Staff Writers, NRL.com
Rabbitohs v Broncos: Adam Reynolds v Ben Hunt
Two men apparently on the fringe of Origin selection who have both recently had to overcome the naysayers to inspire their teams to important victories. A purely statistical comparison of the two respective halfbacks falls predominantly from the man on the northern side of the border but Reynolds seems to have flourished in the absence of John Sutton in recent weeks. Hunt has more tries (10-4), more line breaks (18-4), more try assists (16-11), more line break assists (17-5) and more tackle breaks (46-37) than Reynolds and was superb in his side's big win over the Bulldogs last week. Two contrasting styles of halfback, the kicking game of both men will be critical with Reynolds' precision a major positive for South Sydney and their ability to build pressure.
Eels v Bulldogs: Chris Sandow v Trent Hodkinson
If Parramatta X-factor Jarryd Hayne is to be kept quiet, it's the controlled boot of Hodkinson that will have a major say in denying him opportunities in space. And if the Bulldogs' big pack is to be denied easy metres and the chance to get a roll on, it's the enigmatic boot of Sandow that will have to pin them in their own half. In general play these two are chalk and cheese – Hodkinson is so calm he could be on autopilot, and is highly selective – possibly too selective – in when he chooses to run the footy. Sandow's high-energy play is infectious but produces way more coach-killing plays per week than Hodkinson would come up with in a season. And he's happy – possibly too happy – to run the footy at every opportunity. But that unpredictability can also be his greatest strength, and it was his running game – in his surprise cameo at fullback – that was Canterbury's undoing back in Round 14 when Hayne and Hodkinson were among the Origin stars absent. Their styles couldn't be more contrasting but their influence over their teams' fortunes, as halfbacks, are equivalent. So which one will have the greater say on Friday night?
Raiders v Dragons: Anthony Milford v Benji Marshall
Milford’s involvement has been lacking for the Raiders over the past few weeks, but since moving into the halves to cover the loss of Terry Campese in Round 22, there was a definite increase in his output, with a try save, five tackle breaks and 100 kick metres against the Eels. Marshall showed what he has to offer in Round 21, with a try, try assist, and five tackle breaks. Both will be the creative spark for their respective sides, and will be targeted in defence. Milford made 24 tackles against Parramatta, missing two, while Marshall missed the same number against the Panthers. Both will be key in attack and defence on Saturday afternoon.
Storm v Sharks: Cooper Cronk v Jeff Robson
The Cronulla stand-in captain assisted in both of his side’s tries last week and with 11 try assists and eight line break assists Robson leads both stat lines for his side. So too does Cooper Cronk, although he has double the line break assists and has played his teammates over the line on 21 occasions, ranking him equal 2nd in the NRL despite playing just 14 games. The Sharks will have limited opportunities in this game and it will be up to Robson to put them in the best position to make the most of them.
Wests Tigers v Roosters: Mitch Moses v Anthony Minichiello
There's more than a few shades of a young Mini about the latest boom Tigers cub. The jinks, the steps, the distinct lack of fear under the high ball as the elephants of the NRL stampede toward him, not to mention the seven try assists and six line break assists Moses has racked up in just six runs with the big boys. And while we're on the Minichiello of yesteryear, the 34-year-old's currently doing a fair job of winding back the clock. His 11 tries this season has him leading the Chooks for four-pointers, and has him on track to beat the 14 he bagged in 2005, when he was also crowned Golden Boot winner. Minichiello was amongst the Roosters' most dangerous against the Titans on Monday night, bumping his way out of tackles on kick returns and consistently troubling the Gold Coast line, setting the stage for a ding-dong battle with the Tigers rookie five-eighth turned custodian.
Knights v Warriors: Kade Snowden v Jacob Lillyman
Both were vital contributors to their club's wins last weekend. Kade Snowden earned man of the match honours in the Knights' outrageous 32-30 win over the Storm on Saturday afternoon while Jacob Lillyman kept the ball rolling for the Warriors in their four-point win over the Sharks last Sunday. The State of Origin representatives are sure to come together at some point. Last weekend these men produced similar numbers, with Snowden punching out 179 metres and 26 tackles while Lillyman produced a further 156 metres and added 28 tackles to his season's tally. Expect fireworks with both props looking to continue their solid form.
Titans v Sea Eagles: Brad Takairangi v Jamie Lyon
The Sea Eagles have a distinct advantage on the right edge, with veteran centre Jamie Lyon lining up against Brad Takairangi of the Titans. Not only does Lyon have 190 more games of NRL experience than his opposite number, he is by far the more superior centre when it comes to attack. The distinguishing difference between the pair are the five tries, nine try assists and 11 line break assists that Lyon has scored compared to the two tries, four try assists and three line break assists Takairangi has managed. There isn’t much to separate the pair defensively as Lyon averages 14 tackles per match with Takairangi making 11 tackles and little splits the pair when it comes to their tackling and tackle-busting ability, with Lyon on 25 tackle breaks and 30 missed tackles this season, while Takairangi has 23 tackle breaks and 27 missed tackles. With Steve Matai doubtful, the Manly skipper is likely to demand more of the ball down his flank in order to target Takairangi.
Panthers v Cowboys: Adam Docker/Nigel Plum v Matt Scott/James Tamou
It's North Queensland's highly decorated, international front row pairing against Penrith's under-rated, cut-price duo of fearsome tacklers. Both teams rely on the respective twosomes to have them playing on the front foot – the Cowboys in offense and the Panthers in defence. Scott in particular has returned from his fractured cheekbone playing like a house on fire, while Docker showed that his engine is as big as his hits with an 80-minute performance last week.