Addin Fonua-Blake is confirmed as captain, Chanel Harris-Tavita starts at fullback and returning club favourite Shaun Johnson and Kodi Nikorima are paired in the halves for the Warriors’ season-opening encounter with the St George Illawarra Dragons at Sunshine Coast Stadium on Saturday (4.30pm kick-off local time, 7.30pm NZT).
Fonua-Blake stepped into the captaincy late last season after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck left the club early and is set to continue in the role with appointed captain Tohu Harris recovering from knee surgery.
Used predominantly in the halves in his 37 appearances so far, Harris-Tavita is named at fullback replacing 2021 rookie sensation Reece Walsh, who’s ruled out through suspension.
Clinching the other halves spot alongside prodigal son Johnson is Kiwi teammate Nikorima after impressing for the Māori All Stars on February 12 and in the Warriors’ only trial against Melbourne on February 19.
Kitting up as a Vodafone Warrior for the first time in 1281 days is Johnson, the club’s oldest player at 31. Unable to have a warm-up when the trial against Gold Coast was cancelled, Johnson runs out in club colours for the first time since September 8, 2018.
Called up as the only player to make his club debut this week is new signing Aaron Pene, named on the bench which includes Jazz Tevaga, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Bayley Sironen; Pene will become Vodafone Warrior #266.
Euan Aitken, Eliesa Katoa and Josh Curran make up the starting back row, Aitken and Katoa performing strongly in the Storm trial and Curran doing likewise for the Indigenous All Stars against the Māori.
NRL novices Rocco Berry (20) and Viliami Vailea (19) are paired as the Vodafone Warriors’ starting centres for the first time; Berry made eight appearances in his rookie season in 2021 and Vailea two.
Taking the other starting prop’s spot in Matt Lodge’s suspension-enforced absence is the reliable Bunty Afoa, who starts the year 16 games away from his 100th NRL appearance.
Club newcomers Ash Taylor and Jesse Arthars are included on the extended bench along with Jack Murchie, Adam Pompey, Pride Petterson-Robati, Taniela Otukolo and Edward Kosi.
Locked in on the wings are Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Marcelo Montoya who established themselves there in the second half of last season.
In taking their first-round match to Sunshine Coast Stadium, the Warriors will now be able to count 12 venues where they have played home games, six of those added during the club’s COVID-enforced stay in Australia since 2020.
They take a healthy recent record against the Dragons into this contest. It’s the 33rd clash between the clubs overall with St George Illawarra winning 22 of the previous 32 but the Warriors won five on end before being pipped 19-18 by the Dragons at Central Coast Stadium last July.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS
Sunshine Coast Stadium, Bokarina
4.30pm, Saturday, March 12