Winger surprised but buzzing over debut for Warriors   21 Apr 2006

Robert Lowe

WARRIORS: For Misi Taulapapa, the New Zealand Warriors' third left winger in four games, the call to step up to the National Rugby League (NRL) came out of the blue.

The rugby union convert will make his first-grade debut in the bottom-of-the-table clash against South Sydney in Auckland on Saturday and is buzzing at the prospect.

He gets his chance because of injury, first to Kiwi international Manu Vatuvei, and then to Vatuvei's replacement, Patrick Ah Van.

Ah Van, 18, made his own NRL debut two weeks ago, when deputising for Vatuvei, who is recovering from a hamstring problem. But the teenager suffered a shoulder injury in the 18-14 loss away to Canberra last Saturday, opening the door for Taulapapa.

"It was a big surprise,' Taulapapa said of his inclusion. "I didn't really watch the game and didn't even know one of my mates was injured. But when I got the call-up, I was over the moon.'

Making his first NRL appearance in front of a home crowd at Ericsson Stadium would help to steady the nerves, Taulapapa said.

Coach Ivan Cleary, who had picked him on form for the Auckland Lions in the Bartercard Cup, had told him just to play his own game.

"I'm not going to fill Manu's shoes – they're big shoes to fill,' he said. "I just want to do my best for the team and do my job on the day.'

Taulapapa, 24, switched to league two years ago at the encouragement of a cousin. During his union days, he spent a season playing club rugby in Ireland and also made the Auckland under-21 side, but realised higher honours might be more difficult.

"It was hard – I had Joe Rokocoko and those boys to play against,' he said.

Progress came quickly after he joined local Auckland club Marist-Richmond.

"The fitness was a bit harder than rugby, but things went well,' he said. "I played a reserve game, next week I was playing Fox Memorial, the week after I was playing Bartercard. It kind of crept up on me.'

Taulapapa comes into a Warriors side still seeking their first win of the season in Auckland. The club's two victories from six matches have come against Wests Tigers in Christchurch and in Newcastle.

They lost to Melbourne and Manly in their two previous fixtures at Ericsson Stadium this year, and also went down to Canberra in a pre-season trial across town at North Harbour Stadium.

Cleary said the need to make full use of home ground advantage was a more important issue against the Rabbitohs, than the Warriors' position on the table or the opposition they were facing.

"If you can't win your home games, you're facing a long year,' he said. "It's too hard with the amount of travel we do to expect to win away games consistently. They should be a bonus, rather than something to fall back on because we can't win at home.'The Warriors, who are sitting last with zero points, are favourites with the bookmakers to beat Souths, who have two points from a bye, but are yet to win this season.

They will have history on their side, having won their last nine meetings with the Rabbitohs.

New Zealand Warriors squad: Brent Webb, Todd Byrne, Tony Martin, Clinton Toopi, Misi Taulapapa, Grant Rovelli, Nathan Fien, Ruben Wiki, George Gatis, Steve Price (captain), Awen Guttenbeil, Wairangi Koopu, Louis Anderson. Interchange: Sione Faumuina, Evarn Tuimavave, Richard Villasanti, Micheal Luck, Lance Hohaia, Sam Rapira.

Rabbitohs squad: Todd Polglase, Nathan Merritt, Yileen Gordon, Adam MacDougall, Shannon Hegarty, John Sutton, Ben Walker, Peter Cusack (captain), Shane Walker, Jaiman Lowe, David Fa'alogo, Joe Galuvao, Shane Rigon. Interchange: Michael Greenfield, Stuart Webb, Ben Rogers, Mark Minichiello, Paul Mellor, Shannan McPherson.

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