Inspirational halfback Shaun Johnson is out of the One New Zealand Warriors' week one finals clash against the Penrith Panthers at BlueBet Stadium tomorrow night (4.05pm kick-off local time; 6.05pm NZT).
The club's first play-offs match in five years coincides with Johnson's 33rd birthday but a calf injury picked up in training has forced him to miss the contest.
While he travelled with the team from Auckland to Sydney yesterday he was ruled out of the match soon after landing.
Head coach Andrew Webster said Johnson will be available for the Warriors' next finals match.
An announcement on his replacement in the halves is yet to be announced.
Johnson's absence denies Webster the chance of fielding the club's strongest combination for the first time this season.
Jazz Tevaga, who turned 28 on Monday, brings his energy back on the bench after missing the last three games of the regular season campaign with a hamstring injury picked up in the round 24 win over the Wests Tigers in Hamilton.
It was only his second match back in a season in which the livewire middle forward has been limited to just eight appearances.
Making a delayed start in round three following offseason surgery, he put together a run of six games before a calf injury in the Anzac Day clash against Melbourne sidelined him for more than three months. Of the eight matches he has played in the Warriors have won six.
After being used from the interchange in his last outing against St George Illawarra, second rower Jackson forward returns to the starting line-up with Josh Curran going back to the bench.
Match: Panthers v Warriors
Finals Week 1 -
Fullback for Panthers is number 1 Dylan EdwardsFullback for Warriors is number 1 Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
Winger for Panthers is number 2 Sunia TuruvaWinger for Warriors is number 2 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
Centre for Panthers is number 4 Stephen CrichtonCentre for Warriors is number 3 Rocco Berry
Centre for Panthers is number 21 Luke GarnerCentre for Warriors is number 4 Adam Pompey
Winger for Panthers is number 5 Brian To'oWinger for Warriors is number 5 Marcelo Montoya
Five-Eighth for Panthers is number 6 Jack CoggerFive-Eighth for Warriors is number 14 Dylan Walker
Halfback for Panthers is number 7 Nathan ClearyHalfback for Warriors is number 6 Te Maire Martin
Prop for Panthers is number 8 Moses LeotaProp for Warriors is number 8 Addin Fonua-Blake
Hooker for Panthers is number 9 Mitch KennyHooker for Warriors is number 9 Wayde Egan
Prop for Panthers is number 10 James Fisher-HarrisProp for Warriors is number 10 Mitchell Barnett
2nd Row for Panthers is number 11 Scott Sorensen2nd Row for Warriors is number 11 Jackson Ford
2nd Row for Panthers is number 12 Liam Martin2nd Row for Warriors is number 12 Marata Niukore
Lock for Panthers is number 13 Isaah YeoLock for Warriors is number 13 Tohu Harris
Interchange for Panthers is number 14 Tyrone PeacheyInterchange for Warriors is number 15 Jazz Tevaga
Interchange for Panthers is number 15 Lindsay SmithInterchange for Warriors is number 16 Bayley Sironen
Interchange for Panthers is number 16 Spencer LeniuInterchange for Warriors is number 17 Josh Curran
Interchange for Panthers is number 17 Zac HoskingInterchange for Warriors is number 18 Freddy Lussick
Replacement for Panthers is number 18 Jaeman SalmonReplacement for Warriors is number 20 Taine Tuaupiki
- Referee: Adam Gee
- Touch Judge: Dave Munro
- Touch Judge: Chris Sutton
- Senior Review Official: Ashley Klein
The match-up is a repeat of the One New Zealand Warriors’ last finals match in week one of the 2018 play-offs but both sides were then in the bottom half of the top eight, the fifth-placed Panthers beating the eighth-placed Warriors 27-12.
The One New Zealand Warriors have five survivors in their 2023 squad from that match in Shaun Johnson and middle forwards Tohu Harris, Tevaga and Bunty Afoa while winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was at fullback for the Panthers that day.
Of the Penrith side fielded on September 8, 2018, those who remain are centre Tyrone Peachey, halfback Nathan Cleary, back rower Isaah Yeo and front rowers James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota.
Since that campaign the Panthers have set the benchmark in the NRL, playing in three consecutive grand finals and winning the last two in 2021 and 2022 while wrapping up the 2023 minor premiership yet again last weekend.
The two teams met only once in the 2023 regular season, the Panthers winning a tough and controversial Magic Round contest 18-6 at Suncorp Stadium on May 6.
After that defeat the One New Zealand Warriors went on a run which netted 11 wins from 13 matches before losing to the Dolphins when they fielded a combination missing a host of frontline players.
This is the ninth finals campaign in the Warriors’ history, only the third time they’ve been in the top four.