Warriors name Mason Lino to replace Shaun Johnson for Cowboys clash
Stephen Kearney has confirmed his replacement for Shaun Johnson - and it's not who you think it is.
The Warriors coach has made the surprise choice of naming Mason Lino at halfback for Saturday's crucial trip to Townsville against the Cowboys, ahead of highly-rated rookie Ata Hingano.
Having deputised for Kieran Foran on several occasions this season, Hingano was widely expected to have first crack at the No 7 jersey after Johnson was ruled out for six to eight weeks after suffering a knee injury during last week's defeat to the Panthers.
Instead he has been kept on the bench with Lino set to make his first NRL appearance in almost two years in a match the Warriors desperately need to win to stay in touch with the top eight.
It is not the first time the 23-year-old playmaker has replaced Johnson. He played three games at the back-end of the 2015 campaign, including his first-grade debut also against the Cowboys, after Johnson broke his ankle.
Since then he has been a constant in the club's reserve grade side, leading them to the finals last season and second place after 19 rounds in this year's competition.
"It's tough losing a player of Shaun's calibre but we know Mason will do a good job for us," Kearney said.
"He has been really consistent for our ISP side. At the same time, we have Ata on the bench with his ability to cover the halves and hooker."
Lino's inclusion is the only change to the starting line-up used in the 22-34 loss to the Panthers - also somewhat of a surprise given the way they unravelled in the final 13 minutes.
The first four players named on the bench - Hingano, Sam Lisone, James Gavet and Ligi Sao - were also used against Penrith while the four additional players are Jazz Tevaga, Chris Satae, Isaiah Papali'i and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
That result has left the 11th-placed Warriors needing to win at least five of their last seven games to have a chance of making the finals and they face a daunting challenge this weekend in what is arguably the NRL's toughest road trip.
While the sides have split their 36 previous encounters with 18 wins each, the Auckland outfit has won only once in their last 11 meetings in Townsville since 2002 (a 20-16 victory in 2014).
With prop Matt Scott already ruled out for the year, many were prepared to write off North Queensland following the season-ending injury to Johnathan Thurston last month.
However, the Cowboys head into the weekend on a three-game winning streak - the first time they have won three in a row without their inspirational playmaker - to sit in a four-way tie for third place.
Warriors: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c), David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo, Kieran Foran, Mason Lino, Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Ben Matulino, Bodene Thompson, Bunty Afoa, Simon Mannering. Interchange: Mafoa'aeata Hingano, Sam Lisone, James Gavet, Ligi Sao, Jazz Tevaga, Chris Satae, Isaiah Papali'i, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.