Peter Sterling: Finding the 'X-Factor'

When Ben Barba crossed his forearms in excited fashion after scoring the second of his three tries in the Bulldogs' 60-14 thrashing of the Roosters back in Round 3, I had no idea what it all meant.<br><br>I wasn’t sure if he was marking the spot or had found buried treasure but what I did know was that he had the ability to excite and bring the crowd to their feet.<br><br>The unusual post-match celebration made complete sense when it was revealed that teammate Michael Ennis had christened the flashy youngster the 'X Factor'. As nicknames go, it’s a beauty and certainly stacks up favourably against the likes of Mat “the Rat” Rogers, Adam “Mad Dog” MacDougall and Manu “the Beast” Vatuvei.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=839&amp;fixtureid=50020100307&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=1695" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Barba's flashy try and his 'X-Factor' sign.</a><br><br>We’ve seen countless talent shows on television where judges have been looking for those performers who possess this so-called 'X-Factor'. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily searching for the best singer or dancer but more that individual who shines because of an almost indefinable quality.<br><br>When it comes to rugby league, it is a player that is different because of their spontaneity, unpredictability and at times outrageousness.<br><br>Barba has displayed some of these but so too have a handful of others spread through the NRL this season.<br><br>As we go into Round 21 with just six weeks until finals football, I believe that only the current top eleven clubs are in a position to claim a coveted play-off berth. With this in mind, I’ve concentrated my “x factor” spotlight on those who have that little extra in their repertoire to help their clubs when seeking an edge.<br><br>The obvious standout on the back of recent magic performances is the Eels' Jarryd Hayne who has again been the catalyst for his team’s late surge.<br><br>When he exudes confidence and superiority, he gives the impression that anything is possible and - based on what we’ve seen in recent rounds - that may be the case.<br><br>His long range tries in three straight games could have only been scored by very few players with the strength, evasion and speed that was necessary and demonstrated.<br><br>It began against the Cowboys where the merest of gaps allowed him to race 60 metres to the corner, comfortably outpacing Matt Bowen. <br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=854&amp;fixtureid=50020101807&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=linebreak&amp;period=1&amp;time=2035" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see the 'Hayne Plane' lift off.</a><br><br>There was much more to do against the Panthers a week later in returning a kick 75 metres and beating four defenders before being too quick for Michael Gordon.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101904&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=1638" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see him in full flight.</a><br><br>Then last weekend, after just 45 seconds, he got the Eels off to a flyer by scoring against the ‘Dogs in the first set of six. From 25 metres out, he stepped off the left to avoid Jamal Idris, used upper body strength to push off Michael Ennis, accelerated between David Stagg and Ryan Tandy and finally stepped off his right foot to beat full-back Luke Patten.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=856&amp;fixtureid=50020102001&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=linebreak&amp;period=1&amp;time=330" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see him tear the Bulldogs to shreds.</a><br><br>Throw in three more try assists and an unbelievable try-saving tackle on Stagg, and Hayne was an x, y and z factor all in one.<br><br>Meanwhile, Canberra have unearthed their own full-back excitement machine in the shape of Josh Dugan.<br><br>One of this 21-year-old's attractions is that he looks so unlikely to cause you trouble. He is tall, lean and gangly but behind this deceptive facade is an uncanny ability to beat defenders.<br><br>In fact his effort in returning a kick against the Roosters in Round 17 was remarkably similar to the Hayne run against the Panthers. Josh was even knocked to the ground by Jake Friend in this effort before getting up, re-balancing and taking the ball to a metre from the tri-colours line.<br><br>Whilst he was run down just short, Joel Monaghan scored easily the next play.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=853&amp;fixtureid=50020101703&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=linebreak&amp;period=1&amp;time=2397" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see this massive play from the young No.1.</a><br><br>Josh terrorised the Knights a fortnight later scoring two tries in their 52-18 victory. His second that day again illustrating his ability to beat tacklers even when they appear to have him covered.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101906&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1626" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Dugan rip the Knights apart.</a><br><br>The Raiders have plenty left to do but it helps to have a custodian set to emulate the feats of Gary Belcher and Brett Mullins. <br><br>When it comes to unpredictability, there is no one to match the Tigers' Benji Marshall. So much so that I’m sure that even he is unaware at times as to what he is about to produce.<br><br>He is instinctive, reactive and completely fearless when he senses a weakness or space in an opposition defence.<br><br>Against the Cowboys in Round 19 he virtually lifted his team back into contention after they conceded the opening 16 points.<br><br>To even up the score-line he chipped beautifully to re-gather before finding Lote Tuqiri on the chest with a difficult long pass. <br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101908&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=864" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see this sublime chip and chase to set up Tuqiri.</a><br><br>To finish proceedings he and Liam Fulton seized on a Cowboy mistake for Benji to jink, step and travel 70 metres to score.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101908&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=2439" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Benji secure the come-from-behind win for the Tigers.</a><br><br>However the play that really sums him up was the field goal dropped against the Titans the week before. On the stroke of half-time, and from a standing start, he launched the ball from half-way and bounced it over off the crossbar. The Tigers ultimately won by a point. It was a genius play.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=854&amp;fixtureid=50020101801&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=fieldgoal&amp;period=1&amp;time=2698" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see one of the greatest field goals of all time.</a><br><br>The Gold Coast have their own magician in Preston Campbell and it’s appropriate that we so often hear the words “hey Presto”.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; &nbsp;<br><br>The diminutive utility back is a will-o’-the-wisp type that revels in broken play and is a wonderful support player.<br><br>With the injury to Greg Bird, Preston’s value to the Titans will be even more obvious and in recent weeks he has shown that he is equally at home as a ball-player or runner.<br><br>Last Friday he threw the key pass to Kevin Gordon to set up golden point against the Dragons. <br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=856&amp;fixtureid=50020102002&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=801" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see this game-turning play.</a><br><br>His jack-in-the-box approach was also evident when he handled twice against the Knights in Round 16 to set up William Zillman.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=852&amp;fixtureid=50020101607&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=780" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see another Campbell masterclass.</a><br><br>Finally, the man I rate as the most explosive in the competition is the Panthers' Michael Jennings. He reminds me of a Formula One racing machine idling before powering off. &nbsp;<br><br>Give this man half a metre and next minute he’ll be putting the ball down under the posts.<br><br>Parramatta found this out in Round 19 when a wayward Daniel Mortimer pass was swooped upon for a 85 metre try to the speedster.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101904&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1379" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see how much speed Jennings truly possesses.</a><br><br>He had similar success three weeks earlier where he made Manly pay with a hat-trick of tries all from 40 metres out. His standing up of rookie Dean Whare for his final four pointer was particularly sweet.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/GameanalyserVideo/tabId/10910/Default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=852&amp;fixtureid=50020101602&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=linebreak&amp;period=2&amp;time=2191" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Jennings at his freakish best.</a><br><br>What I really like about Michael this year is that he is prepared to move from his centre posse in search of the football. This makes him an ever present danger. <br><br>These players who I see as "x factors" may not be the best or even the most influential in their teams. But if you have your breath taken away by thrilling moves over the next 10 weeks... I’ll bet they are right in the mix.