Staff writers, NRL.com
Here's our snapshot of the key contests that will decide the outcome of this weekend's games...
Panthers v Rabbitohs: Nigel Plum & Adam Docker v George Burgess & Sam Burgess
One of the biggest, ugliest and meanest brotherly duos ever to set foot in the NRL comes up against two lesser-lights, a couple of unassuming forwards who aren't afraid to put their body in front of the opposition's big men. The Rabbitohs have been tested up the middle early on in the year, and Friday night will be no different. Let the fireworks begin!
Titans v Broncos: Albert Kelly v Ben Hunt
The hottest player in the competition up against a talent that Brisbane have been waiting to get hot ever since he was judged the best of the under-20s in 2008. A big reason why very few pundits had neither the Titans nor the Broncos in their top eight in their pre-season predictions was a nagging concern over their respective halves.
But in the first month those concerns have largely been assuaged even as though Kelly has been handed three different five-eighths in five weeks and Hunt has had to form a new partnership with winger/fullback-cum five-eighth Josh Hoffman.
Two vastly different halfbacks in terms of style, Kelly is the instinctive genius while Hunt is the meticulous organiser. Kelly has scored five tries while Hunt has four; Hunt has five line breaks to Kelly's four; Hunt has three try assists to Kelly's one and the Broncos No.7 has made just four errors compared to Kelly's 14. Both are confidence players, and the half who can get their tail up early may just provide the impetus to get their side home.
Raiders v Knights: Paul Vaughan v Adam Cuthbertson
One is an Italian Stallion riding on the coattails of his World Cup form, the other is a halfback in prop's body. Individually, they are an absolute justification of the importance of interchange players in the modern game. Together, it is an intriguing clash between two of the best bench players so far in season 2014.
These two bench warriors have been proving again and again that attack and defence go hand-in-hand. Raider Vaughan has accrued two tries and six tackle-breaks while averaging 140.8 metres and 25.8 tackles while the Knights Cuthbertson has been smashing out 27 tackles and 115.6 metres to accompany his ten offloads and five tackle-breaks.
Eels v Roosters: Chris Sandow v Mitchell Pearce
The pomp and flamboyance of Sandow up against the calm and professional Pearce. As halfbacks both are key members of their respective sides so the question is will it be Sandow's chip and chases, field goals and 40/20s or Pearce's cool-headed short balls from a draw-and-pass that have the greater impact on this one? The somewhat-maligned Pearce racked up 20 try assists last year (Sandow himself had 10 in 15 games). So far this year Pearce already has four try assists and a whopping nine line break assists (ahead of next-best Johnathan Thurston and Robbie Farah on six). In his two games Sandow has two try assists and a line break assist.
Tigers v Cowboys: Aaron Woods & Keith Galloway v Matt Scott & James Tamou
This front row match-up sees the current Australian bookends of Scott and Tamou taking on a potential NSW Origin pair of Woods and Galloway.
So far this season Galloway and more notably Woods have steamrolled their way through the middle of opposition forward packs. Woods has averaged a whopping 151 run metres at an average of 18 runs per match including 27 tackles. Combined they average more than 250 run metres. Meanwhile the Cowboys Test front-row have shown why they are regular representative players, averaging 270 run metres combined. Cowboys co-captain Matt Scott is the stand-out prop with an average of 143 run metres and an average tackle count of 27 per match.
Sea Eagles v Sharks: Anthony Watmough v Andrew Fifita
They’re unlikely to cross paths too often with Watmough sticking to his favoured left edge and Fifita knowing only the middle corridor, but the two representative workhorses are the backbones of their respective forward packs. Fifita was back to his rampaging best at Remondis last Saturday, belting the Warriors pack with 227 metres, 29 tackles and adding another five offloads to the 16 he has got already got away this year, while Watmough will be desperate to get his hands on the ball after only running for 27 metres in the wet against the Tigers, though with 53 tackles no one could accuse him of shirking his defensive load. Despite his lean return at the weekend, the angry ant is still averaging three tackle busts, 130 metres and 16 hit ups a game across the first five rounds.
Warriors v Bulldogs: Konrad Hurrell v Josh Morris
Two of the competition’s most dynamic attacking centres will come face to face this Sunday. Both come off good individual showings last week, running for over 100 metres and registering a line break each. Bringing either of these two players down is a mission, with both averaging around three tackle breaks per match. While we all know what they can do with the ball in hand, how they defend one another will be crucial to the final outcome.
Storm v Dragons: Gareth Widdop v the 'Big Three'
Now before you think we are laying down an impossible task for the Englishman, understand that there is a huge intrigue surrounding Widdop’s performance in this game. The 25-year-old made a big money move to the Dragons this season to escape the shadow of the Big Three and has set about casting one of his own. For four seasons, including the Storm’s premiership year in 2012, Widdop formed a formidable pairing in the halves with Cooper Cronk. On Monday night the two will go head-to-head and the new Dragons five-eighth will be out to take the limelight in his own right this time at AAMI Park.