There's no shortage of storylines at play when Wests Tigers do battle with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs this afternoon at ANZ Stadium.
From a host of players taking on their former clubs to the slew of State of Origin hopefuls that will take to the field, it's certainly shaping as a fascinating encounter today between two intriguing sides.
Will it be Ivan Cleary's men who bounce back to form and re-establish themselves inside the top eight, or can Dean Pay's Bulldogs put together an 80-minute performance and start their climb up the ladder?
1. Which former player hurts their old club most?
It's the storyline that will no doubt garner the most attention today as four players face off against their former clubs — all for the first time. Having departed Wests Tigers at the end of 2017, Aaron Woods and Jeremy Marshall-King have had a mixed start to their time at the Bulldogs; strong personal performances haven't quite yielded the results that they would have desired, but they'll certainly be out to try and turn that around later this afternoon. The same can also kind of be said for Josh Reynolds, who has been cruelly denied a chance to feature in 2018 with hamstring and shoulder injuries limiting his on-field involvement to just a handful of minutes back in Round 6 when the game was already done and dusted. Out of the four players coming up against their former club, only Corey Thompson has enjoyed real success this year — fighting his way in to the starting side for Round 1 and then keeping the likes of David Nofoaluma, Tuimoala Lolohea and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak sidelined this year with his strong performances. The former Bulldog has already earned himself a contract extension for 2019, and will move to the wing this weekend as Lolohea returns to the side — bringing him up against young gun Marcelo Montoya. Montoya was in the Bulldogs' NYC side when Thompson was playing first-grade at Belmore back in 2015 and with very contrasting playing styles and body shapes, it's shaping as an intriguing battle indeed out on the wing.
2. Can Wests Tigers get their attack back on track?
With a 4-1 record through the opening five games, the only question around Wests Tigers was as to whether their attack would start to fire. 38 points the week later against Manly suggested that the team had turned in the corner in that regard, and while the defence started to slip over the next fortnight, their attack was humming with 20 and 22 points scored against the Knights and Eels respectively. However, since that game, the question marks around the side's attack have resurfaced with just 26 points scored in the past three weeks combined — highlighted most last week in the side's first game without a try all year. The return of Josh Reynolds, along with the inclusion of Tuimoala Lolohea and Mahe Fonua in to the backline, should help Ivan Cleary's side regain their attacking nous, but there's no guarantees. Wests Tigers have scored the 14th most points of any side this year; the Bulldogs the 15th most. Hopefully today's game can produce a few more points than those numbers suggest we might be in for today!
3. Who kicks goals... for either side?
A question that is particularly relevant for all those Fantasy players out there, but the goal-kicking duties for both sides is certainly just as important on the field this afternoon. Wests Tigers and the Bulldogs have had a number of matches go right down to the wire this year, making every shot at goal throughout the match an important one and potential match-winner. So the question of who kicks goals... well, it's an intriguing one indeed. Esan Marsters was kicking for Wests Tigers, but the return of Lolohea could throw a spanner in the works there given the Tongan international did have the job at the start of the year and was perfect from all part of the ground in last week's Intrust Super Premiership win. And on the other side of the aisle, it's also an intriguing question with Moses Mbye potentially challenged by new inclusion Rhyse Martin. Mbye has had the role all season, but Martin is possibly a better striker of the ball and has kicked at the reserve-grade level and also during the Rugby League World Cup with Papua New Guinea. There were photos floating around of Martin practicing at training too, so we're going to have a guess and say that maybe, just maybe, he takes over from Mbye if he misses a tough sideline one early on. Although, having said that, hopefully Wests Tigers fans don't get to find out who is kicking for the Bulldogs at all...
4. Are we in for a defensive, or attacking-minded, game?
We mentioned earlier that today's game will see the 14th v 15th best attacking teams face off, so on the surface, it seems we're in for a tight, defensive-minded game. However, what might be a better label is control: today's game will see two sides who excel at control go head-to-head. Wests Tigers have done a great job this year controlling games with their kicking — a statistic they lead the NRL in for both total kicks and kick metres — but the same can also be said for the Bulldogs, who rank top five in both statistics. Both sides are equal second in the NRL this year for set completion (79%) and are top five in regards to total metres run and dummy half run. The area that looms as the potential game-breaker, however, is second-phase play. Wests Tigers rank fourth in the NRL this year with offloads, while the ability of Bulldogs forwards Aaron Woods, Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Rhyse Martin in particular to keep the ball alive is well-known. In a tight game that will no doubt tire both sides, keeping the ball alive and working over the middle of the field before spinning it wide might just be the telling play.
5. Will this game affect any State of Origin chances?
As is common at this time of year, all talk around the NRL seems to link back to State of Origin, and which players will or won't be selected — something that is certainly pertinent for today's game with four Origin hopefuls set to take to the field. So the question is: will today's game affect anyone's chances, and who from today's game will be there in Brad Fittler's Blues side for Game One? It looks like Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks won't be in contention as the halves race drops down to three (Panthers duo James Maloney and Nathan Cleary as well as Luke Keary), but several Bulldogs forwards are right in the mix with Aaron Woods, David Klemmer and Josh Jackson all in the running. Judging by the myriad of reports out there, Klemmer's inclusion seems the most likely while Jackson is also likely to keep his spot — particularly given the hamstring injury to Sharks back-rower Wade Graham. So that just leaves Woods, someone who hasn't missed an Origin game for New South Wales since his debut back in Game Two of 2013. It'd be tough to leave the prop out of the team for Game One given he hasn't done a whole lot wrong, but the reports tend to suggest otherwise — making it a very intriguing storyline to keep an eye on today!