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Wests Tigers v Warriors
Leichhardt Oval
Friday 7.45pm

A fortnight ago both of these sides were under pressure and in danger of dropping off the pace in the race for the top eight – but with a maximum four competition points apiece they’ve rocketed back into semi-finals calculations.

It’s the battle of 9th versus 8th, with the winner possibly vaulting as high as fifth if results go their way – while the loser could fall as low as 13th. Clearly it has the makings of a season-defining encounter.

The Wests Tigers got out of jail against the Titans in Round 9, winning in golden point more through opposition mistakes than their own good football. They rested up last week with the bye. Their big question mark this week is how they cover for the loss of creative captain Robbie Farah who will suit up for the NSW Blues in State of Origin I.

Tim Sheens has handed Tom Humble the job of filling in for Farah directing plays at the ruck. But his role will be made easier with Benji Marshall again slotting in at No.7, with Chris Lawrence retaining the No.6 jersey. Matt Utai and Pat Politoni are the new faces on their bench.

Meanwhile the Warriors have hit a purple patch of form, showing great resilience to come from behind to score a 30-20 win over the Broncos in Round 9, then pulling out too many guns for the Roosters in an enthralling, see-sawing clash last Saturday. However, those two recent games were played at Mt Smart Stadium, where the Warriors have built a sturdy 4-2 record – they stand 1-3 away from Auckland and will need to start showing their mettle on this side of the ditch if they’re to be considered a serious title contender.

With Jerome Ropati out for a minimum six weeks with a dislocated left patella and with first-call fullback Kevin Locke still sidelined, Warriors coach Brian McClennan has recalled Glenn Fisiiahi from the NSW Cup to pull on the No.1. The speedster has impressed in his outings for the Vulcans so far, notching 18 tries in his eight games.

The Warriors are also boosted by the return of Sam Rapira, who bumps Akuma Ta’ai from the interchange bench.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Shaun Johnson is evolving into one of the most lethal attackers in the game. With lightning-fast reflexes and judgment he can leave the best defenders stranded – as he showed last week when he split the Roosters open drifting laterally across the field. He was a handful when these teams last clashed, setting up two tries, one from a beautiful short ball on the left edge.

Johnson’s halves partner James Maloney is returning to form after going off the boil a month ago. He offered two try assists last week and loves matching his game with Benji Marshall – last time they met he broke the defensive line three times. He’s running more this season (average eight runs) than he did last year and his combination with Feleti Mateo will need to be monitored.

Ben Matulino’s rampaging runs need to be halted or the Warriors will gain plenty of attacking field position. Matulino leads his side for territory (117 metres and two tackle busts each week).  

Danger Sign: Watch for the Warriors to go to the air often, in particular targeting Beau Ryan’s wing with Manu Vatuvei their chaser. ‘The Beast’ burst back to tryscoring form last week with a towering leap to gather in a James Maloney cross-field bomb and Warriors coach Brian McClennan is sure to use the tactic again given the Tigers defuse just 55 per cent of diagonal attacking kicks.  

Watch Out Warriors: The Tigers rank alongside the Sea Eagles and Dragons for offering the most variety with their sideline shifts. Tim Sheens’ charges have spread their attack evenly, recording 41 left shifts and 43 right shifts – resulting in 13 tries on the left and 14 on the right. The Warriors can’t afford to switch off even when the ball is seemingly headed for the other side of the park, as it can quickly come back the other way.

Benji Marshall remains the key threat – he ranks third in the comp for try assists (13). Marshall is on the brink of a Leichhardt Oval milestone: he needs just a converted try to equal Olsen Filipaina for points scored at the venue (110).

Hard-working Liam Fulton leads his forwards for tackle busts and loves playing the Warriors – he made 23 hit-ups last time they met.

Beau Ryan continues to expand his attacking game and will threaten at some stage. Ryan leads all Tigers for tackle busts (25) and likes to mix things up – in particular opposite Manu Vatuvei will need to be wary of a grubber ahead and a Ryan chase. He scored this way against the Eels in Round 8 to notch his fifth try of the year.

Danger Sign: Anytime makeshift hooker Tom Humble drifts across the field out of dummy-half in the red attacking zone. On the left he’ll look to pick up Joel Reddy or Adam Blair with an inside ball; on the right the recipients will be Fulton and Blake Ayshford.

Joel Reddy v Konrad Hurrell: Reddy is one of the soundest defensive centres is the game – and he’ll need to be at his best to contain exciting newcomer Konrad Hurrell. But the Kiwi rookie will need to keep an eye on his opposite too – Reddy has a creative brain and loves to create second phase – he ranks third among centres for offloads (18). Meanwhile Hurrell is grasping his NRL chance like a hungry beast – in only his sixth NRL appearance last week he scored two tries, ran for 203 metres with three line-breaks (Clinton Toopi is the only other Warriors centre to achieve that feat) plus he averages nearly five tackle busts a game.

Where It Will Be Won: Line-breaks – both making them, and also shutting them down. These sides haven’t exactly excelled in attack in 2012, with the Warriors averaging a middle-of-the-pack 4.3 line-breaks and the Tigers making just 3.1, the fewest by any team. In defence the Warriors concede the fourth-most line-breaks – and the Tigers concede the most. They are both capable of turning it on here though – when they last met the sides totalled 12 line-breaks, with the Warriors steaming home on the back of five unanswered second-half line busts. Marshall, Tuqiri and Reddy will do the damage for the Tigers, with Johnson, Maloney, Vatuvei and Hurrell the go-to men for the visitors.

The History: Played 20; Wests Tigers 10, Warriors 10. Aside from their semi-final meeting the sides met on two other occasions in 2011, with the Tigers prevailing 20-12 and 26-22. Their last-start win was the Warriors’ sole victory in their past four meetings. Meanwhile the Tigers have lost just one night fixture at Leichhardt Oval in the past four years.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors knocked the Tigers out of the 2011 premiership hunt with a dramatic last-ditch try to notch a 22-20 semi-final victory at Allianz Stadium.

The Tigers led 18-6 at halftime through tries to Keith Galloway (14th minute – off a barge from close range), Benji Marshall (21st minute – sidestepping over from first receiver) and Robbie Farah (35th minute – from dummy-half), with James Maloney’s four-pointer off a Kevin Locke flick pass midway through the half the only cause for joy among Warriors fans.

Things looked brighter for Kiwi supporters when Feleti Mateo charged over on the left edge off a wonderful Shaun Johnson short ball to bridge the gap to six points with 50 minutes gone. However, a Benji Marshall penalty goal gave the Tigers breathing space and a 20-12 lead with 23 minutes to play. That buffer didn’t last long though, with Lance Hohaia scooting over from dummy-half in the 65th minute, setting the scene for a cliffhanger.

The Tigers looked like hanging on to their 22-20 lead and progress through to the preliminary final before a try was controversially awarded to Krisnan Inu with three minutes left on the clock. The Warriors’ last-ditch play involved James Maloney booting high for his right-side chasers. Inu and Lote Tuqiri contested the high ball, with Tuqiri fumbling the loose pill and knocking it backwards towards his line. Inu, prone on the ground, gathered possession, reached over and tried to plant the ball over the stripe but was blocked by Tigers fullback Tim Moltzen. Then the telling moment: without a hand laid on him to effect a tackle, Inu simply had a second go… and was given the green light by the video ref. It was one of the most dramatic conclusions to a semi-final in NRL history.

It was a cruel end of the road in 2011 for Tigers skipper Farah, who conjured two try assists to go with his try.

Shaun Johnson (two try assists), Inu (two line-breaks) and fullback Kevin Locke (137 metres) starred for the Warriors.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: It could well be the case that the side that has an off day will lose, rather than the side that ramps up their performance will win. This game matches the two outfits that have missed the most tackles and, incredibly given their respective expansive attacks, compiled the fewest metres each week so far. With Farah missing the Tigers may find it tough to get on top, even allowing for some parochial Leichhardt support. Given six of the past eight match-ups have been decided by eight points or less we’ll side with the Warriors by four points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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