Hooker battle looms large for Roosters-Cowboys

It is the centre stage match-up that no-one will be looking at on Friday night, yet may prove to be the game's most pivotal.

In much the same vein as last Saturday's clash between North Queensland and Brisbane where the unheralded five-eighth duel between Robert Lui and Ben Barba proved a large difference, this Roosters-Cowboys semi-final could be won by the hand of hookers Jake Friend and Rory Kostjasyn.

After a long and arduous wait since the retirement of club legend Aaron Payne, North Queensland's new mainstay hooker has finally arrived in the form of Irish national Kostjasyn, and it is Payne who has been most impressed by his successor – the unsung hero in No.9.

"He's the type of player a lot of people want to play with, because you know what you're going to get from him each week. He's consistent, he'll have a go and I'd say if you ask a few of the current players, they'll say they enjoy playing with him," Payne told NRL.com.

"Probably doesn't get the accolades he deserves but he's doing a really good job. He's got a lot of really good attributes; a really strong defender and he plugs up that middle really well, he does a heap of work... and he's a good communicator.

"He understands what the coach wants and you need a No.9 in your team who knows what the coach wants and gets the guys around the park and he does that. He takes the pressure off Johnathan Thurston."

While Friend will make his return from a potentially life-threatening lung condition after missing just two games, Kostjasyn sees no advantage in targeting the battle-hardened rake this week.

"Jake Friend's a great player, he's tough as nails. He wouldn't be putting himself out there in such a big game if he's not fully fit so I doubt he would be any kind of liability," Kostjasyn said.

Both hookers are known for their effort plays, but it is Friend who comes out ahead statistically on both sides of the ball. The Roosters rake is no stranger to playing 80-minutes at a time, averaging over 65 minutes per contest this season; whereas Kostjasyn (48 minutes) is subbed earlier in games and has not seen more than 55 minutes of action since a Round 20 win against the Bulldogs, when both he and back-up Ray Thompson logged time together.

After Bronco Andrew McCullough, Friend is defensively the league's hardest-working dummy half (45 tackles per game at 96 per cent efficiency), compared with Kostjasyn's 27 tackles (38 with playing time adjusted) at 93 per cent.

Payne has a different take on this reading, however.

"I know, when you're attacking, you always try and find the little men on the field and that's often why the little men do so much tackling, and Jake Friend is obviously not the tallest guy going around," Payne said.

"Rory is probably classed as one of the bigger hookers in the game so that could have something to do with it, and he's very strong defensively. I don't think their game plan would be to go at Rory or single him out when they are attacking like you would with other teams' (hookers). And that's probably his number one asset, his strength and defence."

Attack-wise, both men are safe with ball in hand (fewer than six errors each all year), with Friend more lively out of dummy-half. But for Kostjasyn, whose role has deliberately been built for total simplicity, it's all about "defending my ass off".

"Not too much running out of dummy half or creating my own thing – we have guys as good as Johnno (Thurston), Rob Lui and Morgo (Michael Morgan) to make those great plays," he said.

"I've got a pretty simple role, I just get the forwards the footy and get Johnno some ball after we've got the field positions that we want to attack from, and defend my ass off. As long as I'm doing my job for the team, we go all right."

Added Payne: "Rory does, on a certain level, execute the game plan and talk to his big guys and where he wants them and what sort of plays he wants.

"He's really the one looking after the forwards and giving them direction but at the same time, the way Greeny coaches, they don't have to say too much because they all know their job, he simplifies everyone's role in the team, so guys know what they have to do."

Unless they possess the kicking game of a Cameron Smith or the dummy-half scoot of an Isaac Luke, hookers find it hard to get a mention in any game, let alone finals. Yet, there are few more important factors in a pack's go-forward than the men at the heart of it all. The match-up between the fit-again Friend and the improving Kostjasyn could go a long way to deciding which of their teams advances to next week's grand final qualifier.