It's the new craze taking over rugby league, but it's making one of our writers feel very silly indeed.
It’s Round 23, and as the finals logjam gets tighter and tighter, the pressure on the star players heats up more and more.
We’re set for some doozies this weekend: there’s some mate-against-mate action to kick us off, a meeting of Australia’s starting halves, a Queensland fullback rivalry, old v new for the Blues and even a local derby to round off the weekend – if you’re from Bradford, at least.
Here’s the biggest five match-ups to keep an eye on this weekend – and front of mind when you’re picking your Draftstars Rapidfire team, too.
It’s not like Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to try and big dog anyone, is it? The NRL’s premier enforcer – just you tell him otherwise – will line up against a familiar face on Thursday night in the form of Manly middle Matt Lodge.
Lodge was at the Roosters as recently as a month ago, tackling JWH every day in training, but has now jumped ship to the Sea Eagles and will go mano-a-mano with is mate for real at the SCG.
There was a time when you’d have said it was no contest between the pair, but given the way that Lodge has started his career in the maroon and white, it’s by no means a gimme for Jared.
Lodge seems tailor made for the way that Manly play, with an ability to hit tacklers chest-on, then either turn for the offload or get down for the ruck. What made him unsuitable for the Roosters’ system is making him perfect for what the Sea Eagles try to do. Lodge is 2-0 at his new club.
He’ll meet his match in Jared. The Kiwi enforcer loves an upper body contact and will know exactly what Lodge wants, so expect him to latch on and wrestle, attempting to keep the ruck high and low, denying that quick play the ball in the process.
Oh, and given how it went last time he faced a teammate – future Rooster Spencer Leniu – then expect fireworks too. Leniu was last seen offering half the crowd out for a fight after one of the all-time wind-ups from JWH.
Can we interest you in a battle of the Kangaroos’ halves?
Last year’s World Cup was dominated by the discussion over who would take the number 7 jersey – LOL, jk, they wore squad numbers to avoid making a decision about it – with Cleary eventually ousting incumbent Daly Cherry-Evans.
You’ll notice that there was never any debate about the six jumper. Munster was always playing five eighth for Australia, although, thanks to the aforementioned stupidity, he actually wore the 7.
The Prince of Penrith has faced off with Munster on many occasions in the Origin arena, but club meetings are actually few and far between: he missed this year’s clash in Melbourne through injury and last year’s through suspension. Not since Magic Round of 2022 have they clashed in the NRL.
Munster has been quiet of late, but roared back into life against Parramatta and seems to be gearing up for another stellar finals showing.
His side need the win more than their opponents and, if they’re going to finish in the top four, they’ll probably need to defeat Penrith this weekend or Brisbane at Suncorp in the final round. That starts here, and will likely require Munster overshadowing Cleary.
It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, given the positional difference, but it also sort of is: Melbourne don’t run a traditional 6 and 7, with Munster taking more kicking than most five eights and Cleary running more than most halfbacks.
Stats-wise, they’re split: Cleary takes it on line break assists and points – goalkicker bonus – while Munster is the better runner and tryscorer. On try assists, it’s a dead heat. This should be box office.
Queensland derbies are usually fraught, and with the Broncos chasing the Minor Premiership and the Cowboys looking to stay in the fight for the Finals, this will likely be no different.
While we’ve come to expect the middles to be key in these contest, it might well be out the back that the action happens.
Reece Walsh will be close to the top of anyone’s ranking for Fullback of the Year, while Scott Drinkwater will be right behind him, such has been his transformative effect on the Cowboys in 2023.
The pair are the main creative outlets for their side, who play with running 6s and controlling 7s, allowing the fullback the most licence to push the envelope in attack.
That’s paid off with Drinkwater, who is the current clubhouse leader for line break assists, though Walsh ties him for try assists – much as try assists are a little outcome-biased as a stat, the Brisbane fullback’s superb short kicking makes them relevant.
Neither are expert yardage players or defenders, but there’s not many you’d want in their place when the vital creative moment comes. It should be where this game is decided.
Souths and the Sharks are two of the best attacking teams in the comp, especially when they can get onto the front foot.
That starts with winning the ruck, then having the guy at dummy half who can press the go button with the ball.
While some rely on deception to get out from the markers, Blayke Brailey and Damien Cook are both eyes-up players and, more than most, have a role in selecting plays for their attack.
That should be at the fore on Saturday night in Perth. There’s likely to be a shedload of points on offer, and sweeping backline moves everywhere. If that’s the case, then punters want to be looking at the hookers as the key men in deciding when to put on the footy.
Cook edges this in both willingness to run and running effectiveness – unsurprisingly – but don’t discount the Sharks rake, because when it comes to ball-playing and putting men through holes, they can’t be split.
Defensive points might edge Cook here, given he makes more tackles per game on average, though Cronulla have struggled to hold the footy all year and thus this match-up might actually edge to whoever has more defending to do. If Souths fire, that might be Brailey.
Canberra is the thick end of 17,000 kilometres from the West Yorkshire city of Bradford, but there’ll be a corner of GIO Stadium that is forever English as two of the Bulls’ finest exports face off on Sunday to round out the weekend.
Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman came through the grades together and have a massive 83 appearances alongside one another across Super League, NRL and Test appearances for England, dating back to Jonneh’s debut in April 2011.
Naturally, there’s nothing between them. Bateman has the potential to win the match-up as a game breaker, which he always has in his locker, but the stats would tell you that Whitehead actually does it more often: his numbers for line break assists and tries are stronger.
Bateman tends to get involved more, with better tackling and running numbers, but there’s an easy argument to be made that, with the way the Tigers are going, he’s asked to do more.
Whitehead, on the other hand, keeps on keeping on – as is his style – and will doubtless do the same. With the Raiders heavily favoured, that might be where the sensible money lies.