There’s one battle you should savour like the last bite of an early hours kebab this Friday: The clash of the 'ginger ninjas' up front. The young bull Dylan Napa has been elevated to the starting line-up for just the second time in his career and he faces off against the wiliest, rustiest prop in the business in James Graham. Napa will no doubt want to remind the Englishman of when he sat him on his backside back in 2012 but as Graham proved against the Storm, it’ll take more than a couple of knocks to unsettle him.
Broncos v Eels: Josh Hoffman v Corey Norman
Both have plenty to prove this season – one at a new club, the other in a new position. Corey Norman has been solid but not spectacular for the Eels so far in 2014. The ex-Bronco has only managed one try assist and one line break, and that's despite the Eels scoring 18 tries. His halves combination with Luke Kelly and now Chris Sandow is a work in progress so Norman's best is yet to come. Josh Hoffman is slowly warming to the Broncos' No.6 jumper. By playing as a ball-running type of five-eighth rather than a more traditional playmaking one, Hoffman is utilising his strength and destructive line-breaking ability to its maximum potential. The Kiwi international has made two try assists and one line break assist this season, although most of the attacking plays run through his halves partner Ben Hunt. His kicking game is slowly improving also but similarly to Norman his new role at the Broncos is still a work in progress.
If there’s one player who can hold his head up high in the travesty that has been the Sharks this season then look no further than their fullback Michael Gordon. A former NSW representative, Gordon has already helped himself to three line break assists and two try assists this season while averaging 122.6 metres per game. Going head-to-head with English international Sam Tomkins will be a task in itself – lately Tomkins looks like he’s ready to explode and flaunt what he’s got in the best rugby league competition in the world. Tomkins has already scored two tries, set up two and helped his teammates make five line breaks in 2014.
Panthers v Raiders: Matt Moylan v Anthony Milford
Two rising stars of the NRL go head-to-head in what shapes as a crucial battle from the backfield. Despite the furore surrounding his eventual move to Brisbane, the Raiders' young magician Anthony Milford has been at the centre of Canberra's renewed vigour in 2014, twice leading the team to victory with his individual brilliance. On the other hand, the unassuming Matt Moylan has quietly been Penrith's best over the opening month, accruing five try assists on his way to building a neat combination with his veteran halves partners Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace. Both players have been given freedom by their respective coaches to play what's in front of them, so it won't surprise us to see if a match-winning play comes from a guy with the No.1 on his back.
Dragons v Rabbitohs: Trent Merrin v Sam Burgess
Two of the form forwards of 2014. Trent Merrin has been both outstanding and influential in the Dragons' strong start, making almost 130 metres per game with 41 tackles per game. Sam Burgess has been a more dominant runner, averaging a massive 176 metres per game so far with one try, although his discipline and defence lags behind Merrin somewhat – he's conceded four penalties and committed three handling errors versus two and three respectively for the Dragons lock. And his 33 tackles per game also feature 11 misses, while Merrin has just five missed tackles against his name. It's likely whichever team wins will boast their man having an outstanding game.
Storm v Titans: Aidan Sezer v Cooper Cronk
Aidan Sezer was in everything against the Cowboys, setting up both of the Titans' tries with his trusty left boot as well as kicking what turned out to be the game-winning field goal. Both he and Cronk ranked fourth and third respectively for kick metres last year and both are instrumental to the creativity of their side. With the Titans ranked second last in the NRL for tries scored (just 11) and Smith possibly missing for the Storm, both Cronk and Sezer will need to fire for their respective teams to take a big step towards the two points.
Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles: Aaron Woods & Keith Galloway v Josh Starling & Brenton Lawrence
With Heritage Round upon us and these clubs having produced names such as Carroll, Roach, Donnelly and Krilich, it’s only fair we look at a front row battle that pits two of this year’s more underrated prop rotations against each other. While they’re barely household names in their own homes, Josh Starling and Brenton Lawrence have combined for 777 running metres and just under 50 tackles a game so far in 2014. And they’ll be up against one of the form props in the comp in Aaron Woods. The young firebrand has racked up a whopping 153 average run metres per game (sixth in NRL) and is ably supported by Keith Galloway (105 metres per game), with Gus Gould sure to ride the biggest 'Fanta Pants' throughout the game.
Cowboys v Knights: Ashton & Tariq Sims v Korbin Sims
Adding to the theatre of Monday night footy will be the above-mentioned sibling rivalry between Cowboys Ashton and Tariq and Knight Korbin. What makes this battle of Sims all the more interesting is how the three match up directly – all big boppers having some fun up the middle. But don’t think the Sims brothers are just out for each other: Oldest bro Ashton is probably the one guy you do not want to know after a loss ... and the Cowboys have suffered three of them.