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Trial by fire: Five players with the most at stake this weekend

With the kick-off to the 2021 season less than a fortnight away, things get serious this weekend when the big guns come out to play in a full round of trials.

Players who turned out in fewer than 12 games last season got their chance to impress in recent weeks but now it's time for coaches to take a look at their best combinations and unleash their stars.

From the annual Charity Shield clash between the Dragons and Rabbitohs in Mudgee to Queensland heavyweights Brisbane and North Queensland going at it in Redcliffe, there's plenty of intriguing storylines and a number of high-profile players stepping into the spotlight for the first time in 2021.

There's new recruits and new captains hoping to justify the faith shown in them by club and coach. And there's old favourites who've endured off-season upheaval and can't wait to do their talking on the field.

Here's five men with plenty at stake this weekend …

The key player signings to watch in 2021

David Fifita (Titans)

With a giant price tag comes giant expectations but the general consensus is the 21-year-old colossus will handle the pressure.

After making 141 metres from 15 hit-ups in an impressive 62-minute hit-out for the Indigenous All Stars, Gold Coast's star recruit is ready to take it up another notch against the Warriors in Lismore.

David Fifita shows his explosive speed

With five wins on the trot to end 2020, the Titans well and truly emerged from the shadow of "big brother" Brisbane, who languished in last place and look set for another tough year.

In contrast, the Titans have put together a powerhouse pack headlined by Fifita, Storm monster Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Origin prop Jarrod Wallace and they'll look to make an early statement against the Warriors' big boppers on Saturday.

After winning 19 of 72 games across three dismal seasons from 2017-19, the Titans improved out of sight last year to finish ninth and there's every reason to think they can take another leap this season and play finals.

If they do, expect David Fifita to be a driving force and quickly become a cult figure on the Gold Coast.

Ben Hunt (Dragons)

Even before new coach Anthony Griffin anointed him captain, Hunt was set for another season of intense scrutiny. It has been that way ever since his nightmare moment in the 2015 grand final with the Broncos and it cranked up when he moved to the Red V on a lucrative deal in 2018.

Halfbacks live their life in the spotlight and are often the easiest scapegoat for fans looking for someone to blame.

Hunt surprised by captaincy

At 30 and with 252 NRL games to his name, Hunt has the maturity to cope with the pressure and provide strong leadership to a squad in a rebuilding phase after farewelling Tyson Frizell, Euan Aitken, James Graham and losing Cameron McInnes for the season.

The old-school rivalry between the Dragons and Rabbitohs ensures the Charity Shield is a step up from your average trial game and it provides the ideal stage for Hunt to stamp his mark on the team.

Brodie Croft (Broncos)

There's no bigger challenge for a playmaker than trying to turn around a wooden spoon season and spark an attack that could muster only 13 points per game in 2020.

For Brodie Croft, that challenge begins at Redcliffe on Saturday when he joins forces with Tom Dearden to take on Cowboys halves Michael Morgan and Jake Clifford.

With Anthony Milford set to return from a broken hand in the early weeks of the season, Croft and Dearden will go head-to-head for the No.7 jersey so there's plenty at stake for both men.

Broncos halfback Brodie Croft.
Broncos halfback Brodie Croft. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Croft arrived at Red Hill in 2020 amid plenty of hype and it's fair to say very little went right for the 23-year-old in his first season in Brisbane.

After playing the first 10 games at halfback he was switched to five-eighth for three games with Dearden preferred at halfback. Croft then found himself on the bench for the 58-12 loss to the Roosters in round 16 and was dropped in the wake of that drubbing.

"I thought I questioned things I was doing too much and went away from what I knew my strengths were," Croft said this week when reflecting on a tough 2020 campaign.

With a new year comes a new coach and new hope at Brisbane and Croft certainly has the talent to lead a revival at a club more accustomed to success than spoons.     

Mitchell Pearce (Knights)

If ever a player wanted to get back on the paddock and leave the off-season behind him, it's the veteran Knights halfback.

Pearce needs just three more games to join the 300 club and he'll be hoping the Knights can get off to a flyer against the Bulldogs and Warriors to launch him into that special milestone in round three on a positive note.

Whatever issues Pearce has faced off the field there's no denying his quality on it and if the Knights are to make some noise in 2021 they need the 31-year-old at his absolute peak.

Knights halfback Mitchell Pearce.
Knights halfback Mitchell Pearce. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

It all starts for Pearce in a heavyweight trial showdown with premiers Melbourne in Albury this weekend when he gets to match wits with Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster, two men high on confidence after winning a grand final at their last outing.

He's no longer the captain at Newcastle but Pearce will be expected to guide young No.6 Phoenix Crossland around the park and be the link man between a youthful backline and vastly experienced pack.

Brandon Smith (Storm)

A new era dawns at the Storm in 2021 with one Smith gone and another ready to step into the breach – if he can satisfy himself with doing that from the interchange bench.

Nuggety Kiwi Brandon Smith has spent three years in the shadow of all-time great Cameron Smith and just when he was ready to step into the spotlight, Harry Grant comes back into the frame after a breakout season at Wests Tigers.

Smith admits 2021 could be his Storm swansong

Make no mistake, Grant and Smith give the Storm the best 1-2 punch out of dummy half in the NRL, but keeping both men happy will take all of Craig Bellamy's coaching prowess.

We'll get our first look at the classy combo in Albury on Saturday and it will be intriguing to see how many minutes Grant plays and how the Storm function when both men are on the field at the same time.

Smith comes off contract at the end of 2022 but there's no shortage of rival clubs keen to lure him away early with the offer of a starting role at No.9.

How the partnership with Grant works in the early stages of the 2021 season will have a big impact on Smith's thinking around his future.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.