Leeds v St Helens: Super League head to head
Watch live from 7.30pm on Sky Sports Action
By Tom Mordey
Last Updated: 15/06/18 7:45pm
What a game we have in store on Friday. Leeds, so desperate for a turn in form, take on the league leaders St Helens, live on Sky Sports Action.
The Rhinos won the reverse fixture back in March but will they repeat the trick at Headingley? Here's three head to heads that might decide it...
Jack Walker v Ben Barba
Leeds might be struggling significantly with injuries, but one area they are still blessed is at full-back. Jack Walker versus Ashton Golding is a battle at Headingley that could go on for years. Walker won that battle in last year's Grand Final, but after impressing in the pressure cauldron of Old Trafford, 2018 has been more difficult.
He's had a few injury problems and again went off against Huddersfield with a knock, before returning later on. That has limited Walker to 10 Super League appearances this season, three off the bench and one at second row against Widnes, with Golding taking the No 1 slot. Walker has started the last three league games at full-back though, and will look to nail down a slot for the rest of the season.
Walker could do worse than learning off his opposite number on Friday night.
It would be remiss to write any feature on St Helens without including Ben Barba. He has torn Super League apart in 2018 and looks almost nailed on for the Man of Steel award bar any drastic collapse from him or his league-leading side.
Justin Holbrook has fashioned a sensational Saints outfit this season and there is plenty more to their game than just the Australian full-back. But Barba's the magic dust that makes everything tick. He is Super League's top try scorer, crossing 19 times so far. Barba also has the second most assists in the competition with 20, two behind Richie Myler.
He's made the second most clean breaks and the second most tackle busts. Some of his tries have been spectacular - just watch his lung-busting long-range effort against Hull KR last weekend. Super League can only watch, learn and appreciate a magician at his best.
Ash Handley v Mark Percival
Leeds' injury woes in 2018 have not been bad for everyone. It has provided Ash Handley with a breakthrough year - and that playing in a different position as well. The outside back actually made his Super League debut back in 2014, before scoring 13 tries in 18 league games in Leeds' treble-winning season in 2015. But Handley was previously seen as a winger, and has England internationals Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe in front of him.
This year, however, he has made his mark at centre. He first played there in Round 5 and has since started every game in that position. Kallum Watkins' season-ending injury opened up a spot and Handley has taken it. He's the Rhinos' top scorer with nine tries and was rewarded with a new three-year deal for his form.
Plus, Handley scored twice in the win over St Helens earlier in the season. Will there be more to follow on Friday?
It's a shame for Mark Percival that Ben Barba is taking all the limelight in 2018. Because the St Helens centre is enjoying another fine campaign. He's the competition's second top scorer, behind Barba, crossing 15 times so far. That's just one less than last season, when Percival top scored for St Helens with 16 and was far and away their stand-out attacking player.
But Percival is proving as dangerous a weapon in attack for the Saints this time round. He's got the most tackle busts in the competition - 100 (five more than Barba) - and the most clean breaks too - 23 (two more than Barba). Percival has been named in England's squad for the Denver test against New Zealand and looks certain to start, with Hull FC"s versatile Jake Connor the only other recognised centre.
It's an accolade Percival most certainly deserves after another fantastic season.
Brett Ferres v Zeb Taia
Leeds need their experienced players to stand up and be counted in the midst of their injury crisis. That includes Brett Ferres. His time at Headingley has been a frustrating one so far, struggling with injury problems himself - Ferres missed the first two months of this season, having undergone knee surgery following the Grand Final win over Castleford.
But having played six times off the bench, and surprisingly starting once at hooker, Ferres has now started back-to-back games in his favoured position of second row. Important in both attack and defence, Ferres at his best, is an international second rower, winning 11 caps for England. Leeds now need to see that sort of form again as he nears full fitness.
It's not just the backs dazzling for St Helens. The forwards are making an impressive impact too, laying the platform for the magic to happen. Crucial to that is second rower Zeb Taia.
He's made the second most metres for Justin Holbrook's team, notching up 1883m from his 263 carries at an average gain of 7.16m a drive. That's only behind new England call-up Luke Thompson. Taia is also an offloading machine, throwing 22 so far, the most in the St Helens side.
With six tries and four try assists, he's having a pretty significant impact in attack as well this season. Taia is also St Helens' fourth top tackler, putting in 460 hits so far. They need more of the same for the rest of the year.