The 15 biggest match-ups of 2014
1. Sam Burgess v Sonny Bill Williams
These two superstar forwards are building one of the great modern rugby league rivalries. An Englishman and a Kiwi playing for two of the oldest Sydney clubs, Burgess and Williams had some memorable clashes last season and were standouts for their respective nations in New Zealand's epic 20-18 win over England in the World Cup semi-final. Burgess famously trampled over Williams as Souths triumphed in Round 1 last season, but Williams had his revenge as the Roosters beat the Rabbitohs to the minor premiership in Round 26 before going on to win the grand final. It was split honours again in that World Cup Wembley classic, with Burgess putting in a Man of the Match display and Williams nabbing the win. Both big men combine raw power with skill, aggression and a great work ethic, and we can't wait for them to come head-to-head once more in 2014.
2. Ben Barba v whoever wears the No.1 for the Bulldogs
Barba's exit from Canterbury last season completed a significant fall from grace, coming just 12 months after the diminutive fullback took out the Dally M Medal as the NRL's best player. His move to Brisbane after a troubled year has caused a degree of acrimony and will add some extra spice to next season's clashes between the Bulldogs and the Broncos – and the spotlight will also be on whoever is called on to fill Barba's boots as Canterbury's new custodian. Josh Morris put in some admirable stints in Barba's absence last season but is at his best in the centres, and any other player who takes on the role will inevitably face comparisons with the super-talented Barba. An individual victory against the club's former star would bring a massive confidence boost to Barba's replacement and to the Bulldogs as a club.
3. Daly Cherry-Evans v Cooper Cronk
It's hard to believe that a player of Cronk's quality – the reigning Dally M Medal winner, no less – would find his State of Origin and Test position under threat despite a hugely successful run as Queensland and Australia halfback. But that's now the case thanks to the steep ascent of Manly young gun Daly Cherry-Evans, who won the Clive Churchill Medal in a losing side in the 2013 NRL Grand Final and arguably outshone Cronk for the Kangaroos at the 2013 World Cup. Cherry-Evans is still a long-shot to unseat Cronk as the starting half for the rep teams, but he'll be out to make the most of his individual match-ups against the Storm playmaker next season when Manly take on Melbourne.
4. Greg Inglis v Sam Tomkins
Sam Tomkins arrives in the NRL on the back of a lot of hype – the Warriors reportedly paid a record-breaking transfer fee to secure the services of the star Wigan fullback, who is expected to match the impact of fellow England imports Sam Burgess, James Graham and Gareth Widdop. He impressed in patches in England's World Cup campaign, ranking third in tournament behind only New Zealand's Kieran Foran and Australia's Greg Inglis for try assists. But the task of coming up against NRL defences each week will be a new experience for Tomkins, and his individual match-up with the most destructive fullback in the game in Inglis should be a highlight. Can the Super League superstar match it with the best of the NRL?
5. Parramatta fans v Ricky Stuart
Ricky Stuart's time as Parramatta coach was turbulent, to say the least. The former NSW Origin coach, who led the Roosters to a premiership 11 years earlier, arrived to much fanfare at the start of the 2013 season as coach of an Eels side that was looking to recover from the previous year's last-place finish. It's safe to say things didn't go well from there. In June Stuart told a dozen players their services were no longer wanted at the club, and the team continued to struggle on the way to a second straight wooden spoon. Then Stuart left to join the Raiders. Eels fans would love nothing more than to see their team hand Stuart's new domicile a defeat or two next season.
6. Will Hopoate v Jamie Lyon
A former Sea Eagle will take on a former Eel in the centres when Parramatta face Manly this season, with both players being vital men for their teams. Sea Eagles skipper Lyon might just be the best centre in the NRL and has led one of the dominant teams of the past few seasons, while 21-year-old Hopoate will resume his career after a two-year Mormon mission – having already won a premiership and played State of Origin football as a teenager during his time at Manly. Hopoate will come up against his former teammates as a star recruit for the Eels, and his performances in the blue and gold will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the 2014 season.
7. Jamie Soward v Gareth Widdop
Speaking of fascinating 2014 signings, how about these two big-name five-eighths? Jamie Soward experienced a rollercoaster seven seasons at the Dragons – playing a starring role in their 2010 premiership and taking part in all three Origin matches in 2011, before falling out of favour with both the club and fans and finally leaving mid-season in 2013. After a brief stint in the UK he's back in the NRL with the Panthers, and his first clash against St George Illawarra will be all the more intriguing considering the man who has replaced him. Gareth Widdop has been a mainstay of a successful Melbourne Storm side, but can the England international handle the step up to a key playmaker role at the Dragons? This individual battle could have a big say in the fortunes of both teams next season.
8. Lachlan Coote v Matt Moylan
The Panthers will come up against one of their favourite sons when they take on the Cowboys next season, with Lachlan Coote having moved north to replace the UK-bound Matt Bowen. For most teams, losing two fullbacks of the quality of Coote and Michael Gordon in consecutive seasons would be a disaster, but Penrith are well stocked in that area with 2013 rookie sensation Matt Moylan set to take on the top job next year (and the likes of Fiji fullback Kevin Naiqama waiting in the wings). After a frustrating campaign in which his game time was limited by the second-tier salary cap, Moylan now has the chance to prove his worth as a genuine first-choice No.1 – and who better to prove it against than the man he'll be replacing.
9. Issac Luke v Cameron Smith
They may be chalk and cheese in terms of playing styles but Issac Luke and Cameron Smith are arguably the two best hookers in rugby league, with both being standouts at the 2013 World Cup. South Sydney's Kiwi rake is all power and aggression – he was so dominant out of dummy half that he was among New Zealand's top metre-eaters at the Cup – while Melbourne's Kangaroos skipper is an old-fashioned schemer who pulls the strings for his team in attack and does a ton of work in defence. This individual battle will be one of the deciding factors in 2014's blockbusters between the Rabbitohs and the Storm – not to mention the mid-season Anzac Test.
10. David Taylor v Tony Williams
Both these hulking forwards possess mountains of skill, power and potential – and yet the pair failed to live up to the hype last season. Gold Coast big man Taylor is a halfback playing in a 188cm, 120kg body, as capable of popping a neat pass or clever grubber as he is crashing through defenders. Titans half Aidan Sezer says Taylor could become the best player in the game, but is 2014 the year he finally shows it? We can't wait for his clash with fellow underachieving behemoth Tony 'T-Rex' Williams, who was unstoppable for Manly in 2012 but uncharacteristically tame for the Bulldogs the following season. Can Des Hasler get the T-Rex back to his tackle-busting, offloading ways by the time he takes on the Titans in 2014?
11. Kade Snowden v Andrew Fifita
Two of the game's best props will meet when the much-improved Knights take on fellow finals contenders Cronulla, with former Shark Kade Snowden taking on one of 2013's best players in Andrew Fifita. One-time Kangaroos prop Snowden always lifts against his old club, and he'll need to against Fifita – who completed a breakthrough season by becoming a Kangaroos regular in Australia's World Cup campaign. Fifita led the NRL for hit-ups and metres in 2013 and made more tackle breaks than any other forward, so Snowden will need to be at his best to match the Sharks enforcer.
12. Josh Papalii v Boyd Cordner
Young back-rowers Papalii and Cordner were two of the game's success stories last season: both earned State of Origin selection for the first time (Papalii with Queensland and Cordner with NSW) on the way to Test debuts for the Kangaroos at the World Cup. Papalii edged out Cordner for a bench spot in Australia's bigger games, but Cordner had the better of the NRL season after playing a major part in the Roosters' premiership run. Who will get the edge here when the Chooks take on the Raiders?
13. Adam Blair v his detractors
A few years ago, Blair was the New Zealand vice captain and one of rugby league's most sought-after forwards, having been a major part of a successful Melbourne Storm outfit and New Zealand's World Cup-winning 2008 squad. Then he went to the Wests Tigers. As one of the club's highest-paid players, Blair has underachieved in his two seasons at the black and white – ranking an unwanted fourth in the NRL for missed tackles and fifth for penalties conceded in 2013. With greater responsibility at the club after the exit of Benji Marshall, can Blair prove his doubters wrong and become a dominant player in the NRL again?
14. Paul Gallen v Nate Myles
In an era of flick-passing centres, acrobatic wingers and ball-playing fullbacks, old-school enforcers Gallen and Myles seem to come from another age. The two have been inspirational performers for their states in recent years, but came to blows – literally – in last year's State of Origin opener in Sydney. Paul Gallen's unpunished punch in that match may have led to an adjustment of the game's rules but it also sparked one of the fiercest rivalries of the modern Origin era. Expect to see more fireworks when Gallen and Myles meet at Origin and club level again next season.
15. Adam Reynolds v Mitchell Pearce
Is the boy from Redfern destined to be the Blues' Origin saviour? Reynolds has been a revelation at halfback for South Sydney in the past couple of seasons but was again kept out of the NSW Origin side last year by incumbent No.7 Pearce, who couldn't engineer an end to Queensland's winning streak but still proved many of his critics wrong by helping the Roosters to a premiership. Pearce has the faith of NSW coach Laurie Daley, but for how long can he hold off the challenge of Reynolds while Queensland's dominance continues? The prized Blues halfback spot could well be on the line when these two go head-to-head next season.