Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
The Storm and Sea Eagles have a heated recent rivalry stemming from numerous finals encounters and an infamous night at Brookvale Oval. They may not like each other, but their intense rivalry is built out of mutual respect. All across the park Manly and Melbourne square-off in mini-battles that demonstrate the highest quality of rugby league. It is easy to point out the danger men, but stopping them has proven quite difficult this season.
NRL.com looks at the five key match-ups that could decide the preliminary final at AAMI Park on Friday night.
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Each team has one player who can turn a game on its head and secure victory with an amazing play. Here at NRL.com we call them the X-Factors
Click here to check out the X-Factors who are going head-to-head this round.
Billy Slater v Brett Stewart
Slater has been mentioned amongst the greatest fullbacks of all time; it wasn’t that long ago that he was going head-to-head with Stewart to make the Australian team. Who knows what could have happened if Stewart hadn’t missed the best part of two seasons through injury. Both players are instrumental to their team’s success; they are try-scoring machines who constantly have the defence on edge. But more than that, they control the game from the back, and are dependable and secure. Slater’s speed is electric and he creates space by constantly putting the defence in two minds. Stewart has lost a yard of pace, but his timing is impeccable, and he is always on the spot to make the most of any half breaks.
Cooper Cronk v Daly Cherry-Evans
Cronk is arguably the most professional and well-drilled halfback of the modern era, while Cherry-Evans, in only his second season, has exploded onto the scene showing poise and composure beyond his years. Both players have excellent kicking and passing skills, and both will put their body on the line when defending. They are tough and uncompromising in their pursuit of victory. Cronk will lead his team around the park, controlling the tempo and looking to establish his side’s structure early. Look for Melbourne to have a special set-play for the final with Cronk playing on the inside to either Cam Smith or Billy Slater. Cherry-Evans also likes to control the speed of the game and is not afraid to take on the line and withstand heavy tackling in the process. Manly will use a sweeping play starting with Cherry-Evans and involving Glenn Stewart, Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart.
Gareth Widdop v Kieran Foran
The England international meets the Kiwi international in a contrasting clash of styles. Both possess great skill and will be mainstays in their respective national teams for years to come - but who will get the edge on Friday night? Widdop has great speed and will play before the line, while Foran is fearless and will play in the line. Their presence as alternative attacking options will keep both defences in two minds.
Cam Smith v Matt Ballin
Smith is one of the most influential players the game has seen. Both in attack and defence, he controls the game like no other. He masterfully controls the ruck and makes it very hard for the opposition to own that area of the field. Ballin is one of the most underrated players in the modern era and he has represented Queensland with dignity when Smith has been absent. While Smith is undoubtedly the best hooker in the game and one of the best players in the world, Ballin’s importance to Manly’s premiership chances cannot be understated. Whoever can establish dominance in this area will go a long way to winning the match.
Ryan Hoffman v Anthony Watmough
Hoffman is back to his best and looking like a real game-breaker to add to the ‘big three’ at Melbourne, while Watmough’s impact on his team is unquestionable. Can Hoffman’s hard line-running make the difference, or will Watmough’s tenacity and quick play-the-balls win out on the day? This will be an intriguing battle of wills. Hoffman will run tough lines looking for a weak shoulder to crash through, while Watmough likes to use his footwork and drift across field to pry open the defence.
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