Waikato Stadium is set to showcase as many as nine of New Zealand's World Cup-winning players plus head coach Stephen Kearney when the Vodafone Warriors and the Melbourne Storm clash in a National Rugby League preseason trial in Hamilton on February 12 next year.
Hamilton City Council today announced it had secured the trial just days after the Kiwis won the World Cup for the first time by stunning Australia 34-20 at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium. With so many of the World Cup players involved in the game, it looks set to be an exciting rematch when the two trans-Tasman teams meet.
Hamilton City Councillor and chairperson of the community and environment committee Daphne Bell said it was exciting for the city to once again host the Vodafone Warriors, and with such a strong league base in the area, she expects a huge turnout for the event.
"To be able to bring two such high quality NRL teams to Hamilton is fantastic for the city. Waikato Stadium is an absolutely superb facility and it is a great chance for us to showcase the venue and hopefully secure more games in the future," she said.
Both the Vodafone Warriors and Melbourne are committed to bringing their full squads to Hamilton for the Thursday night match.
In what will be their first hit-out before their 2009 NRL campaign, the Vodafone Warriors – who were just one win away this season from making only their second grand final appearance – will boast seven players from the history-making 2008 World Cup Kiwis:
Huntly-raised St Paul's Collegiate old boy Lance Hohaia, who scored a try in the World Cup final victory and was the central figure in the critical penalty try awarded to the Kiwis.
Winger Manu Vatuvei, recently named the winger of the year at the International Rugby League Awards and also a finalist for the Golden Boot Award given to the world's best player (he scored a World Cup record-equalling four tries in the pool play win against England).
Centre Jerome Ropati, also a try-scorer in the final and now boasting 10 tries in his 10-test career.
Second rower Simon Mannering, the Vodafone Warriors' 2008 player of the year, who has played 18 straight tests for the Kiwis since his debut in 2006 and proved impressive when shifted to the centres in the World Cup semi-final and final. He played all 27 NRL games for the Vodafone Warriors in 2008.
Halfback Nathan Fien, one of five Vodafone Warriors in the backline in the World Cup-winning line-up and the winner of successive man-of-the-match awards in the two clashes against England. He also appeared in each of his club's 27 NRL games this year.
Sam Rapira, a Hamilton Boys' High School old boy, who was an exceptional performer as the Kiwis' interchange prop throughout the campaign. He joined Mannering and Fien in playing all 27 NRL games this year.
Prop Evarn Tuimavave, who didn't play in the final but became Kiwi No 751, making his debut in the pool game against England. He will become just the 13th player to appear in 100 matches for the Vodafone Warriors in his first outing of the 2009 season.
Melbourne will also come to Hamilton with ample star quality. The Storm have been the benchmark in the NRL over the last three seasons, making three successive grand finals, winning in 2007 and losing in 2006 and 2008, while also claiming three straight minor premierships.
Kearney, who guided the Kiwis to World Cup fame in his first year in the job, is Melbourne's assistant coach while the Storm's squad boasts two of New Zealand's champion squad in second rower Sika Manu and prop Adam Blair.
A further five players were in Australia's World Cup squad – Vodafone Warriors captain Steve Price and centre Brent Tate plus Melbourne's fullback Billy Slater (the international player of the year), centre Greg Inglis and hooker Cameron Smith.
In total 14 players in the New Zealand and Australian World Cup squads are in line to play, along with players who appeared for other nations at the World Cup like Vodafone Warriors hooker Ian Henderson (Scotland) and his club-mate Epalahame Lauaki (Tonga).
Apart from the internationals, the Vodafone Warriors have one of the game's greatest players in the recently-signed Stacey Jones, back with his old club on a one-year deal. The Hamilton trial is set to be his first game for the club since finishing up with his 238th appearance in 2005.
Also on the Vodafone Warriors' 2009 roster are fullback Wade McKinnon, loose forward Micheal Luck and rising stars Ben Matulino and Sonny Fai.
The match will also give rugby league fans their first chance to check out the Vodafone Warriors' three major signings Brisbane winger Denan Kemp, stand off Joel Moon (also signed from Brisbane) and former Queensland State of Origin back rower Jacob Lillyman (North Queensland).
"It's a huge thrill for us to be able to bring the Vodafone Warriors to a centre outside Auckland," said Vodafone Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah.
"Waikato Stadium is a fantastic venue and what a way it will be to start the rugby league season by lining up against Melbourne, the NRL's best side over the last few years.
"It's especially exciting that the fans will be able to see so many players who were involved in the Kiwis' victory over Australia in the World Cup. That adds another dimension to the trial."
Apart from their New Zealand and Australian internationals, the Storm can call on other quality performers in halfback Cooper Cronk, back rowers Ryan Hoffman and Dallas Johnson as well as 2007 Kiwi prop Jeff Lima and New South Wales State of Origin front rower Brett White. Also in the Melbourne squad for 2009 is Vodafone Warriors veteran and Huntly product Wairangi Koopu. He finished up with the Auckland club this year after a 159—game career dating back to 1999. The Storm's other big star is coach Craig Bellamy, who also doubles as the New South Wales Origin coach.
"It's great for the game of rugby league for the Melbourne Storm to play a trial in Hamilton – especially so soon after the World Cup," said Kearney. "It's yet another tremendous opportunity to grow the game in New Zealand.
"Hopefully we'll get just as much support over there as the Warriors."
Melbourne Storm chief executive Brian Waldron said the club always plays its part in promoting rugby league and this trial in Hamilton is no exception.
"I'm sure the people of Hamilton will embrace the Melbourne Storm – especially after Stephen Kearney guided New Zealand to that remarkable and well deserved World Cup win."
The curtain-raiser on February 12 also promises to be an exciting match, with the Vodafone Warriors under-20 Toyota Cup team taking on a Waikato selection squad.