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Full-backs' duel crucial

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Stathi Paxinos

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NRL Grand Final preview

No doubt it will be a very tactical game, but which of these two very different teams will have the goods on the day.

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IT IS the match-up of today's NRL grand final that has the fans of both Melbourne Storm and Canterbury excited. The battle between the past two Dally M medallists, the Storm's Billy Slater (2011) and the Bulldogs' Ben Barba (2012), to be the most influential player of the grand final.

Both men can change the course of a game in a breath, highlighted this season by Barba's remarkable long-range runs and tries.

But former Bulldogs great Greg Brentnall, who has worked at the Storm since the club's inception in 1998, believes Slater, who some regard as the best full-back to have played the game, has the advantage in terms of experience, defence and versatility.

Billy Slater and Ben Barba.

Billy Slater and Ben Barba. Photo: Marco Del Grande

''You're talking about a player who has played [more than] 200 games and performed at the top level for 10 years including state of origin and Kangaroos, up against Barba who has had a wonderful year, he's been sensational, but he's played [far fewer games, 79] at the top level and he hasn't represented [state or country] and hasn't played in big games, which I suppose is a huge advantage for Billy,'' Brentnall said.

''They're both wonderful players. I genuinely get excited when I see both of them play. I enjoy what they do and what they bring to the game as attacking players.

''Billy brings more to a team environment in a big game because he's such an all-round player now and he works just as hard off the ball as he does when he's got the ball in his hands.

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''He saves more tries than he scores and gives so much to the team with his direction from behind whereas Barba is brilliant individually and has been wonderful all year but I just don't think he brings as much to the team.

''They're both the X-factors in the game, they're both capable of scoring long-range tries and doing brilliant things with the footy in their hands.

''The Storm will try and nullify or limit the opportunities that Barba will get whereas with Billy it's a bit harder because he's never far away from being involved in the game. He doesn't just play one dimensionally, he's got so many different strings to his bow that he's very hard to keep out of the play.''

Former Storm winger Steve Turner, whose third season with the Bulldogs was ended earlier this year by a knee injury, agreed that Barba had ''a long way to go to be up there alongside Billy, because Billy's someone whose done it for a long period of time''.

''He's only a young kid but he's certainly shown a lot this year, what he's more than capable of doing, and hopefully that's something that he will continue to do as the years go on,'' Turner said.

Gary Belcher, who Brentnall said was the forerunner of Slater's running and ball-playing style, does not agree that Barba has a lesser all-round game.

''Benny Barba's got a kicking game, he's got a good passing game, he links with his outside men, sure his running game is his main feature, but Billy's best feature is his speed and his running game but he had those other options that he can use,'' Belcher said. ''I certainly wouldn't say Ben Barba's not an all-round player.

''They're more than just a player who stands at the back and diffuses bombs and tackles when the other team breaks through. They're a lot more to the game. If you haven't got a good full-back creating the extra man every time you've got the football you're behind the eight ball from the start.''

Belcher said players such as Slater, Barba and South Sydney's Greg Inglis could do anything with full-back play.

''It's pretty hard to top what Billy's doing at the moment, what Benny Barba's doing at the moment and what Greg Inglis can do,'' Belcher said. ''I don't know how it's going to change [but] the game has a way of continuing to develop and some coach or some player will come up with something amazing.''

KEY MATCH-UPS

BEN BARBA v BILLY SLATER
The battle between the man regarded as arguable the best full-back of all time (Slater) and his heir apparent
(Barba) is shaping as one of the most eyecatching of the grand final.

The Dally M medallists for the past two years (Slater 2011, Barba 2012) are in fine form and are the most feared runners in the game. Slater has slowly rebuilt his form following a knee injury while Barba has removed the flaws that previously blighted his game.

MICHAEL ENNIS v CAMERON SMITH
The two opposing captains have different approaches to their games.

Smith is the calm, calculated competitor, who does not allow many things, or opponents, to fuss him. The Storm is a lesser team without him on the field. His runs from dummy half will test the big Bulldogs forwards.

Ennis is an abrasive hooker who plays on emotion. Once regarded as one of the most disliked players on the field, it has been said that the captaincy has improved his temperament.

JOSH REYNOLDS/KRIS KEATING v GARETH WIDDOP/COOPER CRONK
The battle of the halves will go a long way to determining who will win. It will pit big-game experience against
youthful exuberance.

Reynolds and Keating have brightened the competition with their "have a go" mentality and it has paid off for Canterbury. However, questions will be raised as to whether they can hold it together under the pressure of a grand final.

The Storm has the experienced Cronk and Widdop. While Cronk is the on-field general, Widdop provides
a handy playmaking option on the opposite side of the field.

NRL GRAND FINAL
CANTERBURY BULLDOGS v MELBOURNE STORM
ANZ STADIUM, 5.15pm
THIS SEASON
Bulldogs 1st, 18-6 (40 points)
Storm 2nd, 17-7 (38 points)
QUALIFYING FINALS
Bulldogs d Manly 16-10
Storm d South Sydney 24-6
PRELIMINARY FINALS
Bulldogs d South Sydney 32-8
Storm d Manly 40-12
HEAD TO HEAD
Bulldogs 15, Storm 14
LAST TIME
Bulldogs d Storm 20-4,
Virgin Australia Stadium
(Mackay), rd 16, 2012
FORM
(most recent game first)
Bulldogs W W L W W,
Storm W W W W W
ODDS
Bulldogs $2.10, Storm
$1.75 (TAB Sportsbet)

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