Two crafty hookers will go head-to-head at Campbelltown Sports Stadium tonight as Wests Tigers’ Matt McIlwrick and North Queensland’s Jake Granville square off.
Their two sides might be playing for different things — the Cowboys likely needing to win to make the finals while Wests Tigers are simply looking to continue their end of season resurgence — but there’s no doubting that both sides will be equally desperate to get the points tonight, and that the two number nines will be key in achieving that.
Granville’s importance to the Cowboys’ overall play is well-known, but has perhaps taken on added importance over the back half of the 2017 season due to injuries.
Jonathan Thurston’s absence has seen Michael Morgan, Lachlan Coote and Granville all step up to help fill the void, and with Morgan going off twice in the last two weeks, Granville has essentially played the full 80 minutes to try and get his team over the line.
As such, his already impressive work rate has picked up — making 39, 37 and 43 tackles in his last three games, all of which are well up on his season average of 30.3.
How Coote’s likely return changes his necessity in the attack still remains to be seen, but there’s no denying the importance of the wiry rake to Paul Green’s side tonight.
Somewhat underrated too is the importance that McIlwrick will play for Wests Tigers tonight — heightened by the absence of Luke Brooks, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Already expected to play big minutes, McIlwrick will likely need to play the full 80 tonight with bench utility Jack Littlejohn starting in the halves as Brooks’ replacement, leaving perhaps just Bayley Sironen as a pinch replacement if needed.
With Jacob Liddle (shoulder) and Matt Ballin (retired) both unavailable for the rest of the season, McIlwrick is likely looking at another big stint in the middle — something that he has been forced to do over the last six weeks with Liddle sidelined. Even Elijah Taylor, who replaced him at hooker for 20 minutes last week, is out with injury tonight.
Having said that, McIlwrick has shown he is more than capable of playing big minutes, and will be looking to replicate his performance against the Cowboys earlier this year where he had a try, two linebreaks and 24 tackles in less than an hour of action.
Other than the Sea Eagles game in Round 23 (where he failed a concussion test), McIlwrick has made 51, 32, 42, 51 and 33 tackles, and will again be looking to hold his own in the middle of the field against an always dangerous Cowboys forward pack.
Having not featured in more than eight games in a year before 2017, McIlwrick is remarkably on track to play every game for Wests Tigers for the first time in his career.
Interestingly, when McIlwrick had his best performance of the year against the Cowboys back in Round 6, Granville was absent, having broken his leg the week before against the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Prior to that, McIlwrick and Granville have only faced off against each other on one occasion in Round 1, 2015 when McIlwrick replaced the injured Jake Friend at the Roosters as they took on the Cowboys up in Townsville.
McIlwrick’s side won the game 28-4.