Manu Vatuvei set for emotionally-charged farewell as Warriors look to honour club legend in style
He may not be lining up to face the Panthers but Manu Vatuvei will undoubtedly be the centre of attention on Friday night.
With Mt Smart temporarily renamed in his honour, it's hard not to be. Though as the man who has been synonymous with the Warriors for more than a decade bids farewell to the club, his teammates are determined to send him out on a winning note.
Even before Vatuvei confirmed his departure for Salford at the end of the week, which prevents him from playing against the Panthers, the Warriors needn't have looked far for motivation.
The match has huge implications for both teams' finals hopes, then there's the chance for Stephen Kearney's men to avenge the meltdown in Penrith two months ago.
Staying in touch with the top eight is of the utmost priority for the Warriors but there it is clear the players have taken on board a 'do it for Manu' mentality.
"When you think of the Warriors you think of Manu," Warriors veteran Simon Mannering said.
"He's a legend of this place and ... I don't know if there'll be another player like him. For sure we'll do our best in honouring him with a great performance."
Vatuvei struggled to hold back the tears as he broke the news of his early release on Monday and it has been emotional week for all involved.
Much has been made of 'The Beast's' thunderous charges out of the backfield and his stunning try-scoring ability - a club record 152 tries from 226 games as well as being the only player in NRL history to score 10 tries in 10 consecutive seasons.
But for his teammates, it is his joyous presence in the dressing room that will leave the biggest void.
Vatuvei has received more than his fair share of criticism, particularly over his handling. In recent seasons he spoke of the toll it took on him mentally.
But he rarely allowed it to affect his mood at training, where his infectious smile and big laugh has lit up Mt Smart since he made his debut in 2004.
"He's always been at the centre of all the criticism but it's never stopped him from wanting to work hard during the week and that rubs off on his teammates," halfback Shaun Johnson said.
"People can say what they want about him. It's going to affect him, of course it's going to affect anyone, but he's always come into this place with a smile on his face and wanted to do good for the Warriors. That's why we love him."
Vatuvei and Mannering share a close friendship that dates back to when they first played together for Junior Kiwis in 2004.
The former Warriors and Kiwi skipper says Vatuvei has carried that positive attitude right throughout his career.
"His presence, he's such a big personality on and off the field," Mannering said when asked what he will miss most about Vatuvei. "It definitely won't be the same without him here, he's become part of the furniture.
"The first time I played alongside him he was this massive big human but he was really friendly and such a nice guy. He's the same now so I'm very fortunate to have played alongside him for so long and to call him a friend."
Injuries have meant Kearney only used Vatuvei for 53 minutes in his first season at the Warriors, but he was one of the first players picked in his Kiwis sides.
While premiership glory eluded Vatuvei at club level, he has enjoyed a remarkable international career. Barring the 2010 Four Nations final, Vatuvei featured in all of New Zealand's major triumphs since scoring a double as a 19-year-old in the 2005 Tri-Nations decider.
"He had a pretty significant contribution to all of those matches," Kearney said, which included the 2008 World Cup and 2014 Four Nations finals. "On the big occasion, more than not, he knew when to deliver and that's what I admire about him.
"When the game's on the line and you've got the footy close to the opposition's try-line there's no better pair of hands to get the ball into and he proved that on a number of occasions."
At 31 and with injuries mounting over the last two years, this moment was always going to come sooner rather than later. Although that did little to soften the impact of the announcement on the players.
With the likes of David Fusitu'a, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Ken Maumalo, the Warriors are well stocked with promising outside backs. Indeed, the latter has made a decent start of forging his own career on the left wing.
But no one can replace 'The Beast'.
"What he's done for not only the club but rugby league in New Zealand in general, when you think of the Warriors you think of Manu," Johnson said. "It's crazy it's actually happening but we'll make this last week an enjoyable one and hopefully he can leave on a good note."
AT A GLANCE
WARRIORS v PENRITH PANTHERS
8pm Friday, 'Manu Vatuvei Stadium', Auckland
Warriors: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo, Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson, Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino, Bodene Thompson, Bunty Afoa, Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ata Hingano, Sam Lisone, James Gavet, Ligi Sao, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Tevita Satae, Jazz Tevaga, Mason Lino.
Panthers: Dylan Edwards, Josh Mansour, Tyrone Peachey, Waqa Blake, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Matt Moylan (c), Nathan Cleary, James Tamou, Mitch Rein, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Corey Harawira-Naera, Isaah Yeo, Trent Merrin. Interchange: Sione Katoa, Leilani Latu, Tim Browne, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Tyrone May, Viliame Kikau, Sitaleki Akauola.