NSW star Ryan Hoffman will make a timely return to the NRL for the Warriors this weekend as the struggling Kiwi side seek to stay in the hunt for a finals berth.
The back-rower has missed the Warriors’ last five matches since suffering a calf injury in State of Origin III on July 8.
The ninth-placed Warriors need to win all four of their remaining regular-season fixtures to guarantee a playoff spot, starting with Saturday’s away trip to Penrith.
Many predicted superstar playmaker Shaun Johnson’s season-ending ankle injury last month would spell the end for the Warriors’ title hopes.
The Warriors lost that match to Manly and have suffered two defeats since to extend their losing run to four matches.
Their last-start 36-0 loss to St George Illawarra in Wellington was probably their worst effort this year.
Hoffman’s return helps to balance the loss of another senior forward in Ben Matulino, who will begin a three-game ban following the NRL’s tightened stance on shoulder charges.
Matulino entered an early guilty plea after facing a grade-two charge for his challenge on Gareth Widdop in the Warriors’ defeat to the Dragons.
It means the Warriors will have a reshuffled back row against the Panthers, with Raymond Faitala-Mariner promoted off the bench to partner Hoffman, and skipper Simon Mannering moving to lock.
There are two other changes to the starting 13, including seasoned prop Sam Rapira coming in for Albert Vete, who drops to the bench.
With Manu Vatuvei suffering a shoulder injury against the Dragons, Dominique Peyroux is brought into the centres for Jonathan Wright, who takes over Vatuvei’s wing spot.
The bench features the return of centre Konrad Hurrell, who was dropped against the Dragons.
Coach Andrew McFadden says it has been a tough period for the Warriors with injuries and form.
“Fortunately, we have Ryan back at last,” he said.
“We’ve obviously missed him while Sam also gives us plenty of experience.”
McFadden said Peyroux had been working hard in the NSW Cup and would add plenty of energy, while Hurrell would provide impact off the bench.
Despite their bleak recent run, the 10th-placed Warriors remain just two points outside the top eight.
Penrith are also struggling for results, having lost their last five games to be in 14th place, four points behind the Warriors.