Big Match-ups Round 22
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles: Greg Inglis v Brett Stewart
In a golden age of rugby league fullbacks it is hard to imagine either club wanting to swap their respective No.1s for any other player in the competition. Inglis took a further step in his maturation process when he captained an NRL team for the first time last Sunday while Stewart is on track to once again spearhead a Sea Eagles premiership assault. Of players to have appeared at fullback on at least 10 occasions this season Stewart leads all in try assists and line-break assists and also boasts seven tries (six of which have come at Brookvale). Inglis also has seven tries for the season but only four since scoring a hat-trick against the Roosters in Round 1. He is fourth among fullbacks for both line breaks (11), line break assists (14), tackle breaks (71) and try assists (12) and seems to be enjoying being surrounded by lightning-quick youngsters. In a parallel rugby league universe these two are opposing Origin fullbacks but here on Earth, we'll just have to savour this match-up instead.
Broncos v Bulldogs: Ben Barba v Josh Reynolds
Ben Barba has now played three games since his switch from five-eighth but it hasn't done anything to spark both the Broncos and the former Dally M winner to life. The points have dried up for Brisbane in the past fortnight after Barba's positional change, with only 12 scored against the Storm and Sea Eagles. Prior to this Brisbane were scoring an average of 23 points per game. Whether the Broncos are still getting used to having Barba in the No.6 is still debatable, but the shift from fullback to pivot has seen the 25-year-old run with the ball less. In his 16 games at fullback Barba was averaging 12 runs per game, since his switch that number has dropped dramatically to only five runs. Josh Reynolds returned from suspension last week against Penrith but even that couldn’t save the Doggies from their third-straight defeat. Another 80 minutes under his belt should be the tonic the NSW five-eighth needs after this post Origin spell on the sidelines as he looks to rediscover the form which earned him representative selection to begin with. Given that his opposite number isn’t a natural No.6, it's hard to compare the stats between the two, but Reynolds' 10 try assists and 10 line break assists have been impressive. The challenge now for the 25-year-old is adding to the solitary try he has scored this season.
Knights v Storm: Joey Leilua v Will Chambers
A scintillating showdown between Joey Leilua and Will Chambers beckons this weekend in Newcastle. While Leilua is susceptible to an error and guilty of wayward passes to his winger his powerful running game assures that Will Chambers won't be coming to the Hunter for a picnic. The Knights centre has scored eight tries and produced six line breaks, nine line break assists and eight try assists this season. To add to his 2014 numbers, Leilua also has 67 tackle busts (11th in the NRL) to go along with his average 110.4 metres per game. Experienced Chambers won't be ignoring such threats, which add to the prospects of this match-up. The Queensland representative has been no slouch this season either, with eight tries, 11 line breaks and 31 tackle breaks racked up. In fact, Chambers is averaging 19.2 more metres per game than this week's Newcastle opponent.
Cowboys v Wests Tigers: Matt Scott v Aaron Woods
It’s State of Origin all over again and it has us salivating. While not one to engage in jaw-jacking, Scott may not have a choice if Woods plays protagonist all night... at least we know who will stand up if things get rough. We’re looking at you, Thor. Woods got the better of Scott in the only Origin game they faced off this year, chalking up 103 metres and 25 tackles compared with Scott’s 88-metre, 22-tackle effort, and he will need to do the same if they stand any chance of matching it with one of the game’s top packs.
Eels v Raiders: Jarryd Hayne v Anthony Milford
For the down-and-all-but-out Raiders, Anthony Milford needs to have a blinder for them to have any chance of scoring a face-saving win on Saturday night. Should opposite number Jarryd Hayne do the same and continue the ominous form he's displayed over the past fortnight, it's likely to get the Eels home regardless of what Milford pulls out the hat. Milford's 93 tackle breaks (behind only Penrith's Josh Mansour and Hayne), 15 line breaks, 10 line breaks and nine four-pointers have been some of the few bright spots in a very bleak Canberran winter, but Hayne's form in his last two matches is once again approaching otherworldly status. In the course of engineering wins over the Titans and Sharks, Hayne has racked up a phenomenal four tries, five line breaks, averaged 255 running metres and made 21 tackle busts. If he approaches those numbers again, the Raiders will be in for a rough night, and given the fire power the Eels have packed in around him – Radradra, Sandow and Hopoate to name a few – Milford will need to be at his very best if the Raiders are to outgun the blue and golds.
Warriors v Sharks: Jacob Lillyman v Andrew Fifita
Jacob Lillyman continues to enjoy arguably his best season as an NRL footballer, and has been one of the Warriors’ most-consistent players in 2014. Playing all 16 games to date, he is averaging 123 metres and 21 tackles per outing. Fifita too has been a pillar of strength for his Cronulla side, and with Paul Gallen missing has been the standout big bopper in a talented pack. Last week he was responsible for 173 running metres, 38 tackles and eight tackle busts. In fact all through 2014 Fifita’s stats are impressive, despite the undeniable fact that he has failed to live up to his 2013 form. In 11 games this season he has failed to run for over 100 metres and make over 25 tackles on only one occasion.
Dragons v Panthers: Jamie Soward v The Red V army
Unless the headgear-wearing dynamo scales the fence and joins the Red V faithful on the beachside hill, the former premiership-winning five-eighth won't actually come face to face at any point with Dragons fans. But you can sure as hell bet neither camp will shy away from a bit of good-natured banter. The stand-in Panthers skipper paid his old supporters quite the compliment when he said he expected the passionate locals to present him with an almighty gobful upon his first return to Wollongong since his infamous exit, and they'd probably know him well enough to know he'd respond in kind.
Roosters v Titans: Michael Jennings v James Roberts
OK, this might not exactly be the match-up that determines the winner and loser in this one but it shapes as definitely the most exciting to watch. While Roberts has made a bright start to his new life as a Titan, scoring four tries in seven games, his defence has at times been shown to be suspect, an area ripe for the picking by Jennings. The NSW Origin star made a triumphant return from a torn back muscle last Saturday against the Dragons, scoring twice and delivering the final pass for another for winger Nene MacDonald. With a decent turnaround to prepare for his second game back, the thought of Jennings being engaged in a footrace is a salivating one as we look to get a gauge on just who is the fastest man in rugby league. Jennings has seven line breaks from 13 games and Roberts four from seven; let's just hope at least one of them finds open space at some point during the 80 minutes.