The Warriors have suffered a significant setback to their 2017 preparations with experienced forward Ben Matulino ruled out of the early rounds due to a knee injury.
The New Zealand Test veteran will undergo surgery on his left knee, just months after a right knee complaint ruled him out of contention for the Kiwis’ Four Nations squad.
Ben Matulino to have surgery on knee & miss the start of the 2017 season 😔
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) January 11, 2017
“It’s disappointing but we are taking a long-term view here,” coach Stephen Kearney said.
“It makes sense to get the knee sorted now. Naturally, Ben’s disappointed but he’ll work hard on his rehab and will undoubtedly be a wonderful addition to the team once he’s recovered.”
Fourth on the Warriors’ all-time appearances register with 196 first-grade games and a two-time club player of the year, Matulino is coming off arguably the most disappointing year of his impressive career.
The Wellington product was among five Warriors players dropped after an ill-conceived night out in April that involved mixing energy drinks and prescription medication; Matulino was subsequently ruled out of contention for the Anzac Test.
Matulino was quickly reinstated to the side, but his impact was lacking and he ultimately came off the bench in 16 of his 23 appearances.
The trademark big hits were few and far between, while his reputation as one of the NRL’s most prolific offloaders (41 in 2014 and 52 in 2015) went out the window, popping just 22 passes to his supports. Matulino’s average metres tally fell from 144 in 2015 to just 122 as one of the game’s most dynamic prop/second-rowers suffered a bewildering decline.
The arrival of Kearney – coach in all 23 of his Test appearances for the Kiwis – at Penrose was seen as a key to revitalising Matulino’s game, after early off-season rumours suggested the out-of-sorts enforcer could be headed for an Australian club.
— ZeroTackle.com (@zerotackle) September 25, 2016
But Matulino’s renaissance will have to wait, and Kearney’s more pertinent issue is plugging the gap in a front-row contingent that was already looking a little light in experience and class.
The four-man prop rotation is now likely to consist of Queensland Origin stalwart Jacob Lillyman, aggressive tyros Sam Lisone and Albert Vete, and shaggy-haired cult hero Charlie Gubb, who reportedly sought a release from the Warriors amid strong interest from rival NRL clubs.
Sam Lisone named in #NRLAllStars ⭐️💪
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) December 14, 2016
Vying for the vacant bench spot will be journeyman James Gavet, who made 10 appearances in 2016, Ligi Sao, who featured just twice after returning to the Warriors from Manly, and impressive 2016 debutants Bunty Afoa and Toafofoa Sipley.
Recent re-signings Isaiah Papalii, Ofahiki Ogden and Patrick Sipley could also coming into the frame for Round 1, with the likes of Shaun Lane, Ben Henry, John Palavi and Sione Lousi all departing.
Traditionally feared as one of the biggest and most fearsome packs in the competition, the Warriors engine-room has gradually lost that aura, rarely dominating opponents in the manner to which the club’s fans had become accustomed.
The likes of Russell Packer, Sam Rapira and Suaia Matagi all left in recent seasons, but recruits and newcomers have struggled to pick up the slack from an intimidation point of view, a factor emphasised by hitman Matulino’s form slump.
Lillyman and back-row trio Simon Mannering, Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson – while tough, top-class performers – all fit into the workhorse category.
And with Matulino sidelined, it will be left to young bucks Lisone, Vete and Gubb to strike fear into the opposition as the Warriors look to shed the nagging ‘slow starters’ tag in 2017.
— Newshub Sport (@NewshubSport) November 29, 2016