Emotional farewell awaits Vatuvei
Mount Smart Stadium will become Manu Vatuvei Stadium for the day this Friday, as the Warriors prepare to honour a departing favourite son.
While Vatuvei's new contract with Salford in the Super League prevents him from playing in Round 19, he has been named in the No.5 jersey which he has become synonymous with, and will lead the team out onto the field to face the Penrith Panthers.
It will be one of the final rugby league acts in an emotional week for the 31-year-old powerhouse, who will finish his time in Auckland with 226 NRL Telstra Premiership appearances and 152 tries to his name.
"It was really hard [to tell the boys], I always get really emotional speaking in front of the boys and just how much they mean to me, they are a massive family to me and it's always hard leaving your family," Vatuvei said.
"With everything I have been going through for the last 12 months, I think it was the right opportunity for myself to start fresh and just get away from everything and have a new challenge.
"It's going to be really special [on Friday night] not only for myself but for my family and all the hard work they have put in to me, for me to become the player I am and person I am."
In a season disrupted by injuries Vatuvei has managed just one first-grade game in 2017, with the strong form of youngsters Ken Maumalo, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and David Fusitu'a meaning there hasn't been a chance to play NRL even when he has been fit.
There is no hiding from the disappointment that Vatuvei, who is the only player in NRL history to score 10 tries in 10 consecutive seasons, will end his time in Auckland on this note, but the former Kiwis and current Mate Ma'a Tonga representative was looking at the positives this week.
"It is disappointing to play just one game this season, but that's how it is, you can't control things like this in the game," Vatuvei said.
"I wanted to finish here at the club until the end of the year, but things like this do happen… I just wanted to keep playing footy and I think that was the only opportunity for [me] to keep playing, to go overseas and start again.
"Now I have just got to hand it over to the young boys and I know Ken and all that are doing really well at the moment and I am really proud of the person and player they have become."
Meanwhile for halfback Shaun Johnson, who was just 13 years of age when Vatuvei made his NRL debut against the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2004, the reality of the situation was still yet to fully sink in.
"Any kid in New Zealand, when you think of the Warriors you think of Manu. It's crazy that it is actually happening," Johnson said.
"It's going to be a very emotional day, it is going to be an emotional week for him and us as a club.
"I think the best way we can sort of honour what he has done here is by playing well and I know that's all he wants us to do.
"It will [leave a hole in the culture at the club], I don't think you can look to replace that."
Among the other celebrations planned, the Warriors will be giving out inflatable hands at the gates as a tribute to Vatuvei's signature try-scoring celebration, while his teammates will also have his name, club number and signature embroidered into their playing jerseys.
The Warriors will be also celebrating the annual Women in League Round a week early, due to them playing away to the North Queensland Cowboys in Round 20.