NRL: Battle of fullbacks crucial to final

The Storm's Billy Slater is one of the best performers in big games.  Photo / Getty Images
The Storm's Billy Slater is one of the best performers in big games. Photo / Getty Images

With Billy Slater back to his blistering best, Bulldogs gamebreaker Ben Barba is bracing for an explosive Melbourne Storm in an NRL grand final shaping as a match for the ages.

First versus second, Craig Bellamy against Des Hasler and Barba v Slater provide a fitting climax to the 2012 NRL season.

It will be the third time in six seasons Bellamy and Hasler have locked horns in a premiership decider, but it's the battle of the two fullbacks that has the potential to illuminate what's certain to be a titanic battle at ANZ Stadium.

Recently crowned Dally M medallist, Barba has thrived under the disciplined coaching of Hasler, who is looking to create history by becoming the first man to lead two different sides to premierships in successive years.

Slater has been the game's standout No1 for the past six seasons and is the current international player of the year.

Statistics, though, show Barba has edged the Melbourne superstar this season. He has been the Bulldogs' key man in a side who have won 14 of their past 15 games, scoring 22 tries in 26 matches.

Slater, unavailable to the Storm during the State of Origin series and also injured for a period, has crossed for 15 tries in 20 games.

However, Barba leaves him in his wake when it comes to metres made from kick returns, helped by some blistering long-range tries such his length-of-the-field effort against Parramatta in round nine.

Barba has clocked up 1521 metres compared with Slater's 776, and despite his diminutive stature has broken 168 tackles with the Melbourne man trailing behind with 100.

Despite this, Slater is one of the best performers in big games and was magnificent in the win over Manly last Friday, scoring twice.

And it was not lost on Barba that his fellow Queenslander was out of the side injured when Canterbury beat the Storm 20-4 in round 16, and he admits his stunning season will count for little on Sunday.

"Billy wasn't playing that day and he'll definitely add a bit more spark for them," Barba said.

"I haven't played in a grand final but I'm sure it's a whole different ball game. What happened in the season means nothing."

Barba's teammate Josh Reynolds agrees Slater will pose a huge threat to the Bulldogs, but said there was more to be concerned about than just Melbourne's so-called big three.

"Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk have been a big threat for them for years," Reynolds said. "But they've got strike power everywhere."

The Bulldogs finished two points ahead of Melbourne to seal the minor premiership, but the Storm scored more points and conceded less - chalking up a +215 points differential, 17 more than Canterbury.

- AAP

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