Bulldogs v Sea Eagles
What a difference a month makes. When these two clubs met at Brookvale Oval just four short weeks ago it was the ladder-leading Bulldogs who started as hot favourites.
But with the blue-and-whites losing that match, as well as the fixtures immediately before and after it, they have now slipped back to third on the ladder. However for Manly that win kicked off a run of three straight which, combined with their second bye, has them as outright competition leaders coming into this pivotal Round 17 clash of the heavyweights.
The most recent win came at Brookvale last Friday and was their second of the year over defending premiers the Roosters and, much like their first (an 8-0 win back in Round 4), that 24-16 victory deserves to be counted as among the most impressive efforts of any side this year.
Tilting the odds further in Manly's favour – just one half of their all-Test halves pairing will be sitting this one out on Origin duty, while the Blues will be forced to make do without both NSW Origin halves Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson.
It will be Manly's first and last match this year in a pre-Origin week but they've had to make do without both Maroons utility Daly Cherry-Evans and Kiwi Test pivot Kieran Foran at various stages this year due to injury and stand-in half Jack Littlejohn has had enough opportunities to show he is more than capable at this level. Littlejohn's inclusion for Cherry-Evans is the only change to Manly's 17 from the side that beat the Roosters last week.
For the Bulldogs, although few would have expected them to be contributing both halves for the Blues this year in all three Origin games when the draw was announced, it will be their third outing minus their Origin representatives having had games in all of Rounds 11, 14 and 17 – and the results haven't been pretty.
In Round 11 the Roosters and their deposed Origin halves were far too good and in Round 14 the Jarryd Hayne-less Eels showed that even without their perennial match-winner the loss of both halves for the Bulldogs was an even bigger obstacle to overcome.
They've gone with a similar side to that Round 14 team – Michael Ennis and Josh Jackson are the halves pairing with Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds on Origin duty, and Damien Cook named at hooker. Dale Finucane starts at lock with Greg Eastwood moving to the second row for Jackson. Aiden Tolman returns from injury pushing Sam Kasiano to the bench, and Pat O'Hanlon has been added as 18th man.
Needless to say, with these two sides currently running first and third, whoever wins this game will do their chances of an all-important top-two finish no harm.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 17
Watch Out Bulldogs: It's tough to recall too many better individual performances this year than Brett Stewart's match-turning efforts against the Roosters last week. Clutch plays at both ends of the field in both attack and defence showed that the Prince of Brookvale is far more than just a prolific try scorer, although he still got himself on the scoresheet backing up a great set play from Foran close to the Roosters' line. His crunching tackle on Anthony Minichiello to earn his side a drop-out late in the match was one of the plays of the week.
Stewart's playmaking has been sublime all year – only Johnathan Thurston (18 try assists in 14 games) and James Maloney (15 assists in 15 games) have more than Stewart's 14 try assists this year, and each has played in more than his 11 matches this year.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: With their halves away and all their big boppers back on deck the Bulldogs will be looking to win this in the forwards. Tolman's return allows Kasiano to revert to the bench in more of an impact role behind Tolman and Graham, and that triple threat was a big part of their earlier charge to the top of the ladder. Graham is making an amazing 150 metres per game and Tolman is only a shade behind him at 148 metres per game. Kasiano is making just under 90 in far fewer minutes but has still managed 15 offloads in his eight games. With all three of them fit and firing they'll do their best to lay a platform for their makeshift playmaking combination.
Plays To Watch: Kieran Foran has shown a willingness to gamble on last-tackle options to close the line to good effect this year. It helped the side to a comeback win against the Cowboys at Gosford earlier in the year and last week his switch back inside to the left to a flying Stewart caught the Roosters, and sole marker Anthony Minichiello, completely unprepared and they scored a vital try. When Foran gets the ball early close to the line on the last, look for him to again reach into his bag of tricks.
For the Bulldogs, plenty of their go-to players are away on Origin duty so look for some ball-playing close to the line from big men Graham and Kasiano. Their short balls – and from Kasiano in particular – make them almost substitute halves at times and with their front liners away they'll be even more crucial here.
Where It Will Be Won: Last tackle options. In particular from the Bulldogs, who really struggled in this area with a similar line-up to this one in Round 14, with plenty of below-par kicks on show and one from Ennis sailing out on the full.
It really hurt their ambitions to claim quality territory and it showed in the result. However for the Sea Eagles, rookie Littlejohn booted a 40/20 in his debut and should have no dramas playing second fiddle to Kiwi Test pivot Foran. The Dogs need to find a way to match it with the Sea Eagles in this crucial area or they could be pinned in their own end for a lot of the night.
The History: Played 135; Sea Eagles 70, Bulldogs 58, drawn 7. The road trip over the Spit Bridge won't worry Manly too much – they've beaten the Bulldogs on six of nine occasions the two sides have met at Homebush. In the past 10 games overall Manly hold a slight 6-4 advantage.
What Are The Odds:
Punters at Sportsbet.com.au clearly like the big price of the Bulldogs ($3.62 into $3.55) with nearly four times the money placed on the Dogs despite missing their Origin halves. There are three times the number of bets on the Bulldogs as well. Manly are firm at $1.28. Latest odds here
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Dave Munro; Touch Judges – Brett Suttor & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: The missing players due to Origin will hurt the Bulldogs a lot more than the Sea Eagles, and it presents a very big mountain to climb, even at home. We'll have to go with the away side by at least two converted tries.