We look at the key head-to-head battles that could determine which teams win and which teams lose this weekend.
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs: Steve Matai v Tim Lafai
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs: Steve Matai v Tim Lafai
It's the battle of the Samoan tough guys that will be worth keeping an eye on at Brookie on Friday, with Manly's Steve Matai in career-best form and the man lining up opposite, 23-year-old Tim Lafai, right there with him as both have proved themselves a handful and then some on their respective left edges this year. While Matai is renowned as being tougher than a boarding house steak over the course of his 10 years in the top grade, Lafai is no slouch in the durability department either, having played much of the season with not one but two broken hands. You wouldn't know it based on the youngster's numbers though, he's turned out five tries, six line breaks and 29 tackle breaks already in 2013, while Matai is the form centre in the NRL at the moment, with nine tries, 11 line breaks, six try assists and 28 tackle breaks to boot.
Eels v Cowboys: Manu Ma'u v Jason Taumalolo
These two starting second-rowers, both New Zealand products, are two of the fiercest ball runners going round and both incredibly tough to tackle on their day. Each is more effective when not asked to do a mountain of tackling and freed to run the ball like a madman at smaller edge defenders. If Taumalolo can give Chris Sandow nightmares by running over the top of him all night, or if Ma'u can do the same to Johnathan Thurston, these bustling back-rowers could put a major exclamation point on this game.
Titans v Panthers: Albert Kelly v Peter Wallace
One of rugby league's most endearing traits is the ability of two completely contrasting players to play in the same position and be as equally effective for their respective teams. Kelly's blinding speed and instinctive nature is countered by the measured approach of Wallace who relies on a cool head and a killer kicking game to control his side's fortunes. And the numbers only serve to highlight their differences: Kelly has five tries to Wallace's one; Wallace has made just six errors compared to Kelly's 18; Kelly has made 13 runs from dummy-half, Wallace not a single one; and Wallace has passed on 321 occasions to Kelly's 216. They will do it in very different ways but their input will have a telling influence on the final result.
Dragons v Sharks: Josh Dugan v Michael Gordon
Two of the game's most stubborn fullbacks – there's a reason why they lead their teams in tackle breaks – have been coincidentally been shifted to the edges out of necessity. Not only does it give coach NSW coach Laurie Daley one more candidate for his vacant right-centre spot in two weeks, but it allows young gun Adam Quinlan to squeeze into the top 17. Gordon's move is a case of all hands on deck. Injuries to four backs in the squad means unused custodian Nathan Gardner gets his first action in the NRL this year.
Rabbitohs v Warriors: Greg Inglis v Sam Tomkins
Two of the best ball-playing fullbacks in the competition, who differ in many areas but match up well in their playmaking abilities. Maroons superstar Inglis has run for over 100 metres in all 11 of his NRL appearances this year, including three games where he went over 200. Tomkins on the other hand hasn’t been so prolific in the running department, perhaps understandable given he weighs only 83kg. Instead the English international contributes via his excellent vision, support play and passing game, which has spawned five try assists, the second most of any Warrior, and seen him handle the ball an average of 39 times per match.
Knights v Wests Tigers: Kurt Gidley v Robbie Farah
They captain their respective NRL teams and at some point have captained their state so there's no excuse as to why this isn't a key match-up. Current NSW rake Robbie Farah is in tremendous form considering his four tries, four line-breaks, six try-assists and eight line break assists in only seven games for the Tigers this season, and while his opposition hooker Kurt Gidley isn't quite reaching those heights anymore he still proves a worthy challenge. While he shares the role with rookie Adam Clydesdale nowadays, the Newcastle captain remains busy working hard in the middle for the Knights with three line break assists and 37.2 tackles per game to his name.
Storm v Roosters: Jesse Bromwich v Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
These Kiwi heavyweights weigh in at 114 and 121 kilograms respectively and will be big players in more way than one come Sunday. Bromwich has become a true leader at the Storm this season, averaging 140 metres and 29 tackles a game. Waerea-Hargreaves has averaged 101 metres and 27 tackles and the two 25-year-olds will be set to go head-to-head in a forward battle that should bring the fireworks. With the Storm under-strength across the park Bromwich will need a substantial win here to propel his side to within a semblance of taking the two points.
Raiders v Broncos: Anthony Milford v Ben Barba
There are plenty of similarities between Anthony Milford and Ben Barba. Both are incredibly fleet of foot, possess a step that could fool even the most honest defender, are the creative heartbeats of their respective sides, and both will be in Broncos' colours from 2015 onwards. Statistically, Milford has posted some impressive numbers in the first half of 2014, with 11 line breaks (equal first in the competition), 67 tackle breaks (the most of any player in the NRL), and seven try assists. Barba has taken time to settle into his new surroundings, and hasn’t recorded attacking numbers comparable to the Raiders’ custodian. However, Barba has made a competition-high 14 try saves in 2014, six more than the next best player. Some deft touches against the Sea Eagles in Round 12 hint that a return to his brilliant offensive best isn’t too far away. It will be intriguing to see how both men perform on Monday night, with much more than just the two competition points on the line..