With Billy Slater back to his blistering best, Bulldogs gamebreaker Ben Barba is bracing for an explosive Melbourne Storm outfit 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 more history by becoming the first man to lead two different sides to premierships in successive years.
Slater has been the game's standout No.1 for the past six seasons and the current holder of the international player of the year title.
Statistics, though, show Barba has edged the Melbourne superstar this season.
Barba has been an ever-present in the Bulldogs team and the key man in a side that has won 14 of its 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 to 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 own lack of grand final experience means 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 told ABC radio on Sunday.
"But they've got strike power everywhere. Will Chambers down the centres was awesome against Manly and their forwards are great and they might run over us if we're not on our game.
"Ryan Hoffman is a great player who's been around a long time and I am expecting him to try and run all over me like they all do."
Slater, whose importance to the side was demonstrated when four of the team's five defeats during a miserable mid-season run, came when he was out, tried to play down his own form, but said the side is peaking at just the right time.
"Against Souths we were good and against Manly it was the same. But we've got to still be peaking on Sunday afternoon," Slater said.
"That's when it all counts. For that 80-minute period and, when we get there, we've got to execute."
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.
HOW SLATER AND BARBA MATCH UP IN 2012
BEN BARBA (Canterbury)
Try assists: 23
Line breaks: 25
Tackle breaks: 168
Bombs defused: 45/54
Average metres per game: 121.8
Average kick return metres per game: 58.5
BILLY SLATER (Melbourne)
Try assists: 22
Line breaks: 21
Tackle breaks: 100
Bombs defused: 25/29
Average metres per game: 138.8
Average kick return metres per game: 38.8
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