Stephen Kearney has hailed Peta Hiku's response to his sudden fall from favour and expects the utility to show Warriors fans the same gritty professionalism against the Panthers on Friday night.
The 25-year-old Kiwis centre is poised for an unexpected start – and his 100th NRL appearance – with a hamstring injury likely to rule Gerard Beale out of the Mt Smart Stadium encounter, a blow for the home side with veteran five-eighth Blake Green (calf) already scratched.
After playing the full 80 minutes in each of the Warriors' first 16 Telstra Premiership matches this season, Hiku was unceremoniously hooked 66 minutes into an embarrassing 36-4 loss to a Penrith side missing its State of Origin stars in round 17.
He was a starter in a 26-6 win in Brisbane the following weekend but had already been tarred with the side's brittle right-edge defence and paid the price by being overlooked altogether for the Warriors' next three matches.
Hiku returned with a five-minute cameo off the bench in the win over the Knights in round 22 and scored a try in a 10-minute stint during Sunday's one-point loss at the Bulldogs, again from the second row.
He'll likely be back in his favoured centre position against the Panthers as the Warriors try to finally lock in their first finals spot in seven seasons unless Manly do them a favour and end the ninth-placed Wests Tigers' playoff hopes on Thursday night.
"Pet had a wonderful game against the Broncos for us after a pretty disappointing week the week before, the last time he played the Panthers," Kearney said, before describing the NRL season as a "rollercoaster" ride for Hiku.
"It's about how you navigate your way through it and he's done a pretty good job so far.
"We've probably been trying to find a way to get him into the group at some stage because he's a highly skilled footballer. I don't think he likes being squeezed into the back row, I don't think it's his ideal position."
Kearney said Hiku – who has also played at five-eighth and fullback in his first year as a Warrior – had never dropped his standards despite what must have been a frustrating spell on the sidelines and limited time off the bench in the past fortnight.
"He hasn't shown [any frustration]. He's worked really hard. That's what competition does, it's about forcing your way in their when you get the opportunity."
Match: Warriors v Panthers
Round 24 -
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium
- Fox League
- LIVE PASS
The Panthers will look to rebound from their shock 20-12 loss to the visiting Knights last weekend, the club's first setback in the post-Anthony Griffin era.
"They're physical, they throw a fair bit at you so that's our expectation," Kearney said. "They're a good footy team, there's no doubt about that."
There's also no doubt about the Warriors coach crystal ball-gazing beyond Friday night, no matter how hard the media try to shift the coach from his almost stock pre-match press conference responses.
Given what's at stake, is this the most important match of his reign?
"Quite honestly, I'm not going to say it's a silly question, but it's a silly question," Kearney politely retorted. "Every match is important."
So will he watch the Sea Eagles-Tigers clash, given a Manly win would secure the Warriors their first finals appearance since the club reached the 2011 grand final?
"I might do but again, the focus is about our performance. Regardless of what happens Thursday, that doesn't change what I believe we've got to do on Friday."
One more attempt then, this time from a plucky TV reporter.
Given the Warriors own the worst home record (5-5 compared to an 8-4 away record) of the teams in the eight, how important is securing a home final? Or would you prefer to play away?
"I'm sorry [that] I might sound like a broken record, but that's because I am," Kearney said.
"What's most important for individuals is that they get their jobs done. Without doing that, if you don't stay in that moment, all the rest of it really is irrelevant."