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Wests Tigers v Warriors
Leichhardt Oval
Friday, 7.45pm

Just when the Wests Tigers’ supporters thought 2013 was bad enough – after a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the season and an injury list long enough to fill Concord Hospital – things suddenly just got much worse.

Earlier this week, the greatest Wests Tiger of all-time, Benji Marshall, revealed to the rugby league world he wants out. And now we’re waiting to see how the aftershock of Benji’s decision affects the club.

The Tigers had been warming to the task of challenging for the semi-finals, winning four of their past six matches (including a 22-4 victory against the Storm) after a terrible start to the season. They’re still a slim chance of qualifying, sitting on 16 competition points – just two wins out of the top eight at present – but they didn’t need this extra (major) distraction.

The Warriors, meanwhile, have endured a similar season this year – although their biggest star hasn’t recently revealed a desire to leave the club and sport altogether.

Just like the Tigers, the Warriors started 2013 under their new coach poorly, and slowly but surely their results are improving. In the past six weeks, in fact, they’ve beaten the Roosters (23-12) and Sea Eagles (18-16). A win here puts them on 20 competition points – a figure currently shared by teams placed sixth to 10th – and well within finals striking distance.

For both sides, this is a crucial match. If they’re to feature in this year’s finals series, they can’t afford to lose touch with the top sides – and a defeat here will surely do that.

For the Tigers, their side remains unchanged after their close loss to the Sharks a fortnight ago. Both Aaron Woods and Robbie Farah have been named to back up from Origin, while powerful prop Keith Galloway is nearing ‘fit’ status and is expected to play against Manly next week.

The Warriors, meanwhile, welcome back cult hero winger Manu Vatuvei but coach Matthew Elliott is otherwise keeping his cards close to his chest. The Warriors mentor has named a seven-man interchange bench including three props in Charlie Gubb, Russell Packer and Suaia Matagi. Also included is winger Ngani Laumape, who made his eighth NRL appearance as Vatuvei’s replacement in the club’s last outing against Souths, as well as Dominique Peyroux. Jacob Lillyman returns to the interchange bench with Ben Matulino due to start.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: This week has been one hell of a distraction for Mick Potter’s men – and they’ll do well to make kick-off switched on and ready to play. The Warriors, on the other hand, have been doing little talking, bunkering down and focusing on their job at hand. Distraction-less, they could easily pull off a rare victory away from home here, just their third of the year.

Watch Out Warriors: With major controversy, some teams respond in fine fashion, hungry to silence the critics. The Tigers – and Marshall – could do just that. With all the talk of his poor season, the Tigers’ star five-eighth remains a major threat. Toss this year’s form guide out the window – have a look at last year’s stats where he created 35 tries and 32 line-breaks – and he’s still one of the best players in the game. Marshall won’t remain below his best forever.

Add that to the fact the Tigers have beaten the Warriors in four of their past five matches and all of a sudden things swing right back into the home side’s favour.

Plays To Watch: With talent in the halves and two packs of more-than-capable forwards, the battle of the backlines will prove particularly entertaining and important. How will the excellent young fullbacks, James Tedesco and Kevin Locke, fare against each other? What about the men in numbers 2-5? For the Tigers, David Nofoaluma, Blake Ayshford, Chris Lawrence and Tim Simona are excellent talents, but are they more dangerous than the Warriors’ Glen Fisiiahi, Dane Nielsen, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei? In a nutshell, it’s the Tigers’ speed and precision against the sheer strength and brute force of New Zealand. It’ll be an interesting battle to say the least – and a dynamic duel worth the price of admission alone.

Key Match-Up: The battle of the two attacking go-to men – Marshall and Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson – should be spectacular. Both off-the-cuff players of the highest calibre, some games you’ll get rocks with these two but other times you’ll get diamonds. Johnson has made it public knowledge he wants to be the best half in the game, and his form halfway through this year shows he’s certainly got the talent – 12 try assists, eight line-break assists and four tries show he’s a young man still full of game-winning potential. Whichever forward pack gives their attacking dynamo more room to breathe could witness a rugby league attacking clinic.

Where It Will Be Won: Both teams have been particularly poor in their metre-eating efforts in 2013 – the Tigers average just 1205.8 metres per game (16th) while the Warriors aren’t much better with 1291.5 (14th). For their attack to hit top gear and their magicians to weave their magic, they require field position – and it’s up to the likes of Woods, Adam Blair, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Sam Rapira, Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman to provide it for their respective teams. If they provide it, the ball-playing of Marshall and Johnson – and indeed Curtis Sironen and Feleti Mateo – will start to shine.

The History: Played 21; Tigers 11, Warriors 10.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Dan Eastwood; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Wests Tigers v Warriors clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld).

The Way We See It: With a pile of pressure mounted on one team – and, in particular, one player – anything’s possible here. Marshall could fold like a newspaper or rise like Goliath – what unfolds on Friday night at Leichhardt should make incredibly entertaining viewing. We’re leaning towards a Tigers victory based on two factors: 1) the Warriors have been beaten in four of five matches at Leichhardt; 2) Marshall is a champion player and, when cornered, champions rise to the occasion. Tigers by seven points, with Benji named man of the match.

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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