Key Battles: Where the Grand Final will be won and lost

Kevin Sinfield and Sean O'Loughlin
Kevin Sinfield and Sean O'Loughlin

AHEAD of tonight’s Super League Grand Final showdown, Phil Wilkinson picks out five key match ups which will decide who claims the Grand Final prize.

Zak Hardaker v Matty Bowen

THE Man of Steel, against the man who is saying farewell. Both players have the ability to unlock the tightest games – eye-catching qualities which often overshadow their solid defensive abilities. Hardaker is dangerous in broken play, while Bowen’s acceleration risks leaving scorch marks on the Old Trafford pitch... good job Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer in charge! Bowen, 33, has never won a domestic trophy during his glittering career and a victory – in front of his mum and dad, over from Australia – would be a fitting farewell to one of the game’s most likeable, and exciting, stars.

*****

Ryan Hall v Dom Manfredi

DOM Manfredi has nudged ahead of Josh Charnley in the pecking order, and five tries in his last two games show he has justified his selection in the Warriors line-up. His freakish strength close to the line faces a big test against England regular Ryan Hall. Some would say the player dubbed the World’s Best Winger hasn’t even been the best flyer in Super League this year, but he’s shown his big-game credentials in Leeds’ last two games, with decisive late tries to snatch crucial victories. Their wing duel should be an enticing encounter.

*****

Jamie Peacock v Ben Flower

BOTH props have made headlines in the build-up, for very different reasons. For those living under a rock, a recap: JP is the English warhorse retiring after tonight’s game. Flower is the Welsh prop who entered sporting infamy at Old Trafford a year ago. In the stories of farewells and redemption, something has got lost – the prospect of a fierce midfield battle. Both props are in good form, both are powerful, both are set to start... expect rugby league’s equivalent of two rams charging at each other in an attempt to win their side field position.

*****

Kallum Watkins v Oliver Gildart

KALLUM Watkins is universally recognised as one of rugby league’s best centres. A class act with silky footwork, he faces an exciting academy product with just six Wigan appearances under his belt. But Oliver Gildart has earned his place in the side on merit. The confident teenager hadn’t played for the team before the Super 8s, but in the last two months he has shown a maturity and strength beyond his years. He has quickly forged a left-side combination with his winger, Joe Burgess, as well as Liam Farrell and George Williams on his right.

*****

Adam Cuthbertson v Sean O’Loughlin

OKAY, Adam Cuthbertson may start in the front-row, but the line between prop and loose-forward has been smudged in recent years. Both will operate in the middle, and both offer their side something other than tackles and drives. Aussie Cuthbertson – shortlisted for the Man of Steel – has made nearly double the number of offloads as his closest rival this season, while O’Loughlin’s wide skill-set needs no introduction. The England skipper has been in inspired form in recent weeks. Whoever wins, expect big games from these two forwards.