It’s always an intriguing battle when Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall go up against one another, with the two flashy playmakers sharing plenty of history.
Wests Tigers fans will clearly remember an 18-year-old Brooks starring in man-of-the match debut game against the Dragons back in 2013, playing alongside none other than his childhood hero Marshall.
Fast-forward three years down the track and the pair will oppose each other for the fourth time, with Brooks enjoying arguably his best season to date and Marshall set to reach an illustrious milestone of 250 NRL games.
While time might have taken the ‘weirdness’ out of playing against Marshall that Brooks referred to when the former Kiwi international returned from a stint in Super Rugby, there’s no shying away from the important role that the pair play this weekend.
Most of Brooks’ statistics from the 2016 season make for pleasant reading: ranked 1st in the NRL for line-break assists, 4th for try-assists and an overall improvement in his kicking game columns (notably 9th for total kick metres and two 40/20s).
On the other hand, Marshall has battled niggling injuries throughout the season but the Dragons are a much better side with him on the field, winning four of their past six games that he has played.
The 31-year-old has set-up five tries, scored two of his own and provided seven line-break assists in ten matches this season – forming a strong partnership with his five-eighth Gareth Widdop.
It’s a massive battle between not only Brooks and Marshall, but also their halves partners Mitchell Moses and Widdop that will have a telling impact on Sunday’s result.
Whatever way you look at it, this game is a must-win for both sides if they want to make a run to the finals.
Brooks and Marshall have gone head-to-head on three prior occasions, with the Dragons playmaker winning two of those games against his former teammate.
The pair first met in the corresponding round two years ago, with Marshall steering his side to a 28-12 victory at ANZ Stadium.
During the 2015 season, Brooks and Marshall took away one win each, with this weekend’s game being the only time the two sides will meet this year in the regular season.
In total, Brooks has won two of his five career clashes against St. George Illawarra, while Marshall has a two win and one loss record against Wests Tigers.
250 NRL Games…
It all started at Campbelltown Sports Stadium on the 27th of July, 2003 – Marshall, while still studying his HSC at Keebra Park High School, flew down from the Gold Coast to make his NRL debut against the Newcastle Knights.
It’s only fitting that Marshall now comes up against his former Club for his 250th NRL game, a huge milestone for the Wests Tigers Life Member.
The former New Zealand captain played 201 of those matches for Wests Tigers, before moving to the Auckland Blues Super Rugby side and eventually St George Illawarra.
Kicking game crucial…
The kicking game from both sides will be a key one in this clash, with both sides forced to change their fullbacks from their last match.
In a positive for Wests Tigers, New South Wales debutant James Tedesco returns to the side, with Marshall and Widdop having the tough task of limiting his kick return metres.
Unfortunately for the Dragons, they will be without Josh Dugan who broke his jaw in Origin III, and have opted against using Jason Nightingale at the back again.
Adam Quinlan comes into the side for just his second match of the season, with Brooks and Moses expected to test the 23-year-old with their last tackle options.
Brooks will be hoping to find plenty of open space with his long-kicking game, which has been on song this year - averaging 230 kick metres per match.
What he said…
“There’s a bit of a logjam there to get in the top eight,” Brooks said. “So a win against the Dragons would put us right up there and would be massive.
“We just need to keep winning and get ourselves into that top eight – that’s the goal for us.
“The past six weeks our team has been playing some good footy and I think we’ve found the way that we want to play.
“I think with Elijah Taylor coming to the Club, that brings a lot to our attack and also defence,” he said.