One of New Zealand’s traditional strengths has been significantly eroded ahead of the end-of-season three-Test tour of England, with the Kiwis’ record try-scorer and Warriors icon Manu Vatuvei ruled out for five months due to a shoulder injury.
‘The Beast’ became the first player in history to score 10 tries in 10 consecutive seasons earlier this year, but various ailments have restricted him to 16 appearances so far in 2015, in which he crossed for 11 touchdowns to break the mark of nine straight seasons he co-held with the great Ken Irvine.
Vatuvei also became just the third player to bring up 200 first grade appearances for the Warriors, after Simon Mannering and Stacey Jones.
News of Vatuvei’s injury has compounded a wretched year for the Warriors – Thomas Leuluai, Ben Henry, Ngani Laumape and Shaun Johnson have all already been rubbed out for the season.
But the unavailability of the veteran, who has scored 22 tries in 28 Tests and was named man-of-the-match in the Kiwis’ historic Anzac Test triumph in May, has created further headaches for national coach Stephen Kearney.
Vatuvei’s long-time Test wing partner, Jason Nightingale, is currently out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, boom Penrith youngster Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – who was picked to debut ahead of Vatuvei in the 2014 Four Nations opener and Nightingale in the Anzac Test, before being ruled out on each occasion by injury and suspension respectively – is still sidelined after suffering a collapsed lung.
The decimation of the Kiwis’ wing ranks has opened the doors for a slew of Test rookies. Brisbane’s versatile Jordan Kahu, Canterbury try-machine Curtis Rona, North Queensland duo Matthew Wright and Antonio Winterstein, Warriors rookies Ken Maumalo and Solomone Kata, Canberra’s Jordan Rapana and Cronulla flyer Sosaia Feki, who was picked in last year’s Four Nations squad but did not play, will all come into consideration.
Former Test players Gerard Beale, Bryson Goodwin, Sam Perrett, Matt Duffie and Josh Hoffman are also in line for a recall.
Given the continued absence of first-choice centres Dean Whare (injury) and Shaun Kenny-Dowall (self-imposed stand-down), obvious wing choices Peta Hiku – who featured at fullback in the Four Nations and centre in the Anzac Test – and Beale may be required closer to the action.
England are almost certain to field world-class wingers Ryan Hall and Josh Charnley, which would provide them with a distinct advantage on their home tracks.
The Kiwis begin their tour with a match against Leeds Rhinos on October 23, before Tests against England on the following three weekends in Hull, London and Wigan.