Broncos v Sea Eagles
Friday 7.05pm (Qld local)
Twelve months after farewelling long-serving superstar five-eighth Darren Lockyer the Broncos have placed their faith in another proven veteran to ignite their premiership push in 2013.
Already Scott Prince's arrival at Red Hill has shaken up the Brisbane roster, with the former Titan securing the No.6 jersey outside of scrum-base partner Peter Wallace.
However, the pair will need to be cohesive and creative from kick-off on Friday night if the Broncos are to shake off the funk that has accompanied their recent clashes with Manly at Suncorp Stadium – they've won just one of the past six encounters at headquarters.
In Daly Cherry-Evans and a fully fit and rejuvenated Kieran Foran, the Sea Eagles boast arguably the strongest halves pairing in the Telstra Premiership. After struggling to post points in 2012 despite pounding out good field position, the fingers are crossed that Prince can provide a sack of flair to match the Sea Eagles' talented duo.
Prince's signing, a season-ending injury to winger Dale Copley and ongoing uncertainty about a comeback date for Test flanker Jharal Yow Yeh has forced coach Anthony Griffin to roll the dice and shift penetrative fullback Josh Hoffman to the wing, with Corey Norman the new custodian.
And with the front row cupboard lightly stocked, Griffin has yanked captain Sam Thaiday out of the back row to bind the scrum alongside Josh McGuire: how many minutes the skipper plays remains to be seen.
In the back row, Matt Gillett starts alongside Alex Glenn with Corey Parker at lock. Their bench comprises Ben Hunt, Ben Hannant, Mitchell Dodds and the returning David Stagg.
With Glenn Stewart sidelined until round seven, Manly coach Geoff Toovey has installed Jamie Buhrer at lock, with ex-Eel Justin Horo to start in the second row alongside Anthony Watmough – 'Choc' will take the field despite being hindered by a rib complaint. Former Titan Brenton Lawrence partners Brent Kite in the front row, with the extended bench comprising Richie Fa'aoso, Joe Galuvao, David Gower, Jesse Sene-Lefao, Peter Hiku and big George Rose.
While trial form isn't a great barometer to the real thing, Brisbane fans will be concerned their side lost all three pre-season matches: they fell to the Cowboys 28-24 in Mt Isa a month ago (having led 20-6 at halftime); lost 16-14 to the Titans (conceding all points in the first half); then were defeated 16-10 by the Warriors.
Likewise Manly enter the season proper without a win, defeated 24-12 by the Sharks and 20-4 by the Sydney Roosters.
Watch Out Broncos: While Scott Prince will bring some dazzle he will also be targeted by the Manly ball-runners – Prince missed 100 tackles last year, the fourth most by any No.6 or No.7.
Brisbane need to prepare for an early assault – Manly racked up three tries in the opening 20 minutes of their first game against the Warriors in 2012. They also scorched across for 16 unanswered points inside 30 minutes the last time these sides met.
The Broncos need to build a winning culture quickly or their already low confidence levels could plummet even further. Incredibly Brisbane have managed just one win from their past 11 games (eight NRL matches, three trials).
After a quiet 2012 by his standards, we get the feeling Daly Cherry-Evans is on the brink of a watershed year. Brisbane should be ready should the No.7 run to the line more than he did last season. With Foran, Matai, Lyon and Brett Stewart out wide it will certainly add powder to their keg.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly fans will be biting their fingernails every time the Broncos put the ball to boot in an attacking position – last season Manly surrendered more tries to kicks (29) than any team. Worse, here they go up against the unit that resorted to the bomb the second most times all year, while scoring a handy 19 tries from kicks.
The Manly kick-chase will need to be spot-on. Even though he's been moved to the wing Josh Hoffman will pose a threat running the ball back – in 2012 Hoffman made more territory than any player returning kicks, carving a whopping 1645 metres from an average 6.5 runs per game. Expect Hoffman to drop back to do the majority of the kick-returns, or else to loop behind fullback Corey Norman and return as first receiver.
Plays To Watch: Sam Thaiday making a statement with his without-fear charges; Andrew McCullough shifting the point of the attack repeatedly; Brisbane's forwards and backs showing why they were the toughest opponents to pull down last season, with an NRL-high 36 tackle-breaks per game; Scott Prince showing the ball inside before firing a pass wide to his left winger; Prince's and Peter Wallace's cross-field bombs; Prince's grubbers into the Manly in-goal; Steve Matai's sidestep and acceleration as well as his take-no-prisoners defence; Daly Cherry-Evans' and Kieran Foran's scheming; Justin Horo looking to get in on the action on the left edge; Jamie Buhrer assuming a Glenn Stewart-type role helping out Jamie Lyon on the right side; Brett Stewart timing his insertions to perfection.
Key Match-up: Scott Prince v Kieran Foran. Neither player had a season to remember in 2012, so each will be keen to explode out of the blocks in 2013. It will be a challenge for Prince, who hasn't suited up in the No.6 in the NRL since his last season at Wests Tigers in 2006 – and even then he filled the role just twice! But there's no question that given the extra room to move he can bring the X-factor so desperately needed by Brisbane, who struggled in attack in 2012 (eighth-fewest tries, fifth-fewest line busts) despite managing dominant field position (third-most metres gained).
Foran's numbers last year were considerably down on 2011 – he made six fewer try assists (just 11) and five fewer line-break assists (eight); expect him to take more control.
Where It Will Be Won: On the right-hand side of the field.
Bruising centre Justin Hodges is the trump card for the Broncos, while Jamie Lyon will pull the strings for the visitors. It's clearly the strongest side of the park for each team: Manly notched 40 tries down the corridor in 2012 (fourth most), while the Broncos favoured the right side to score on 34 occasions.
However, the Broncos will really need to knuckle down to repel the Sea Eagles' right-side raids – in 2012 their left-edge defence let in a whopping 35 tries, compared to just 23 on Hodges' side.
The History: Played 36; Sea Eagles 18, Broncos 17, drawn 1. Manly have the wood over the Broncos in recent clashes, winning seven of the past nine. The Broncos boast an 8-7 record in games at Suncorp Stadium – although the Sea Eagles have won five of the past six games played in the Queensland capital.
Last Time They Met: Devastating attack from Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart provided the foundation for the Sea Eagles' comfortable 16-6 victory over Brisbane at Brookvale Oval in round 25 last season.
Three tries inside the opening half hour rocketed the Sea Eagles to an unassailable 16-nil lead before a last-gasp try to Alex Glenn salvaged some respectability for the Broncos.
Lyon was in blistering form, taking on the line from close range to score out wide in the 17th minute and also handing off a crisp inside pass to Brett Stewart to score on the right edge with 29 minutes gone.
In between Stewart teamed with five-eighth Kieran Foran, retrieving a deft chip kick to slice between the Broncos' last defenders on the left fringe to make it 10-nil inside 20 minutes.
Brisbane had no answer to the rampaging Sea Eagles, who completed 83 per cent of their sets, carved out five line-breaks to one and ran 30 more times for a 270-metre territorial advantage on the night.
Brett Stewart made a game-high seven tackle-breaks and two line-breaks, while winger Jorge Taufua ran for 188 metres.
For Brisbane, centre Justin Hodges was forceful out of dummy-half and also out wide, making a game-high 188 metres. Andrew McCullough and Corey Parker were tireless in defence, making 52 and 51 tackles respectively.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Neil Wharton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7pm (Qld), 7.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm.
The Way We See It: Not much between the sides but we get the feeling the Broncos, buoyed by a sell-out crowd, may emerge with the two competition points. It will be close, but they might want it more. Brisbane by four points.