Key Match-Up: Round 9 vs. Sharks
Two young gun centres will square off this Saturday night at Leichhardt Oval when Wests Tigers Moses Suli and Cronulla’s Jack Bird go head-to-head.
It’s been a bright start to his rookie season for Moses Suli — scoring a try and having a hand in two others in his memorable debut game against the Rabbitohs — before settling in to the left edge in all eight games so far this year for Wests Tigers.
The tries might not have been as free-flowing for the talented teenager as they were in Game 1, but Coach Ivan Cleary will no doubt still be impressed by Suli’s high work rate in attacking areas and also coming off his own line. Not once this season has Suli dropped below double figures in terms of carries per game, while his per game average for metres per game (125.1m) and post-contact metres per game (43.9m) both superb.
After a similarly strong start to his career that saw him named the Dally M Rookie of the Year, Bird’s rise as a top-class centre has come incredibly quickly, but has resulted in somewhat of a drop-off so far in 2017. It’s no doubt tough to top an award-winning 2015 followed by a premiership-winning 2016, but Bird’s numbers are certainly down by his own high standards so far this year with just one try and linebreak to his name.
Having said that, there’s no denying the class of Bird, who is no doubt much more comfortable at centre than at fullback, having replaced Ben Barba there at the start of the year.
With Bird no doubt looking for a big few weeks to earn his way into a City Origin or NSW State of Origin team as well, he’s still a big threat to watch out for.
ALL THE NUMBERS
Having played every game so far this season, it’s surprising how close both Suli and Bird are in their individual stats. Both have crossed for the lone try, while also contributing for a handful of try-assists. The pair are also extremely strong carriers of the football, but where they differ is in tackle breaks and missed tackles. Bird has the edge on Suli when it comes to busts — leading 29 to 18 — but it’s the rookie who has shown far more defensive prowess, with just four missed tackles compared to Bird’s staggering 28.
Saturday’s game will be the first meeting between the pair given Suli’s rookie season, with Bird playing two games against the Wests Tigers in his career for two wins. Only one of those did he feature at centre, however, a 34-26 win in Round 5 last season.
SULI MAKING THE SWITCH
Having debuted on the left wing, Suli has seen a positional switch over the last month under Coach Ivan Cleary — moving into the centres on the left edge and partnering Kevin Naiqama, who moved from right centre to left wing. With Luke Brooks out for all bar last week’s game, the attacking numbers hadn’t been as forthcoming for the youngster, but as shown by last week’s match-winning try, that could all start to change. However, if there’s a player who knows about switching positions, it’s his opposite number, who has played fullback (3 games), centre (22 games) and five-eighth (22 games) for Cronulla, utility and centre for NSW and halfback and centre for Australia.
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REPRESENTATIVE TEAMS AWAIT
The final game before the representative round next weekend, both Bird and Suli will certainly be looking to impress for the potential teams that lie ahead. Both NSW-born, Bird will be hopeful at making the Country Origin squad, and then the Blues Origin squad for Game I, while Suli will have his eyes on the U/20’s Origin team (to play before Game III) and also potentially the Junior Kangaroos team that plays next weekend.
WHAT HE SAID
“We’ve been inconsistent. Even though we put four wins together before last week’s loss, two of them were good and two of them were ugly. On a whole, our first eight rounds has been up and down at best and we need to make sure we perform well tomorrow. It’s a really important time of the season to start stringing some wins together before Origin. It’s a really important game.” — Sharks Coach Shane Flanagan