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Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden has made several line-up changes for Sunday’s 23rd-round NRL encounter with the Knights at Hunter Stadium in Newcastle (2.00pm kick-off local time; 4.00pm NZT).

As foreshadowed experienced halfback Shaun Johnson returns for his 80th NRL appearance after missing the last three matches with a groin injury.

Two other backline changes were forced with Dane Nielsen (concussion) and Tuimoala Lolohea (hamstring) both ruled out this week. They left the field in last Sunday’s 16-12 win over Cronulla, a result which has pushed the Vodafone Warriors up to sixth on the ladder with four rounds left in the regular season.

With first-choice centre Konrad Hurrell still unavailable with a hamstring strain, McFadden has brought valuable utility Ben Henry into the starting line-up while rookie David Fusitu’a returns on the right wing for his 12th appearance; he has been out with a groin injury since the 22-28 loss to Brisbane on July 19.

There are also four changes to the starting forward pack.

The most notable sees Thomas Leuluai named to start at hooker for the first time in what will be his ninth game this season and his fifth since returning from a three-month lay-off with his groin problem. Nathan Friend goes to the bench.

Returning in the second row is Jayson Bukuya, who was 18th man against the Sharks last week, with Ben Matulino his starting second row partner. Captain Simon Mannering switches to loose forward. Friend is joined on an extended interchange by Feleti Mateo, Sam Rapira, Sione Lousi, Sebastine Ikahihifo and Dominique Peyroux.

“Shaun was close to being right last week. We could have played him but didn’t want to risk it,” said McFadden.

“It’s great to have him back. He’s obviously important to our team.

“With Konrad and Dane both out, Ben (Henry) is a natural choice in the centres and David (Fusitu’a) has another chance after missing a few games.

“We’ve made some other changes as well in a bid to lift our performance. It wasn’t at the level we expect of ourselves against Cronulla. That effort was really disappointing but at least we came away from it with the two points.”

In Newcastle, the Vodafone Warriors face another side sitting well down the table in 14th place on 18 points after what has been a challenging season for the club.

Despite that the Knights have had two outstanding victories in their last two homes games beating the defending premiers the Sydney Roosters 16-12 and last week coming back from the clouds with two tries in the last two minutes to beat the formidable Melbourne Storm 32-30; that win came on the back of a 10-50 loss to South Sydney the previous week.

The Vodafone Warriors have an impressive record against the Knights having won seven of the last eight clashes between the two sides and 13 of 17 stretching back to 2005. They’ve also won five of the last seven encounters at Hunter Stadium but this is their first trip to Newcastle since 2011.

The teams met in the first match back at Mount Smart Stadium on June 1 when the Vodafone Warriors marked Mannering’s 200th appearance and his 100th as captain with a 38-18 win.

Matulino plays his 149th NRL match on Sunday leaving him in line to play his 150th game when the Vodafone Warriors host the Sydney Roosters on August 24.



VODAFONE WARRIORS v NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Hunter Stadium, Newcastle

4.00pm, Sunday, August 17



VODAFONE WARRIORS

1 Sam Tomkins
2 David Fusitua
3 Ngani Laumape
4 Ben Henry
5 Manu Vatuvei
6 Chad Townsend
7 Shaun Johnson
8 Jacob Lillyman
9 Thomas Leuluai
10 Suaia Matagi
11 Ben Matulino
12 Jayson Bukuya
13 Simon Mannering (c)

Interchange:
14 Feleti Mateo
15 Sam Rapira
16 Sione Lousi
17 Nathan Friend

18 Sebastine Ikahihifo
21 Dominique Peyroux

HEAD COACH: Andrew McFadden
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Johnson will out for his third game on end with a groin injury while a hamstring strain will keep Hurrell on the sideline.

Hurrell, who turned 23 today, was replaced at halftime in last Sunday’s 54-18 win over the Raiders at GIO Stadium in Canberra.

In his absence Ngani Laumape will move in from the right wing to start in the centres while 18-year-old Tuimoala Lolohea has been promoted from his bench role in his first two NRL appearances to fill Laumape’s spot on the wing.

“It hasn’t been the ideal week after picking up a few bumps and bruises against the Raiders,” said Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden.

“Konrad has a slight hamstring strain which we don’t think is too bad and we’ll give Shaun another week. We’re hoping they’ll both be available the following week.

“It means Tui will start for us on the wing. While he’s a little inexperienced in the position, we saw what he can do last weekend so we’re really happy to give him this opportunity. There’s no doubting his ability.”

As he did against Manly and Canberra the highly-experienced Thomas Leuluai will start at halfback. Having his third game back from his injury, Leuluai came up with three try assists and three line break assists against Canberra.

The forward pack is the same as the one that opened up against the Raiders with Sione Lousi again in the second row; he had the first of the Vodafone Warriors’ 10 tries in just the third minute on Sunday.

It continued a trend of early strikes in each of the side’s recent games with Hurrell scoring in the second minute against Manly, Simon Mannering in the third minute against Brisbane, David Fusitu’a after three minutes against Parramatta and Hurrell after three against Penrith.

In beating the Raiders, the Vodafone Warriors ended a run of nine consecutive losses at Canberra Stadium (GIO Stadium) since 1997.

The Sharks also present a significant challenge having won the last five matches between the two sides since the Vodafone Warriors won in Taupo in 2011. The last time the Vodafone Warriors triumphed at Mount Smart Stadium was a 30-16 victory in 2010 when Mannering debuted as the club’s new captain.

The Vodafone Warriors are back inside the top eight going into this clash against the bottom-placed Sharks. They were seventh for more than 24 hours before the Storm’s win against Wests Tigers last night pushed them back to eighth.

With their record points haul in Canberra (54), the Vodafone Warriors are the NRL’s leading attacking side with 473 points including 86 tries.

With his sixth career hat-trick last Sunday, winger Manu Vatuvei now ranks in the top 20 of all-time try-scorers with 131 tries in 189 matches including 17 in his last 20 matches. He has also helped himself to 12 tries in his last five games against the Raiders. He leads the club’s try scorers with 13 in 18 games this season while Hurrell has 11, fullback Sam Tomkins 10, Mannering nine and Johnson eight.

Ben Matulino will again come off the bench for his 148th NRL appearance on Sunday leaving him in line to play his 150th game when the Vodafone Warriors host the Sydney Roosters on August 24.

VODAFONE WARRIORS v CRONULLA SHARKS
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
4.00pm, Sunday, August 10


VODAFONE WARRIORS
1 Sam Tomkins
2 Tuimoala Lolohea
3 Ngani Laumape
4 Dane Nielsen
5 Manu Vatuvei
6 Chad Townsend
7 Thomas Leuluai
8 Jacob Lillyman
9 Nathan Friend
10 Suaia Matagi
11 Sione Lousi
12 Simon Mannering (c)
13 Sebastine Ikahihifo

Interchange:
14 Feleti Mateo
15 Ben Matulino
16 Sam Rapira
17 Jayson Bukuya
18 Ben Henry

HEAD COACH: Andrew McFadden
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