Big Match-ups Round 26
Roosters v Rabbitohs: Sonny Bill Williams v Sam Burgess
How could we possibly go past the two explosive Test forwards in what could potentially be (but probably won't be) their last time coming face to face in the NRL? They may actually get a rematch as soon as next week, or failing that in the late stages of the finals (or both) but this is certainly one of our last chances to savour a famous rivalry. Their club clashes last year were capped off by some explosive contests in the World Cup representing their nations of birth, with a resumption of hostilities in Round 1. While Burgess has gone to a new level in 2014, Williams has struggled to match the amazing exploits he produced last year on his return to rugby league. Stats-wise Burgess is an easy winner so far, with 171 metres per game against 124 for Williams, 10 tries to SBW's three, 13 line breaks against three, 66 tackle breaks against Sonny Bill's 39, and twice as many tackles. Williams has four try assists against two for Burgess but it's well down on his 2013 haul of 13 line breaks and eight try assists. Still, Sonny won't care what the stats say if his Roosters go back to back any more than Burgess will care what his stats say if he can't get the Rabbitohs a premiership in his rugby league swansong. In the meantime, get your eyeballs ready for another titanic clash between two rugby league heavyweights.
Storm v Broncos: Cooper Cronk v Ben Hunt
It would not sit well with Cronk knowing his opposing number was the Roosters’ match-winner last week. The Maroons halfback will come up against another weekend hero from Round 25 in Ben Hunt. The Broncos halfback had an assist and two tries of his own in a commanding first-half display. His 18 line breaks are equal with Cronk and the 24-year-old has just two fewer try assists to his name. It will be a true test on an important stage to see whether Hunt is ready to go kick-for-kick with the best of them.
Wests Tigers v Sharks: Robbie Farah v Michael Lichaa
They're at wildly different stages of their careers, and as such have wildly different motivations or wanting to finish up their 2014 campaigns a winner, but those motivations will be burning mighty strong all the same. Farah will be desperate to put a dreadful past two months of media speculation, squabbles with management and heavy defeats to bed with a victory ditty in the Leichhardt dressing room he knows so well. After earlier this year enjoying one of his greatest personal triumphs with NSW's historic series win, Farah's year has spiralled out of control in the same direction as that of his team, and the Tigers capitulation to seven defeats in their past eight games has stung the black and gold's skipper. Lichaa, the 21-year-old kid who could well one day take up Farah's No.9 jumper for the Blues will be packing down opposite him in the scrum in his last game for the Sharks, and will also be keen to walk away from the club with a rare happy memory of what has been a trying debut year.
Raiders v Eels: Jack Wighton v Jarryd Hayne
Both of these fullbacks are incredibly versatile, able to cover wing, centre, and five-eighth, in addition to the position they will both occupy on Saturday night. In fact, both were told by Ricky Stuart at some point in their respective careers that the No. 6 jersey might just be their best fit. Of course, Hayne is in the prime of his career, and exercises great influence over his side each week. But Wighton is becoming increasingly important to the Raiders, particularly given this game will also be the last for Anthony Milford in Raiders’ colours. With Hayne coming off a successful State of Origin series with New South Wales, it might not be too long before we see Wighton line up alongside him in sky blue.
Cowboys v Sea Eagles: Johnathan Thurston v Daly Cherry-Evans
While injuries to Cooper Cronk and Cherry-Evans have stripped Cowboys fans the privilege of a premier halves match-up this season, schedule-makers have saved the best for last when the king and his heir finally go toe to toe in 2014. With potential immortals Thurston and Cronk running the show for the Queensland Maroons since before Cherry-Evans entered the competition, DCE adopted the ‘if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em’ approach in this year’s Origin by inserting himself into the back row in Game Three and playing off the two veteran halves. It is testament to his strength and ball-running ability as a halfback that he can do this, and that is the biggest problem he will pose to North Queensland this Saturday, especially if the Cowboys’ middle turns up with the same mentality as they did against Cronulla. Pundits will say comparing these two is like splitting hairs, but stats tell a vastly different story. In 20 games this season, Cherry-Evans has registered nine line breaks, 13 try assists and 10 line break assists, while in just one more game Thurston has 10, 30, 26 respectively. As Manly have more playmaking power over the park, their load is spread more evenly; nevertheless Thurston’s numbers have Dally M Player of the Year written all over them.
Knights v Dragons: Jarrod Mullen/Tyrone Roberts vs. Gareth Widdop/Benji Marshall
While Mullen's return to form against the Eels (disappointingly for Knights' fans at the wrong end of the year) saw him score a belter of a try and set up two others it has been halves partner Tyrone Roberts who has steered the ship in each of Newcastle's games this year. The 23-year-old will head into his final game of the year with 11 try assists and he'll be chasing a couple more to match Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall. The Red V duo have assisted in 33 tries while their kicking games have allowed them to kick for a combined 9140 metres downfield. Not to be outdone however is Mullen, who has kicked for 7034 metres.
Titans v Bulldogs: James Roberts v Josh Morris
Given the struggles Morris appeared to have with his knee against the Rabbitohs last Thursday a sprint between these two on Sunday may be a one-sided contest but the challenge for Roberts will be finding space against one of the best defensive centres in the competition. Morris lined up at fullback when the Titans triumphed 26-16 in Round 22 last season but in his five previous games against Gold Coast Morris had racked up six tries. Although he has had some injury battles of his own, Roberts has been the shining light in a spluttering Gold Coast attack since joining from the Panthers midway through the year; the key for his teammates is creating time and space to give him one-on-one opportunities with room to move.
Panthers v Warriors: Matt Moylan v Sam Tomkins
It's last year's New Kid on the Block versus England's own Billy The Kid in an intriguing battle of the fullbacks. Halves Jamie Soward and Shaun Johnson undoubtedly are the main men, and will certainly be relied upon to steer their team around the field. But it's their fullback sidekicks who then enter the spotlight in the opposition red zone, with both clearly adept at putting their teammates over the line. Moylan's 16 try assists is one behind Soward's 17 at Penrith, while Tomkins leads his team with 13. They also have 35 line break assists between them. While the talent is certainly evident, however, their ability to produce it in the big games is still in question, with Moylan in just his second season and Tomkins still in his first in the NRL.