NRL: Young brigade on Vatuvei's tail

By Michael Brown

Manu Vatuvei. Photo / NZ Herald
Manu Vatuvei. Photo / NZ Herald

Manu Vatuvei will come back into the Warriors' starting side on Sunday but, with a growing number of options on the wing, he is the first to admit he is facing serious competition for the first time in his career, and needs to perform.

The big winger picked up ankle and knee injuries in the first 20 minutes of the opening game of the season against the Eels and will come back into the side for Sunday's showdown with the unbeaten Rabbitohs.

During his layoff Glen Fisiiahi, Bill Tupou and Ngani Laumape all performed well but Warriors assistant coach Andrew McFadden confirmed Vatuvei will start on Sunday.

"Manu has the experience," he said. "He has the runs on the board so he's the one who gets the shot.

"Manu has earned that. He's a leader in our team and is very experienced. You know with Ngani it's not going to be his last chance if he doesn't play this weekend."

Laumape could start beside Vatuvei at left centre, with Dane Nielsen struggling with a painful rib cartilage injury. Nielsen didn't train today, with Laumape running in his place, and is rated by McFadden as a 50-50 proposition.

It would be a tough ask on Laumape, with the likes of Sam and George Burgess running on the edges, not to mention fullback Greg Inglis and Ben Te'o, but the 19-year-old has been impressive in his two matches so far and has played centre for the Junior Kiwis.

Utility Ben Henry might have been an option but hasn't recovered from a head knock picked up late in the important 20-18 win over the Cowboys and Jerome Ropati is still working his way back from another serious knee injury and is expected to turn out for the Vulcans.

The news is better for fullback Kevin Locke, who also suffered concussion on Monday but is expected to be cleared to play. But prop Jacob Lillyman is doubtful with an ankle injury, which could see Russell Packer, who has been absent with a bicep injury, rushed back into the playing 17.

It is looming as a big year for Vatuvei, who is off contract at the end of the season. He is in talks with the club about a new deal but is also exploring his options to see what else is out there.

The 27-year-old has been a feature of the Warriors since his debut against Souths in 2004 and, at his best, is almost unstoppable. He is the club's record try scorer with 102 in 153 games and has also played 20 tests for the Kiwis.

But he has increasingly struggled with injuries and has had his troubles on defence. Last season he also coughed up 38 errors - the third-most in the NRL - and was left out of the Kiwis for their end-of-year test with Australia on form.

"It puts a lot of pressure on me to keep my spot in the team," Vatuvei said. "I know Ngani, Bill and Fish have done an awesome job. It makes me train even harder and I wanted to come back harder.

"I have missed being in the side and playing with the boys. It's an opportunity for me to go out and play my best.

"I feel like the old man, especially with all the niggles I have every week, but it's something that goes with the sport."

- APNZ

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