Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Crunch time for Warriors - and Ropati

Jerome Ropati's maturity and influence on other players is profound, says Warriors coach Matt Elliott. Photo / Getty Images
Jerome Ropati's maturity and influence on other players is profound, says Warriors coach Matt Elliott. Photo / Getty Images

The next four weeks are critically important to the Warriors' season and they also hold the key to Jerome Ropati's future.

The 28-year-old is off contract at the end of another season hit by injuries. He has played only two NRL games this year - he made his return from a second major knee injury in the round six defeat to Melbourne then picked up a hamstring strain the next weekend against Gold Coast - but has spent the past few weeks playing for the Auckland Vulcans.

He has been included on an extended five-man bench for Sunday's crucial match against Penrith at Mt Smart Stadium and coach Matt Elliott said, although he hadn't made a decision about this weekend, he was likely to use Ropati at some stage during the last four weeks.

"I'm certainly thinking about whether I use Jerome," Elliott said.

"I really feel he's got a contribution to make at some stage heading into the back end of the season.

His maturity and influence on other players is pretty profound, really.

"I just have to get the timing of that reintroduction right."

Ropati travelled with the team to Manly last weekend when he was 18th man and trained at right centre during the week - he has largely been used throughout his 140-game career as a left centre alongside Manu Vatuvei.

Youngster Konrad Hurrell's value on attack is unquestionable - he's the club's second-top try-scorer and often busts the line - but he's also vulnerable defensively and opposition teams have often targeted the right edge.

The mental battle has been as big as the physical one for Ropati over the past couple of seasons but he said he felt two weeks ago that he was ready to return to the NRL and was preparing in the expectation he would play on Sunday.

"Prior to [two weeks ago] I was playing Vulcans and didn't think I was up to scratch," he said. "It wasn't until we played Wentworthville that the body felt good, up to pace.

"I'm in good shape right now and the mind is quite at ease. It's a different challenge at this time of year for me because I could be put into the squad at a really crucial time of the year."

The Warriors probably need to win all four of their remaining games to sneak into the playoffs, starting with Sunday's match against Penrith.

The Panthers come into the game on the back of a four-game losing streak - they have lost the past four by a combined total of 148-32 - and the Warriors will be expected to win.

Ropati has had discussions with the club about his future, although he wouldn't divulge what they were about, and how he fares over the coming weeks could have a bearing on what happens.

He offers a lot off the field, and the club might consider employing him in an off-field role after his playing career. He is a good player when fit but it's hard to escape his run of major injuries over the past two years.

"I haven't made up my mind just yet but I'm leaning towards [playing again next year]," he said.

"[The next four weeks] will confirm a lot of things I have in my mind about what I want to do next year."

- APNZ

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