Big Match-ups: Round 21
Sea Eagles v Broncos: Steve Matai v Justin Hodges
For two old blokes whose bodies have been known for failing them more regularly than they'd like, Steve Matai and Justin Hodges both still play integral roles in the fortunes of their respective teams. If reports – and the man himself – are to be believed, Matai is currently trying to work his way out of the remaining year of his contract at the Sea Eagles where he has played all of his 195 first grade games to date. He has hardly been in better form as his 12 tries, seven try assists and 16 line breaks attest to. Hodges, a little more than two years Matai's senior, also has seven try assists (from seven fewer games) along with 11 line-break assists and 588 running metres from dummy half. Hodges is something of a rarity these days as he often pops up on the opposite side of the field in attack so if Matai wants to contain him for the entire 80 minutes, he's going to need to call on some back-up.
Bulldogs v Panthers: Tim Lafai v Dean Whare
The kid with the best feet in Belmore meets the Kiwi with one of the best shoulders in Penrith – and that's saying something, considering they've got some brutal ones in Adam Docker and Nigel Plum. The current New Zealand centre is in somewhat of a funk – he missed five tackles against the Sharks last week – and now aims up against an in-form Lafai, who broke a season-high eight tackles against the Cowboys last week. In fact, the Samoan international has shredded 20 defenders in his past three games alone, making this face-off against one of the best defensive three-quarters in the NRL worth keeping an eye on.
Sharks v Eels: Michael Lichaa v Isaac De Gois
Isaac De Gois returns to Remondis Stadium this weekend after joining the Eels six weeks ago. While he will be faced with the unfamiliar sight of the away sheds, 29-year-old De Gois is set to go head-to-head with the kid he was replaced with at Cronulla this Saturday afternoon. Lichaa, who has been solid in a beaten team having produced a try assist and line break assist, has only missed remarkable one tackle in 250 attempts and is averaging 24.9 per game with Pat Politoni playing half the game out of dummy-half as well. The same can't be said about the veteran De Gois who has missed 41 tackles this season. Although he is on par with Lichaa in terms of try assists and line break assists, De Gois is currently not as solid in defence having only averaged 22 tackles with six weeks remaining in 2014.
Cowboys v Titans: David Taylor v Matthew Wright
We foresee a tit-for-tat battle between these two on the fringe. The Cowboys love to throw around the pill on their home turf and will likely increase traffic to Dave Taylor’s edge in an attempt to test the endurance of the game’s biggest centre. But on the other side, it will need to be effort by committee on the Cowboys’ part. Taylor has tallied a busy 50 touches and nine tackle breaks in the past two games. Wright certainly knows how to time a run – shown by his two four-pointers against the Dogs last week – but Taylor himself is coming off two tries in his last two outings. Wright has been playing with a point to prove all year and this game will be no different against one of the game’s unstoppable forces.
Roosters v Dragons: Michael Jennings v Josh Dugan
Chalk and cheese but class centres nonetheless, Chooks three-quarter Jennings is jumping in feet first in his return from a six-week layoff against fellow Blues centre Josh Dugan. The last match Jennings suited up for was NSW's historic win in Game II, in which Dugan was playing just his third game in the front line, and since then has only gone from strength to strength as he adapts to the role coach Paul McGregor has indicated could become permanent. Dugan's power game out wide has already netted him the same number of four pointers (five) and offloads (seven) as Jennings, and he's also averaging four tackle busts and a line break per game despite playing only five games in the Dragons' No.3 compared to the 12 started by his Roosters opposite, all of which adds up to the Tri-colours flyer having his hands full as he returns to his favoured left edge.
Raiders v Warriors: Jarrod Croker v Konrad Hurrell
Two players of vastly different physical make-ups and skill sets, they have both led the way as attacking weapons for their teams in 2014. Hurrell has tries in six of his last seven games and his enthusiasm at the start of matches is a big part of why the Warriors tend to begin so strongly. Last week he breezed through one of the game’s best defensive centres in Steve Matai to score the first try, before racking up 97 run metres, five tackle breaks and a line break. Croker is clever in attack and knows how to take advantage of overlaps out wide. The 23-year-old also has great speed and reads the intercept well. This looks sets for a memorable battle of power v precision, and whoever comes out on top will help their side’s chances immensely.
Rabbitohs v Knights: Greg Inglis v Sione Mata'utia
The two fullbacks are at opposite ends of the experience spectrum – Origin's all-time greatest try scorer and Test stalwart Greg Inglis up against 18-year-old Sione Mata'utia in just his second NRL game. They won't come together on the field much but each will have a big influence on how their side fares on Sunday. Mata'utia had a jittery start to his top grade career last week when a tricky bounce got past him and led to a Roosters try in the opening minutes but he recovered well to pump out 156 metres and six tackle breaks as his side went on to win. Those are actually better numbers than Inglis produced against the hapless Raiders last week (99 metres and three tackle breaks) but the class of the South Sydney custodian is certainly not in question and young Mata'utia will get a close up look this week at what being a top shelf fullback is all about.
Wests Tigers v Storm: Robbie Farah v Cameron Smith
Both these men are natural born leaders and captains of their respective clubs. Farah has been forced to play second fiddle to Cameroon Smith for the Kangaroos while the two have gone toe-to-toe in every State of Origin match for the past three years. Smith further entrenched his place in the annals of rugby league history last week, converting two points in front of the posts to overtake Craig Fitzgibbon as the highest points scoring forward of all time. In contrast, it was a frustrating weekend for Farah who expressed how much the off-field speculation had affected him prior to Sunday’s loss. His response on the field in this game as well the battle of both captains will be one to watch.