From dangerous playmakers to scintillating fullbacks and bruising packs, we’ve taken a look at the key match-ups that could decide the Bilambil v Ballina blockbuster.
One of the most anticipated games of the season will take place this weekend when Bilambil host Ballina in a top-of-the-table clash at the East Bilambil Sports Field on Sunday.
Alongside Northern United, the two teams have been the standouts so far in the competition, with the undefeated Seagulls entering the game in first place and the Jets just two points behind in second.
In what has been a remarkable first half of the season, Ballina is leading the competition in points scored with a whopping 328 in eight games, while the team is also the best defensive unit, conceding just 74 so far.
Bilambil aren’t too far behind, with an excellent start to their premiership defence that has seen the team lose just one game so far, a narrow 20-18 defeat to Northern United in round six.
The Jets are the second-best team so far this season in terms of attack and defence, scoring 318 in nine games and conceding 118.
The home side will come the game on a high, racking up an incredible 174 points and conceding just 30 in their past three matches.
Meanwhile Ballina will line up after close to three weeks without a game, with the Seagulls drawing the bye directly after the mid-season break.
Ahead of the heavyweight blockbuster, we’ve taken a look at some of the key clashes that could decide the game.
Hamish McClintock v Alex Fitzhugh
With both teams piling on the points for fun this season, the young playmakers have been crucial to their lethal attacks and are likely to have a huge say in who gets more points on the board on Sunday.
McClintock, the young Ballina five-eighth, has been outstanding this year in attack, and is a key reason why the Seagulls have scored an incredible competition-high 328 points across their first eight games. In fact, with 10 tries and a swag full of goals, McClintock is the competition’s leading point scorer with 122.
An excellent kicker with a brilliant running and passing game, it’s no surprise to see that his right edge of Ethan Roberts, Tim Cassidy and Rowan Mansfield has been running absolutely riot across the first half of the season.
“Young Hamish McClintock, he looks after that right edge for us,” said coach Greg Barnes.
“He’s had good players with him on that edge. We’re finding a bit of joy down there, but other teams are going to be awake to that. They are loading up on that side, so we’ve got some other things up our sleeve to counteract that.”
In fact, the battle between the Seagulls’ right and Jets’ left edges is looming as one of the key contests.
Meanwhile for Bilambil, fellow five-eighth Alex Fitzhugh has been the glue in the Jets’ halves, playing every game this season.
Quick, elusive and an excellent support player, Fitzhugh has carved teams up through the middle of the park at various stages throughout the first half of the season and looms as a key player if the Jets are to ultimately break down the table-topping Seagulls.
He comes into the game in good touch, picking up a double last weekend in the team’s 58-12 rout of Casino.
Zac Beecher v Oliver Regan
While they might not directly come up against each other too much in the game, the two fullbacks will play crucial roles for their respective teams and will have a huge say in who comes away with the two points at the end of the 80.
Zac Beecher has been a standout for Ballina since returning to his junior club this season from Tugun in the Gold Coast competition.
In a star-studded backline, Beecher has been excellent for the Seagulls both with and without the ball, chiming in offensively while also playing an excellent role in organising the team in defence.
“Zac Beecher at fullback has been going extremely well for us,” said coach Greg Barnes.
On the opposite side is one of the competition’s best players, Oliver Regan.
A pair of incredibly safe hands under the high ball, a workhorse in coming out from his own end and an excellent organiser from the back, Regan was central to Bilambil’s premiership-winning campaign last year and has continued that form into 2023.
The fullback is also incredibly dangerous in attack – highlighted by his hat-trick against Casino last weekend – and an excellent goalkicker, racking up the second-most points in the competition with 96.
Blake Forder v Rowan Mansfield
The two former junior rep teammates are set to line up against each other on the same wing in a clash of two very different young guns.
Ballina’s Rowan Mansfield is a stocky, powerful winger who is excellent in making yards from his own end and has speed to burn once he gets in the clear.
Meanwhile as the player on the end of Ballina’s lethal right edge, he has wreaked havoc on opposition defences as stages throughout the season.
Opposing him is Bilambil’s Blake Forder, a tall, lean winger whose ability to find the tryline makes him a constant threat in attack down the left flank.
With excellent hands and lightning speed, Forder has produced some of the most spectacular moments of the season.
He put in an early contender for try of the season in the round two victory over Cudgen with a 70-metre solo effort that saw him beat several defenders with his pace and footwork, before chipping the ball over the top of the incoming fullback and regathering for a brilliant try.
Michael Dwane v Tom Rowles
While the halves and outside backs might have gotten all the headlines for both teams’ attacking prowess, the battle between the hookers is looming as crucial to winning the ruck.
Ballina dummy half Michael Dwane has been key to the Seagulls’ success, with his up-tempo game helping to tighten up the side’s middle.
Super fit and full of energy, he has been a handful in attack and rock solid in defence as Ballina has consistently won the middle against their opponents this season.
Lining up against him in red and green is the Jets’ skipper and spiritual leader Tom Rowles.
After winning a premiership for his junior club as a 17-year-old back in 2011, Rowles led to side to a grand final victory last season with an excellent campaign.
A tough, craft player and ultimate competitor, Bilambil’s skipper is the team’s general in the middle and plays a crucial role in steering the side around the paddock.
Like in most games, and particularly top-of-the-table clashes, whoever dominates the forwards is likely to go a long way to winning.
It’s certainly not a surprise that both sides have two of the best packs in the competition.
For Bilambil, the rotation of Lane Ticehurst, Jacob Hind and Jack Durheim in the front row has been excellent, while the back row combination of Tyson Donnelly, Kalani Hensby and Hayden Hansen is arguably the best in the competition.
As a unit they have been immense in both attack and defence throughout the season, providing a combination of defensive steel and match-winning plays in attack.
On the other side, while Ballina hasn’t quite had the same continuity in the forwards due to injuries, the team has nevertheless been equally as effective in winning the battle in the middle.
Led by the likes of Cameron Copeland, Carl Lolohea, Reece Summer and skipper Damien Sironen – who is expected to return after a month out with injury – in the front row, the pack has laid the platform for its backs to pile on the points.
Meanwhile the team’s back row combinations of Jordan Lee, Ethan Roberts, Billy Dwane have provided plenty of strike power on the edges, with Lee in particular being a serous strike weapon with a host of tries on the left edge.
Originally published as Bilambil v Ballina: the key match-ups in the NRRRL blockbuster