Wellington teenager Ben Matulino is set to make one of the toughest National Rugby League debuts imaginable, lining up for the struggling Warriors against international backrow stars Greg Bird and Paul Gallen.
Matulino, a wide-running, ball-playing second rower, was yesterday named on a five-man Warriors bench but coach Ivan Cleary indicated he would play against the fifth-placed Cronulla Sharks in Sydney on Saturday night.
As expected Cleary has swung the axe after the woeful 35-28 home loss to bottom-of-the-table South Sydney last Friday night.
Out-of-sorts second rower Epalahame Lauaki has been dropped to feeder club Auckland Vulcans, while young forwards Sonny Fai and Russell Packer have also been given a breather and will play for the under-20 Warriors in the curtain raiser.
Utility Lance Hohaia replaces Patrick Ah Van at fullback, Ah Van has been named on the bench, while veteran Logan Swann has been recalled and will start alongside Steve Price and Brent Tate, providing they pull up fit after tonight's second State of Origin match.
Matulino, 19, who last week signed a two-year extension at the Warriors, faces a baptism of fire against New South Wales and Kangaroos enforcers Bird and Gallen - labelled the "Bruise Brothers" in the Sydney media - but Cleary was confident the St Bernard's College product would cope.
"Ben has been on the cusp of this promotion for a while," Cleary said.
"With Sonny and Russell, it was always part of the plan for them to go back to the NYC [under-20s] team after having a taste of NRL football.
"It's part of their development and now Ben has his chance to experience NRL football."
Former Kiwis prop Johnny Lomax, who coached the now 108kg Matulino at Te Aroha and for a Wellington secondary schools representative team, echoed Cleary's confidence.
"His football for the under-20s has been very dominant so he's warranting selection and I'm just happy that Ivan Cleary's seen it that way," Lomax said.
"He's always played well above his age so I'm just rapt that the kid's taken his opportunity.
"He's just been an outstanding talent and we always knew he had that potential.
"It's a tough situation, they haven't been playing that well but it gives the kid an opportunity and I'm sure Ivan's smart enough to just give him a couple of things to work on for the game."
Cleary added Swann was picked to help address the major defensive problems at the club.
Swann joins lock Micheal Luck and Simon Mannering in a starting backrow clearly selected to tackle themselves to a standstill and not much else.
The 13th placed Warriors have by far the worst defensive record in the NRL, having conceded 361 points in 12 games - more than 30 a match.
"Our defensive effort wasn't acceptable against South Sydney and it hasn't been what we would expect in several other games this season," Cleary said.
"We have to get it right against Cronulla and Logan will help us there. He's one of our most consistent defenders."
Stop-gap centre Wairangi Koopu and prop Sam Rapira drop to the bench after starting against the Rabbitohs.
- © Fairfax NZ News