The head-to-head battle between Josh Dugan and Steve Matai looms as pivotal to the outcome of the clash between the Dragons and Sea Eagles on Monday night. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos.
Sharks v Cowboys: Michael Gordon v Michael Morgan
Custodians Michael and Michael, cast from the same mould, can hit the kind of speed many players can only dream of, but will 'Flash Gordon' prove saviour of Cronulla’s universe with trademark bursts through the middle of the ruck, or will it be the second-best try-assisting fullback in the competition, Michael Morgan, helping steer the Cowboys' ship to their first away win of the season? Both men love hanging a step behind the ruck, frequently looking for gaps across the grain, and it will be interesting to see the kind of opportunities both sets of halves give their speed men. We would not be surprised if both found the chalk in this one.
Eels v Rabbitohs: Jarryd Hayne v Greg Inglis
One of the most tantalising match-ups of the round pits two Origin stars against each other. They won't come together on the field too many times but each are critical to their respective sides' chances – as evidenced by each team's very poor last-start showings minus their star fullbacks. Both are chewing through plenty of metres and breaking plenty of tackles, as well as scoring their fair share of tries, as per usual. With each having played 13 games Hayne actually has the edge over Inglis in all of those categories so far in 2014, but that's a testament more to Hayne's outstanding current form than any failing on behalf of the Rabbitohs custodian. It could well be a moment of individual brilliance from one of these two that decides this one.
Roosters v Panthers: Sonny Bill Williams v Jamal Idris
Rugby league's ultimate physical specimen takes on the game's physical Goliath in an edge battle that will have the fans salivating. It'll take braver men than us here at NRL.com to write a champion like SBW off, who unlike fellow rah-rah bound superstar Sam Burgess, is yet to completely hit his straps in what could well be his final year in the 13-man code. His 31 tackle breaks, three line breaks and 30 offloads thus far in 2014 are nothing to be sneezed at, but they're also a far cry from the numbers he churned out last year when he was unanimously rated the game's most destructive player. The big games and big contests have always brought the best out in the Chooks' number one strike weapon, and they don't come much bigger than Jamal Idris, whose performances since returning to the game after a few weeks off with personal issues have trumped even his ample stature. Idris may have been found out in defence on a few occasions against the Broncos, but in his three games since returning the big fella has been nigh on unstoppable with the ball in hand, running for 345 metres, busting 20 tackles and laying on two try assists.
Storm v Raiders: Billy Slater v Anthony Milford
Last weekend Billy Slater was shown up on his own paddock by a Bulldogs fullback playing just his third game of the season at No.1. All eyes will be on the champion come late Saturday afternoon to see how he responds against another inexperienced opposing number. Anthony Milford holds just 34 games of NRL experience to his name but the 20-year-old has shown the promise already to suggest a long rugby league career awaits. Milford will go toe-to-toe with Slater full of confidence after notching 184 metres and two tries against the Titans last week.
Broncos v Warriors: Dale Copley v Manu Vatuvei
The Warriors have scored 13 tries in their past two matches but only one of those four-pointers have come the way of Manu Vatuvei. 'The Beast' has gone through a relatively barren try-scoring period in recent weeks having only crossed the line for three tries in his past seven games. Perhaps Manu was more interested in putting a colour rinse through his thick beard and hair rather than scoring tries, but there's no doubt he'll be hungry for more 'meat pies' against the Broncos as he looks to rediscover his early season form where he bagged seven tries from the first eight games of the season. The man tasked with containing Vatuvei is Broncos winger Dale Copley, who has made a smooth transition back into the NRL arena after sitting out the entire 2013 campaign due to a knee injury. In 2014, Copley has mainly played on the wing, but did start the season playing in the centres as cover for Justin Hodges. He has scored 12 tries from 16 games in a stellar season so far that saw the 22-year-old touted for possible Queensland Origin selection in Game Three. In recent weeks, despite still managing to score tries, Copley has been somewhat shaky under the high ball and was responsible for a spilt bomb that led to the Sharks' match-winning try in Round 16. Studying a law degree outside of football, Copley will arguably have his toughest assignment of the year on Saturday night.
Knights v Titans: Kurt Gidley v Daniel Mortimer
Two men who have both spent their careers trying to convince people they have what it takes to be a genuine No.7 in the NRL, Gidley and Mortimer get an opportunity to guide their team to a much-needed victory. Since reuniting with five-eighth Jarrod Mullen in the Newcastle halves, Gidley has helped to engineer three consecutive wins, scoring 30 points in the process (two tries and 11 goals) and registering four tackle-breaks in games against the Cowboys and Sharks. His tackle count is down marginally on what he delivered when playing at hooker but he is still averaging 26 tackles per game over the past three weeks. Although Mortimer has only been at the Titans for the past month, there is already pressure to prove he is the long-term solution at No.7. Having left the Roosters for the opportunity to play halfback on the Gold Coast, Mortimer has helped to straighten the Titans' misfiring attack but has been guilty of not asserting himself on proceedings like the top halves do. He has produced just one try assist for his new club in three games and has taken on much of the kicking in general play in the absence of Aidan Sezer. The Titans need Mortimer to be a first-class organiser in order to rescue their season.
Wests Tigers v Bulldogs: Martin Taupau v James Graham
The Tigers prop has publically taken aim at opposing forward packs on multiple occasions this year and more often than not the never-back-down Kiwi has come up trumps. Well, publically or not, the claws will definitely be out on Sunday when he takes on his former club for the first time since he was moved to Concord over the summer. A good showing might be difficult against arguably the NRL's premier big man in James Graham, however, given his ferocious stare is just as deadly as his cut-out pass and jarring hits. If nothing else, once the 80 minutes are done, it'll feel like we had just finished watching a 10-round bout between the Kiwi with the corn rows and the Brit that looks like Ed Sheeran, but is probably a million times tougher.
Dragons v Sea Eagles: Josh Dugan v Steve Matai
Josh Dugan seems likely to stay in the centres for the long haul following his two solid Origin appearances marking up against Greg Inglis. While the usual Red V fullback has been restricted to only 10 appearances this year at club level, Dugan has still crossed for six tries as well as making 58 tackle breaks and averaged 131.3 metres. His biggest test yet at NRL level beckons this weekend against Steve Matai. The former Kiwi international has been in great form and it has proven to be vital for the Sea Eagles this season. Matai sits equal-fifth in the competition for tries scored with 11 and his seven try assists, 10 line break assists and his 108.7 metres per game makes him more than a worthy competitor for Dugan this weekend.