What are the biggest storylines and questions to watch out for in Wests Tigers' Round 1 match against the South Sydney Rabbitohs this Friday at ANZ Stadium?
Here's five big questions to keep an eye on during the week and in the game!
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1. Who will wear the Number 7 jersey for South Sydney?
With Blues halfback Adam Reynolds sidelined for a month with appendictis, South Sydney will need to find an alternative halves partner for Cody Walker in Round 1. Rabbitohs Coach Michael Maguire does have a few options for the position, with former Eels halfback Luke Kelly the man likely to fill the boots of Reynolds. Alternatively, the likes of John Sutton and Greg Inglis could also slot in the halves if needed, with Damien Cook and Robbie Farah to take some of the playmaking duties if required. What's for sure, though, is that the kicking game (and goal-kicking abilities) of Reynolds will be sorely missed come Friday night.
2. Will Wests Tigers get off to a fast start?
Having won the last three matches between the two sides, Wests Tigers will head into Friday's clash against the Rabbitohs looking to produce a similar performance to their efforts last season, where they took down their more fancied opponents 30-22 in Round 9 and 30-14 in Round 14. What's worth noting too, is the way in which Jason Taylor's men started in both of those games. In Round 9, tries to James Tedesco, Jordan Rankin, Luke Brooks and Kevin Naiqama gave Wests Tigers an unassailable 20-0 lead after 22 minutes. In Round 14, tries to Mitchell Moses and Tim Simona gave Wests Tigers an early 10-0 lead, which they would eventually turn into a 28-8 advantage shortly after half-time. With both sides likely to tire late in the piece due to the lack of match fitness, a fast start will certainly be crucial on Friday night.
3. How will both teams manage the hooker position?
Plenty of questions remain as to how both teams will manage the number nine jersey in what's shaping as a fascinating positional battle to watch for. Souths will head into the match with Robbie Farah and Damien Cook likely to split the duties, while Wests Tigers could have either of Matt Ballin, Matt McIlwrick or Jacob Liddle in the mix. Both Liddle and Ballin come into the week under injury clouds — meaning fans will need to keep a close eye on Tuesday's squad announcement to see which players are included in the team. McIlwrick was one of the Club's best throughout the trial matches, and will have no problems slotting in if required.
4. Will Luke Brooks deliver another strong performance?
While much of the talk during the week will be on his counterpart — and who will take the field in the No.7 jersey for South Sydney — Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks will be primed for another big performance against a team he (historically) performs very well against. Since 2014, in every single one of Wests Tigers' wins over the Rabbitohs, Brooks has produced at least two try-assists. Throw in two tries and a strong kicking performance as well, and the 22-year-old will head into Friday's game no doubt eager to impress. With Mitchell Moses coming off a brilliant end to the season that saw him win Wests Tigers Player of the Year and Players' Player, look for the two local juniors to reinforce their strong combination once again.
5. What will Jamal Idris produce in his first game back?
"I'm a freak." That's how a joking Jamal Idris reflected on his trial performances, but those who watched the former Australian and NSW representative in his first games back will surely admit that Idris' comments aren't too far from the mark. Impressive in attack and defence, Idris will play his first NRL game in close to two years on Friday night and the rugby league world as a whole will be keen to see how he goes. Blessed with a physical presence along with sharp footwork and handling, just how he will slot into the team remains somewhat up in the air, but there's no doubting that the 26-year-old will have an lasting impact somewhere (if not for the whole) 80 minutes at ANZ Stadium.