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LEAGUE: Backs To The Future - by Richard Becht

One week the forwards give Auckland Warriors coach Mark Graham grief, the next it's the backs. That's how it's worked out after back-to-back NRL assignment across the Tasman.

After the crushing defeat by Canberra, the coach reshaped his forward pack to face Penrith by removing four of his run-on players and retaining just Logan Swann and Robert Mears. Well, after the 24-31 loss to the Panthers, the new-look pack's being used again to take on St George-Illawarra at Ericsson Stadium on Saturday.

Yet the backs, all but unchanged for the Penrith match, have now been overhauled for the date with the Dragons.

The entire three-quarter line has been reconfigured with only fullback Cliff Beverley, standoff John Simon and scrumhalf Ben Lythe reselected in their run-on roles.

By far the most significant selection is that of Shontayne Hape, who played for the Junior Kiwis (under-19) as a 17-year-old against Australia last year. He comes into the side on the right wing, replacing a still out-of-sorts Odell Manuel.

Hape's barely 18 now and the youngest of the Warriors' 35 contracted players but on Saturday, he'll make his NRL debut and should find himself marking Dragons dangerman Nathan Blacklock, the competition's leading tryscorer last year.

Hape, a product of Auckland's Te Atatu club and also a 1999 New Zealand Maori, travelled with the Warriors as a non-playing reserve for the games against Canberra and Penrith.

He also turned out for feeder club Newtown, impressing as the best of the Warriors on show against Sydney City last week. He stands out physically at 1.88m and around 95kg, often tagged a Tony Iro lookalike. The Warriors would settle for the youngster emulating the ex-Kiwi player at his best on Saturday.

Lee Oudenryn's return on the other wing comes after an off-colour start to the season for the former Parramatta and Gold Coast speedster. Oudenryn didn't operate well at fullback early on, was dropped for the Newcastle game, returned (on the wing) against Canberra and was just as quickly out of the side again last Saturday night.

Instead, he joined other first grade casualties playing for Newtown in the New South Wales first division (and scoring one of the Jets' four tries in their loss to Sydney City). Now with 115 first grade games behind him, Oudenryn desperately needs to regain confidence and hopefully scoring touch against the Dragons.

Inside him, he'll have his regular 1999 centre partner Nigel Vagana, while David Myles is the other centre as Graham moves to cover injury to his preferred right centre Ivan Cleary and a loss of form by his other centre Scott Pethybridge.

Pethybridge, only five games short of 100 in first grade, is one of five players listed on the interchange bench. The other four are the same as those used against Penrith, which means Kiwi test prop Joe Vagana is again missing from the starting line-up.

While the backline has been disrupted, the forwards are intact. That reflects some satisfaction with their efforts against the Panthers. The overall result against Penrith was hardly enjoyable but there was clear evidence the forwards fronted up on Saturday night.

Props Terry Hermansson and Talite Liavaa, both starting for the first time this year, added some starch in hitting the ball up, while Robert Mears, Logan Swann, Tony Tuimavave and Jason Death were as committed as ever.

All the same, the Warriors suffered in key areas - ill discipline produced inexcusable penalties on too many occasions, the missed tackle rate was again unacceptably high, too much ball was spilled and there was uncertainty under the high ball once more.

They now confront a St George-Illawarra side running on empty in just about every area at the moment. That may, of course, make the Dragons exceptionally dangerous. The beaten 1999 grand finalists can't stay near the bottom of the competition for too much longer, not when they can boast so many quality players.

They have a power prop in Craig Smith, a talented hooker in Nathan Brown, tough back rowers in Darren Treacy and Lance Thompson (Wayne Bartrim can only make the bench) plus the skilful Anthony Mundine, Australian test centre Shaun Timmins and wingers Jamie Ainscough and Nathan Blacklock in the backline. Despite that class, they're travelling poorly after conceding 70 points to Melbourne and then failing to overcome Wests Tigers (9-15) despite home ground advantage last Sunday.

Of special interest, as usual, is the referee. It's Mark Oaten who was the central figure in the Warriors' 16-17 loss to Wests Tigers.

Centres Of Attention - No position has given Mark Graham more concern than the centres since he arrived at Ericsson Stadium. And nothing's really improved so far this year, if for rather different reasons.

The one constant - and a consistent weapon - last season was Nigel Vagana, who roved with real menace on the left-hand side of the Warriors' attack. The only three games he missed were through suspension; otherwise he was always there, scoring 12 tries in 21 games (bettered only by Stacey Jones' 15 tries).

And working with him on that side of the field were Logan Swann (7 tries) and usually Lee Oudenryn (8 tries). Between them, the trio accounted for 27 of the team's 94 tries.

Sorting out the other side of the field wasn't so simple. Joe Galuvao was a regular sight for the first part of the season but all sorts of other players were ultimately tried in the centres - Peter Lewis, Sean Hoppe, even Tony Tatupu, Francis Meli for one game and also Boycie Nelson.

Graham moved to address the issue in the off-season when he bought former Manly, North Sydney and Sydney City centre/fullback Ivan Cleary. That was his big buy but he also added others with experience in the centres in ex-Penrith and Norths utility Scott Pethybridge and David Myles, who had connections with the South Queensland Crushers, Gold Coast and the Sharks. The coach wanted depth and now he had done something about it.

It hasn't worked out quite so easily, though. With just six games gone, the Warriors have scarcely had a settled centres combination. Cleary and Vagana were identified as the initial choice, only for Cleary to be knocked out in the opening game against Melbourne. That gave Myles a fill-in role for a week.

At the same time, Vagana found he was being swapped around during the first three games with left winger Pethybridge. By the fourth match (against Newcastle), Pethybridge was named to start at centre. What had been unofficial was now official.

Now, however, the landscape has changed again for Saturday's round five encounter with St George-Illawarra. Most significantly, Cleary is out of contention, nursing a dislocated shoulder that may keep him out for several weeks. In the five games he'd played, he'd seen little in the way of quality ball on attack as he sought to settle in; now he'll have to start all over again.

Pethybridge began impressively against Melbourne but, since then, has tended to fall away somewhat. The utility back has been troubled by a virus. The Warriors are awaiting results of blood tests.

So those developments opened the way for Myles to take Cleary's spot, as he did in his try-scoring display in the second round loss to Wests Tigers. And Vagana, still one of the Warriors' hottest attacking weapons, reverts to the left centre's role Graham had given to Pethybridge.

If the Warriors are to revive their play-off plans on Saturday, they'll have to find some sting in the centres from Myles and Vagana matched by defence that hasn't been too certain lately.

One To Go For "Jack" and "Paps" - John Simon is just a game away from one of rugby league's real achievements while Robert Mears is just as close to a more modest but still significant mark.

When the 27-year-old "Jack" Simon leads the Warriors onto Ericsson Stadium on Saturday afternoon, it'll be his 199th first grade appearance, leaving him poised to join the elite 200 club in Sunday week's home game against the Sydney Roosters.

For Mears, the feat is nothing quite as grand as that but, then again, the 25-year-old hooker has had all manner of setbacks to overcome as he closes in on 50 first grade appearances. He'll make it 49 against St George-Illawarra leaving him in line for his half century against the Roosters the following week.

There's a certain irony in the likelihood of them both achieving personal milestones against the Roosters. The club was Mears' first NRL home yet, in four seasons there, he was essentially unwanted or at least unable to make the impression he'd planned. That's because from 1993 to 1996 he was used at first grade level just 11 times.

And Simon found the Roosters equally difficult. After 120 games for Illawarra from 1990 to 1995, he was signed by the Roosters for the 1996 season. The association ended unhappily when he made only 15 appearances that season, 12 of them from the bench.

A career that began so brilliantly in Wollongong when he was only 17, threatened to stall but Simon found salvation at Parramatta for a time (45 games over three seasons) until that association also soured. Now he finds his new home at Ericsson Stadium giving him another lift. Since arriving here, Simon has appeared in 18 straight games for the Warriors.

Mears has also rediscovered himself here, consistently standing out as one of the Warriors' best - if not the best - in each of his 21 appearances for his third NRL club.

While two of the Australian connection count down to their feats, Joe Vagana is just behind them for another really big one. When he comes off the bench on Saturday, he'll rack up his 98th first grade outing, all of them for the Warriors, of course. That leaves him poised to become just the second Warrior to reach 100 games in the round nine away match against Parramatta.

Already his cousin Nigel has passed 50 first grade games.

Getting Their Kicks - Losing to Penrith was no pleasure at all but it was pleasing to see the Warriors pack some punch on attack through their kicking game.

Recent evidence showed John Simon, especially, had been off colour with his kicking game, both for position and close to the line. He had his touch kicks - grubbers and chips - either blocked or intercepted and his bombs weren't hitting the mark either. It seemed to affect his all-round game as he strove to work without the brilliant Stacey Jones around him.

But against Penrith, Simon looked like the same player who gave the Warriors another dimension in 1999.

For starters, he held up his pass perfectly to put Jason Death through for his first try. And he and scrumhalf Ben Lythe then produced sweetly-timed and placed grubber kicks for the team's other three tries.

Ivan Cleary, Cliff Beverley and Death again all rounded off cleverly-constructed moves which found Penrith's defence short-handed, each try coming as they beat the defence to kicks rolled into the Panthers' in-goal zone.

They literally kick-started the Warriors' efforts to set the pace early in the game and then to bring them back into the contest later when they let Penrith take the lead.

There was also extra kick in the Warriors' goalkicking effort. When Cleary had to leave the field with what turned out to be a dislocated shoulder, second choice kicker Ben Lythe (a sharpshooter himself) was off the field momentarily. So Scott Pethybridge had to step up to try to convert Cleary's try. After his efforts against Wests Tigers, there probably wasn't enormous confidence he'd hit the mark - but he did.

And then Lythe also showed how accomplished he is although his conversion attempt of Death's second try hit the post and failed to go over. At the same time, you had to like the cool touch he showed when slotting a pressure penalty to keep the Warriors in contact at 24-30 late in the match. That gave the team a sniff of at least a draw and maybe victory.

Injury List Grows - Ivan Cleary's latest injury setback has added to a list that's beginning to grow.

Cleary's dislocated shoulder could have him out of action for a few weeks. Already on that roster of recovering players are long-term patients Stacey Jones and Awen Guttenbeil, neither of whom is ready for a return to the field yet.

Joe Galuvao has also been among the walking wounded all season so far, while first-choice prop Jerry Seuseu isn't over his knee problem yet, loose forward Scott Coxon is still being troubled by a toe complaint and back-up prop Faavae Kalolo is also injured.

Triple Defeat - The Warriors couldn't find winning form anywhere last weekend.

While the first graders were losing to Penrith in the NRL, the club's other connections were also on the end of defeats.

Newtown, boasting a share of Warriors, had its second outing in the New South Wales first division. But not even the presence of some highly-experienced first graders in Lee Oudenryn, Mark Tookey or Matt Spence could help the Jets to victory against the Sydney Roosters.

Oudenryn scored one of the team's four tries and New Zealander Jared Mills, the former Western Suburbs, scored twice. Still, Newtown was beaten 28-16. That makes it two losses on end after a big first-up loss to St George-Illawarra.

It was no better further north where the Warriors' connection couldn't help Brisbane Souths this time. Until last weekend, Souths had the lead in the Queensland Cup, but slumped to their first loss of the year in the fourth round, beaten 40-12 by Towoomba. Souths scored two tries, one each to their Warriors wingers, Henry Fa'afili and Francis Meli.

Meli and Fa'afili are back with Souths this weekend along with second rower Jonathon Smith and loose forward Henry Perenara.

The Warriors due to turn out for Newtown this weekend are Odell Manuel, Matt Spence, Mark Tookey and Clinton Toopi.

Face-Off - Oudenryn v Ainscough - It's a clash of two of the game's most experienced wingers but they're both in sides feeling the pinch at the moment.

Lee Oudenryn's now made 115 first grade appearances but he's having difficulty finding his best form this season. He's been left out of the Warriors' side twice already, this being his second return to the side after a weekend playing lower grade football across the Tasman. He, as much as anyone, benefited from the Warriors' resurgence late last season as he finished the year in hot tryscoring touch.

But his last outing for the Warriors this year - the depressing loss at Canberra - provided some statistical evidence of Oudenryn's modest efforts this year. I & T Rugby League Statistics show he made four tackles, missed two, made 60 metres from nine hit-ups and had one handling error.

On Saturday he has another chance to convince coach Mark Graham he should stay in the side but he's facing an opponent who was one of the NRL's best last year.

As St George-Illawarra went all the way to the grand final, Jamie Ainscough produced a string of outstanding displays and he was, in fact, a player the Warriors were interested in signing. He played in every one of the Dragons' 28 matches and has now topped 190 first grade games in total. Last year he was consistently one of the most dangerous backs around, as evidenced by his 31 line breaks and 51 off-loads.

And, despite the Dragons' woes this year, Ainscough hasn't always struggled himself. Take the side's 24-0 defeat by the Bulldogs. It was hardly a good game for the Dragons but Ainscough still boasted 11 tackles, made two line breaks and 94 metres from 10 hit-ups.

The outcome of Saturday's game will most likely be decided closer to the action but, if Oudenryn can contain Ainscough and also edge him on attack, he might well have a say in the Warriors achieving the right result.

Head To Head - In their former incarnations, St George and Illawarra were two ARL clubs that gave the Warriors a share of trouble.

The truth is, St George inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats on the Warriors in their history. That was in 1995 when the Dragons came to Ericsson Stadium and savaged the home side 47-14, the memory of Gorden Tallis' staggering try still clear to this day.

Illawarra also gave the Warriors the run around in their first encounter that year, winning 40-28 in Wollongong but then succumbing when the Warriors comfortably won the return 38-12 a few weeks later.

The Warriors and the Steelers also met twice in 1996, this time the Warriors winning both times, 18-10 at home and 30-20 away (a game memorable for Marc Ellis' first try in a rugby league career that never quite developed).

That same year, the Warriors travelled to Kogarah Oval for their only clash that season with St George. It wasn't pretty either, the Dragons winning 35-6.

With civil war erupting, the teams didn't meet again until 1998, St George just prevailing 28-24 in a controversial match at Kogarah but then being completely outplayed 31-14 back at Ericsson. Illawarra met the Warriors only once that year and won 17-14 at Ericsson in a match that seriously affected the home side's campaign to make the play-offs. So, that left St George with a 3-1 record against the Warriors but it was 3-2 in the Warriors' favour in contests against Illawarra.

By 1999, St George and Illawarra were a joint force, and travelling extremely well when they arrived at Ericsson for their first clash against the Warriors in round 23. The Dragons weren't travelling anywhere near as smoothly afterwards as the Warriors produced one of their best displays of the year to win 32-18 (six tries). It threatened to derail the Dragons' 1999 plans but they ultimately recovered to make the grand final.

Warrior Stats - Key stats from the clash against Penrith (courtesy of Warriors stats man Geoff Ackland):

Total Tackles Made:
Warriors 269
Penrith 251

Total Tackles Missed:
Warriors 20
Penrith 11

Time In Opposition Territory:
Warriors 38
Penrith 42

Time In Possession:
Warriors 40
Penrith 40

Completion Rate:
Warriors 71% (27/38)
Penrith 81% (31/38)

Line Breaks:
Warriors 6
Penrith 9

Warriors (4/5)
Penrith (7/7)

Warriors 4
Penrith 7

NRL Scoresheet

Vodafone Warriors 24 (Jason Death 2, Ivan Cleary, Cliff Beverley tries; Ivan Cleary conversion; Scott Pethybridge conversion; Ben Lythe conversion, penalty)
Penrith 31 (Shane Elford, Ryan Girdler, Mark Geyer, Peter Jorgensen tries; Ryan Girdler 4 conversions, 2 penalties; Chrs Hicks penalty; Ryan Girdler field goal)

Halftime: 18-14 Warriors
Crowd: 9305

Melbourne 42 Sydney Roosters 10
Parramatta 16 Northern Eagles 14
Brisbane 50 North Queensland 8
Newcastle 40 Canberra 10
Wests Tigers 15 St George-Illawarra 9
Sharks 14 Bulldogs 4

Top Tryscorers
Darren Albert (Newcastle) 8
Michael De Vere (Brisbane) 5
Adam MacDougall (Newcastle) 5
Brett Mullins (Canberra) 5
Mat Rogers (Sharks) 5
Robbie Ross (Melbourne) 5
Timana Tahu (Newcastle) 5
Marcus Bai (Melbourne) 4
Joel Caine (Wests Tigers) 4
Shannon Hegarty (Sydney Roosters) 4
Brett Howland (Sharks) 4
Aaron Moule (Melbourne) 4
Luke Patten (St George-Illawarra) 4
Brad Thorn (Brisbane) 4
Tony Tuimavave (Warriors) 4
Lesley Vainikolo (Canberra) 4

Top Points-scorers
Mat Rogers (Sharks) 5 20 - 60
Ryan Girdler (Penrith) 2 22 2 54
Joel Caine (Wests Tigers) 4 17 - 50
Ben Walker (Brisbane) 1 22 - 48
Andrew Johns (Newcastle) - 23 - 46
David Furner (Canberra) 2 17 - 42
Tasesa Lavea (Melbourne) 2 15 - 38
Jason Taylor (N Eagles) - 17 2 36
Luke Burt (Parramatta) 2 13 - 34

Warriors' 2000 Record

v Melbourne Ericsson Stadium Won 14-6
v Wests Tigers Leichhardt Oval Lost 16-17
v Brisbane Ericsson Stadium Lost 10-28
v Newcastle Ericsson Stadium Drew 18-18
v Canberra Bruce Stadium Lost 12-56
v Penrith Penrith Stadium Lost 24-31

Played 6, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 4
Points For: 94 Points Against: 156
Tries For: 17 Tries Against: 27
At Home: Played 3, Won 1, Drawn 1, Lost 1
Away: Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3

Top Points-scorer: Ivan Cleary 24 (1 try, 10 goals)
Tony Tuimavave 16 (4 tries)
Nigel Vagana 12 (3 tries)
Jason Death 12 (3 tries)

Top Tryscorers: Tony Tuimavave 4
Nigel Vagana 3
Jason Death 3

Biggest Win: 14-6 (v Melbourne, Round 1)
Biggest Loss: 12-56 (v Canberra, Round 5)
Most Points In Game: 8 (Nigel Vagana v Wests Tigers, Round 2; Tony Tuimavave v Canberra, Round 5; Jason Death v Penrith, Round 6)
Most Tries In Game: 2 (Nigel Vagana v Wests Tigers, Round 2; Tony Tuimavave v Canberra, Round 5; Jason Death v Penrith, Round 6)

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