 tackles against the Panthers but making just 48 metres with the ball in hand. The Vodafone Warriors will be looking for more go-forward from him this week after shifting to the lock role, where he comes up against arguably the Tigers most in-form forward this year, Joe Ofahengaue. The former Origin international has quietly averaged 114 metres and a 94 percent tackle efficiency rate per game this season, having started every game in the number 13 jersey this year. Closing in on 150 career games, Ofahengaue's ability to link Luke Brooks and Jackson Hastings with new hooker Fa'amanu Brown will be key if the visitors are to spring an upset on Sunday, with the Tigers coming into clash with the second worst attack in the competition. The Vodafone Warriors, on the other hand, have conceded more points than any other team, making Curran's defensive presence in the middle pivotal if they are to keep the visitors at bay.
Both the Vodafone Warriors and Wests Tigers are struggling to bust the line open with 51 line breaks for the season each at an average of 3.4 per game. The Vodafone Warriors sit last with Newcastle in creating line break assist (32) while the Tigers (36) aren't much better in this area.