Both Wests Tigers and theWarriors will be looking to get back on track when they meet tonight at Mount Smart Stadium for an intriguing Round 9 clash.
After dominant and somewhat surprising starts to the season that had both sides comfortably inside the top four, tough defeats in Round 8 have created an added sense of urgency and desperation for tonight's game.
For Wests Tigers, tonight's game is coming off the back of two heartbreaking, two-point defeats — games that were very much so in the balance and really should have gone the way of Ivan Cleary's side.
For the Warriors, it's the other end of the spectrum — a 40-point thrashing at the hands of the Melbourne Storm that had Stephen Kearney's men looking like a shell of the side they have been so far this year.
Back home and with key players back on deck, the hosts will certainly be an improved outfit this evening, and a fascinating battle awaits with a myriad of different storylines to keep an eye out for...
1. What impact will Elijah Taylor have in his return?
Sidelined for concussion in Round 7 and missing the following week as a result, Elijah Taylor's return is a crucial one for Wests Tigers as they look to sure up the middle of the field tonight. With Russell Packer still a week away with his knee injury, Taylor's return is certainly a boost for Wests Tigers forward rotation — likely to free up Josh Aloiai and Matt Eisenhuth from playing solely in the middle and potentially causing havoc on the edges once again. In terms of impact, you kind of know what you'll get from ET week in and week out, which is what makes him such a focal point of Cleary's side. Before picking up a hamstring injury in Round 2, Taylor was a standout against the Storm with his resilience in defence, and you'd have to think that his impact — both on and off the field — will be easily seen throughout tonight.
2. Will the Warriors right edge start firing once again?
It's been arguably the most in-form edge of any team in the competition, but the Warriors right side attack didn't offer anywhere near the same potency last weekend with Shaun Johnson and Tohu Harris both sidelined. Mason Lino and Peta Hiku did manage to create some joy for David Fusitu'a in the end, but it was too little too late for the visitors as they slumped to a heavy defeat. With the Kiwi internationals back on deck and a vocal home ground no doubt behind them, the Warriors right edge attack looks to be back at full strength and potential tonight and certainly a big challenge for Wests Tigers to shut down. Fusiut'a has been scoring tries for fun this year, and the battle between him and the bullocking Mahe Fonua looms as one of the more intriguing individual matchups out there. The key might just be what happens inside him, however, with Luke Brooks and Chris Lawrence defending superbly as a combination. If they can shut down Johnson and limit his time to link up with Harris, that will go a long way to reducing the ability that Hiku and even Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have out the back to send Fusitu'a over in the corner.
3. Can Wests Tigers find their discipline?
Discipline was one of the hallmarks of this Wests Tigers side early in the season, and while they certainly haven't gone away from it, errors and just switching off has started to creep in over the past fortnight — leading to two losses that could have easily ended up as victories. Wests Tigers made 10 errors last week and completed at just 75%, while the last two weeks have seen them miss a whopping 95 tackles. Against a Warriors side that has shown to be very stron, Cleary's men will need to find a return to the composed and controlled ways that saw them win five of their first six games in 2018. If they can do that, there's no doubting the talent in the side is enough to get them over the line against any opponent. The bigger challenge is simply limiting the opportunities they give other sides, and that comes down to discipline.
4. Will Isaac Luke play, or will he be missed?
Promising young hooker Jacob Liddle misses out this week for Wests Tigers as he battles a minor niggle picked up in the past few weeks — opening the door for Pita Godinet and potentially even Elijah Taylor at times to move in to the hooking role and get the visitors in the front foot tonight. His presence will no doubt be felt, particularly given his electric running from dummy half, but his loss may somewhat offset by the omission of Isaac Luke. The Kiwi international rake has rediscovered his form so far in 2018 to be one of the best dummy halves in the competition, but could miss tonight's game after picking up a knee injury last week against Melbourne. How the likes of Karl Lawton and potentially also Mason Lino go slotting in at No.9 will be fascinating to watch, should Luke eventually be ruled out tonight, and it'll be interesting to see whose loss is most felt out there on the field — Liddle or Luke. Both hookers have shown to add something to their respective sides in attack, so it's definitely going to be a blow should they both miss out.
5. Will we see more Mount Smart magic?
In a somewhat unusual turn of events, Wests Tigers will play their second game of the year at Mount Smart Stadium having made the trek over the Tasman just last month to take on the Melbourne Storm as part of the NRL's Round 5 doubleheader. On a sell-out night, it was Benji Marshall who stepped up to deliver the match-winning field goal with only a handful of minutes left on the clock — sending the heavy pro-Wests Tigers crowd in to raptures. The question for tonight's game is will we see more of it? Given the large contingent of ex-Warriors in this Wests Tigers squad (including Coach Ivan Cleary) and the huge role that Marshall has played in New Zealand rugby league as a whole, don't be surprised to see Mount Smart perhaps be less parochial than ever before with their support — something which could play a huge role in getting the visitors home in another tight one should that transpire this evening!