Warriors wary of more preseason injuries

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 14:46 13/02/2012
Russell Packer
JASON OXENHAM/Fairfax NZ
WARRIOR: Russell Packer will partner converted back-rower Ben Matulino to form one of the NRL's youngest engine rooms.

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The New Zealand Warriors may consider keeping their prized front row assets in cotton wool for their final NRL dress rehearsal against a Queensland club side to avoid the prospect of losing more key players to injury before the season gets underway.

Russell Packer and Ben Matulino are the only established props to sidestep the Warriors' casualty ward during a costly pre-season that sees Jacob Lillyman and the Rapira brothers Sam and Steve out of contention for the March 4 grand final rematch with Manly at Eden Park.

Sam Rapira, the club's senior prop with 123 appearances, faces up to six weeks on the sidelines after suffering a shoulder injury during the 22-14 trial win over South Sydney at Coffs Harbour on Saturday night.

His younger sibling Steve, who has been remodelled to also play up front this season, confronts a similar rehabilitation period after sustaining a high ankle sprain.

That leaves Packer, who only made his comeback from off-season surgery against the Rabbitohs, and Matulino as the likely starting props against the Sea Eagles.

Back rowers Ukuma Ta'ai and Sione Lousi are also getting acquainted with new responsibilities while Junior Kiwi Sebastine Ikahihifo has also been unearthed as a potential stop-gap measure through the trial process.

With Lillyman out for three months with a torn bicep suffered during the opening trial against the Gold Coast, Steve Rapira had an opportunity to audition for the role and was making a decent fist of it until he limped off BCU Stadium - condemned to miss the start of the season for a second consecutive year.

Asked if Matulino, who is also an accomplished second rower, and Packer might be rested for the hit out against the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles in Whangarei on Saturday night, head coach Brain McClennan would not rule it out.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

"We've got a bit of time to think about what we'll do next."

However, he may at least be tempted to give Packer one more game as he continues his return from compartment syndrome surgery required after the Kiwis Four Nations campaign last November.

McClennan was confident Ta'ai and Lousi could make the transition on a more permanent basis if required while 21-year-old Ikahihifo, a member of the triumphant Junior Warriors squads of 2010-11, might also make the step up from the back row.

"Sebastine had a really good hit out running in the middle of the park," McClennan said of the Aucklander's effort against Souths.

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"Against Gold Coast he played as a lock so he got to do a lot of work in the middle of the field and he did a really good job for us there.

"If he had to play prop he would. He's brave and he's got a really good engine. He got good feet and he's powerful."

McClennan said players could be promoted from the Toyota Cup squad saying the juniors he has utilised during the trials were capable of filling any void.

"The trials are there for a purpose, they give you a gauge and some measurements on where you are and all the young guys have done well," he said.

Rookie back Konrad Hurrell was among the impressive next generation, pressing his claims with a try against the Rabbitohs before a quick-fire double from Kiwis behemoth Manu Vatuvei effectively made the game safe at 22-4 with 20 minutes remaining.

- Fairfax Media

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