Schick Hydro Preview: Brisbane Broncos v Wests Tigers
It seems every year these two sides meet around the State of Origin period and 2016 is no different.
In what may surprise some, the Tigers actually have the better record of late, winning two of their last three matches.
Wins against the Rabbitohs and the Knights have seen Wests jump to just a game out of the top eight and Friday night looms as a huge match for the Tigers' finals aspirations.
Brisbane on the other hand have only won one of their last three and although the losses came against tough opposition in the Sharks and Cowboys, they will not want the trend to continue.
The Broncos will be pleased to return to Suncorp Stadium after starting the year undefeated at their home ground, but there are changes aplenty for the home side, with six players leaving for Origin duty.
Darius Boyd, Corey Oates, Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire are all off to Queensland camp and were not available for selection.
It means that Jordan Kahu will shift to fullback while Greg Eden and Lachlan Maranta will come onto the wings. Plus Jarrod Wallace, Alex Glenn, Joe Ofahengaue and Jaydn Su'a (in his NRL debut) will all start in the forward pack.
These bulk changes will also see Jai Arrow, Herman Ese'ese and debutant Tevita Pangai Jr feature on the bench.
The Tigers too have a few changes to the side that beat Newcastle 20-12 last week. Aaron Woods is absent due to New South Wales selection and Tim Grant will start in the front row. It means Sauaso Sue (ribs) makes his return on the bench and Kevin Naiqama (groin) will also return in the centres.
Watch out Broncos: If the Broncos lose this match they will certainly consider themselves in a mid-season form slump. Close losses to the Sharks and the Cowboys in recent weeks make this match vital for Brisbane as they enter the Origin period looking for momentum. They have lost six key players for the match against Wests and their task only gets harder in the weeks coming up. Their Origin stars will play three games in eight days, with the Broncos travelling to New Zealand to play the Warriors on Saturday in Round 13, as well as travelling back to Brisbane to play the Raiders on Thursday night in Round 14. It's going to be a tough slog for those stars and the team's young guns playing this week will need a confidence-boosting win to start Brisbane's Origin period off on the right track. If Brisbane lose they will drop two games behind the league leaders, with both Melbourne and Cronulla-Sutherland having the bye this week.
Watch out Tigers: Brisbane might be understrength in some positions but they still have their dominant halves combination. Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford have been superb this season and the statistics make for scary viewing for the Tigers. Hunt now leads the competition with Johnathan Thurston for try assists, with 13. Milford is not far behind, sitting in the NRL top five with eight of his own. Both Hunt and Milford have eight line breaks to their name and again these numbers put both of Brisbane's halves in the top five of the competition. Milford has 10 line-break assists to his name and Hunt is just one behind. These figures are the second best of any halves pairing in the NRL – only bettered by North Queensland's Thurston and Michael Morgan. It means that the Tigers' line speed will have to be at its very best to limit any time Brisbane's halves have. If not, both Milford and Hunt will have a clinic against a Tigers defence that is without James Tedesco, Aaron Woods and Robbie Farah.
Key match-up: James Roberts vs. Kevin Naiqama. Naiqama returns from a groin injury to create a match-up between two of the game's most exciting centres. This head-to-head battle promises to be a thrilling contest of speed and agility. Both Roberts and Naiqama have had up-and-down periods during the season and it may be up to each x-factor to spark their team, with both teams missing their experienced fullbacks. Defence will be key here – many believe Roberts has his weaknesses in defence but it is Naiqama who has struggled to keep his opponents at bay all season. Naiqama has 28 missed tackles for the year, compared with 11 for Roberts. The Tigers could find themselves leaking points quickly if Naiqama keeps his average of three missed tackles a game up – especially with Milford, Hunt and Roberts running at him.
The history: Played 24; Broncos 19, Wests Tigers 4, Drawn 1. The two teams first met in Round 1 of the 2000 season in what was the Wests Tigers' first official NRL game as a joint venture. That match ended in a 24-all draw and as it turns out this would be one of just five occasions where the Tigers would come away with premiership points after meeting Brisbane. It's been a long time since Wests have tasted victory against the Broncos, with their last win coming in 2010. Brisbane went down 16-14 that night in another game when they were without their Origin stars. The two teams last met in Round 19, 2015, with the Broncos running out 42-16 winners in a one-sided affair. Lachlan Maranta scored three tries that day and second-row forward Alex Glenn crossed the line twice.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters aren't concerned about Brisbane's Origin absentees, with an incredible 95 per cent of money placed on the Broncos in the head-to-head market. More money has been wagered on Brisbane 13+ than all of the other margin options combined and they've also been well supported at the line. Corey Oates's Origin call-up means there is a new favourite in the first try-scorer market, with both Anthony Milford and Lachlan Maranta leading the betting. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Checchin; Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger; Touch Judges: Michael Wise & Tim Roby; Standby: Peter Gough; Review Officials: Steve Chiddy & Bryan Norrie; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: The loss of six Origin stars is a big blow for Brisbane but the fact the Tigers are missing their three best players in James Tedesco, Aaron Woods and Robbie Farah counteracts this completely. Suncorp Stadium is proving to be a fortress for the Broncos and it would be a minor miracle if Wests came away with the win. You can expect Brisbane's halves to get them over the line. Broncos by 18.