We take a look at three key match-ups for Saturday night’s game…
There is at least one player in the Wigan side who will not be at all overawed by the occasion, and that is John Bateman. A naturally aggressive back rower who plays the game on the front foot, Bateman is the ideal man to take on the rugby league giant who is Sam Thaiday.
Thaiday has strength, power, ball carrying ability, fearsome defence and rugby league experience in bucketloads. He has played 20 State of Origin games for Queensland, and has also won 17 test caps for the Kangaroos. He was also named in the Australian Indigenous Team of the Century in 2008, one of only three current players to receive the honour.
But Bateman has shown that he is no respecter of reputations. He has tried to wind up Jamie Peacock in clashes with Leeds in the recent past, and some would say that he succeeded. He is cetainly not scared of anybody, and sometimes shows an almost reckless courage. He will not be frightened of Thaiday, but the Kangaroo backrower is a wily campaigner, and he could give Bateman a rugby league lesson on Saturday night.
The 32-year-old Hodges has masses of experience, certainly when compared his Wigan opposite number Dan Sarginson. Sarginson showed, though, that he is far from overawed by the big occasion with his impressive performances for England in the 2014 Four Nations. Sarginson was actually born in Perth, in Western Australia, but was raised in Hemel Hempstead. He learned his rugby league ‘down South’ rather than on the playing fields of Lancashire. That lack of traditional rugby league pedigree has not hampered his rise trough the Super League ranks, however. He is a tenacious player who can defend well, and links well on the left edge in attack.
Hodges has a heap of honours to his name, including 21 State of Origin games for Queensland, and 13 caps for Australia, plus three appearances for the Australian Indigenous team. He has also battled back to fitness from a number of injuries, showing that he has bucketloads of mental strength and resilience. He made his debut for Brisbane in 2000, before also spending time with Sydney Roosters between 2002 and 2004, before heading back to Brisbane. That makes Sarginson’s career look very short indeed.
But Sarginson, who made his debut for London Broncos (Harlequins as they were then) in 2011, showed that he is not afraid of the big stage. This could be a really interesting battle, and one that might throw up the game’s key moment.
Half-back is often where games are won and lost, and the battle between Hunt and Smith could be crucial to the outcome of this game. Hunt is an entertaining scrum-half who has played 114 NRL games for Brisbane, after making his debut for the club in 2009. He was a livewire for Australia in the Four Nations, coming on as an improvised loose forward against England, and turning the game. His lively running and eye for a gap opened up the big English pack, and allowed Australia, with some help from the video referee, to win the game.
Smith came to rugby league relatively late in his sporting life, having been on Everton FC’s books as a teenager. A somewhat understated performer, he has finally found a home in the Wigan team. He has graduated to the England ranks in recent years, and is currently England‘s first-choice scrum-half. Many observers still have doubts about whether he truly is international class or not, though he has turned in solid enough displays in his country’s colours. This game could be his chance to shine, and to show those doubters that he is the real deal when faced with NRL quality. Hunt might just edge this contest, though.