Sea Eagles v Broncos
Sydney Football Stadium
Friday, 7.45pm

It’s official: he’s out! While it’s too early to tell whether Darren Lockyer will recover sufficiently to take his place in the grand final should the Broncos account for the Sea Eagles on Friday night, sense appears to have prevailed in the short term. In withdrawing on Wednesday, Lockyer has admitted that his shattered cheekbone simply isn’t up to the rigours of another rugged knockout clash.

Like everything Lockyer, it’s a smart play. If he had taken the field he would surely have incurred further damage, which would have jeopardised him figuring in the really big one. Now all that’s left for fans is to sweat it out through Friday night…  

Of course this week hasn’t just been about Darren Lockyer. Des Hasler for one will be ecstatic that the Sea Eagles are right back where he likes them – under the radar. Having had the week off and with all eyes on Lockyer’s cheekbone, Manly have had a virtually anonymous build-up, although they do currently find themselves as the only remaining Sydney team in the competition. This is the first time since 1992 that there has been only one Sydney team left at this point (when St George were left to fly the flag against Brisbane, Newcastle and Illawarra, eventually losing to Brisbane in the decider).

Hasler has named an identical team to the one that came roaring back against the Cowboys in Week 1 of the finals, although there remain several notable absentees – winger Dave Williams and prop and co-captain Jason King are both out for the season with neck and pectoral injuries respectively and of course Glenn Stewart serves the last match of his three-game ban resulting from that Round 26 dust-up with the Storm. He will be back for the big one if they make it that far but they’ll have to do it without him here. Notably Joe Galuvao will again start in the front row and Tony Williams in the second row, despite the fact each has only started a handful of games in those positions this year, and Terence Seuseu has been added to the bench.

And the Broncos without Lockyer? No decision has been made about who will slot in at five-eighth, although discussion earlier in the week suggested 2010 Dally M Rookie of the Year Matt Gillett would be handed the role. Ben Hunt, similarly named on the bench alongside Gillett, is another option – as is Toyota Cup halfback/five-eighth Corey Norman. (Spare a thought for Peter Wallace: he’ll have to assume the senior playmaker role in Brisbane’s most important game of the year thus far, having played second fiddle to Lockyer all year.)

The Broncos’ only other change is the return of Sam Thaiday from a two-game suspension for his lifting tackle on Manly prop Brent Kite in the Broncos 18-10 win over Manly in Round 26. His return pushes Ben Te’o back to a five-man bench.

Interestingly, Manly’s recent finals history is somewhat chequered: their past 10 finals appearances have been decided by more than 20 points. This includes season-ending losses in the first week of the finals in 2009 and 2010, and a tremendous three-match run to the premiership in 2008. In all they have won six and lost four of those 10 blowouts. But one stat the Brookvale faithful will be pleased about: Manly hasn’t lost a grand final qualifier since 1975.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Dally M Second-Rower of the Year Sam Thaiday will be absolutely champing at the bit returning from his two-game suspension. The burly Origin forward will rejoin partner in crime Corey Parker in the Broncos’ back row, where the two have terrorised opposing defences all year. The pair lead the Brisbane pack in terms of metres (Parker 137 per game, Thaiday 109). The Brisbane pack are also among the hardest to bring to ground in the NRL – Parker’s 100 tackle-breaks are the best among lock forwards and Alex Glenn’s 75 are bested by only Mark Minichiello (76) among second-rowers.

Danger Sign: Expect Thaiday to be ferocious in attack and defence – with Thaiday back the Brisbane pack looks ominous in terms of strength and mobility, with the likes of Matt Gillett (25 offloads despite limited game time), Ben Te’o (who scored a try last week) and prop Josh McGuire (averaging 191 metres per game in the past three weeks) adding to the danger. Halfback Peter Wallace will be confident spreading the Steeden to these players. And fullback Gerard Beale, who ran a stunning 280 metres last week, is the Broncos’ wild card.

Broncos Plays To Watch: When they do go on the attack the forward pack will both create and convert opportunities. In particular the Sea Eagles will need to watch the offloading of Corey Parker – especially when the Broncos get inside the Manly 20-metre zone. Parker has 65 offloads this season (only Warrior Feleti Mateo with 80 has more) and they are almost always quality offloads, timed as the opposition are retreating the 10 metres and handed onto the chest of the supporting man. Matt Gillett with 25 offloads and Thaiday with 17 are also dangerous close to the line, due to the second-phase play they can generate. The Broncos’ back-rowers also score more tries than those at other clubs, in particular Glenn and Gillett (nine and six tries respectively) because of their ability to take advantage of opportunities running off short passes and kicks, and also because of their ability to run dangerous angles close to the line.

Watch Out Broncos: The Broncos will have to venture south of the border for the first time in a month, and Manly will be well rested after a week off. It’s remarkable what Manly’s young halves combination has been able to achieve this year with very little experience. This was exemplified when up against the Cowboys just two weeks ago. After the odd early wobble Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran really turned it on after halftime. The pair combined for three try assists, a line-break assist and a line-break just in that second 40 minutes, with Cherry-Evans kicking for a massive 537 metres for the game.

Danger Sign: It’s not just his creative play that poses a threat – Cherry-Evans exhibits phenomenal support play for a halfback. It’s earned him six tries this season – three of those against the Broncos – to go with his 16 try assists. The last time these sides met, in Round 26, Cherry-Evans followed a runaway Michael Oldfield down the touchline to receive the ball back on the inside to score. And in Round 12 he was there to receive a truly freakish Brett Stewart catch and pass off a Foran banana kick to score one of the team tries of the year.

Sea Eagles Plays To Watch: When Cherry-Evans isn’t busy setting up tries with clever kicks his terrier-like support play means opponents can’t take their eyes off him for a second. The above are just two of countless examples this season where Cherry-Evans has refused to give up on the play, and even when it doesn’t lead directly to points often it can mean his side regaining or retaining possession. Whether it’s backing up a line-break, chasing through on a Foran kick or being ready for an offload Cherry Evans has proved he has multiple string to his bow. And speaking of support players, Manly have one of the game’s true elites in Brett Stewart. His club-high 13 tries, in just 18 appearances, have frequently come on the back of his quality support play. He crossed twice in Manly’s last outing against the Cowboys and both of those were a direct result of supporting a short ball or offload in broken play close to the line.

Anthony Watmough v Sam Thaiday: Two dynamic ball runners and prolific metre-eaters (Watmough 117 metres per game, Thaiday 109), both bruising defenders, both Origin and Australia representatives, both capable of playing big minutes and each of them crucial to the fortunes of their respective sides – the Watmough v Thaiday match-up will be vital in deciding the outcome of this match. Watmough will be raring to go after a week off and Thaiday even more so after his two-week layoff. But a warning: these two men are also the second-most penalised players at their respective clubs – so don’t expect either of them to leave anything in the tank.

The History: Played 33; Broncos 17, Sea Eagles 15, drawn 1. It’s one apiece this year but the Sea Eagles have won five of the past seven. These clubs have met three times at the Sydney Football Stadium with the Broncos winning on all three occasions. The last of those was also the last time these two met in a finals series – all the way back in the 1994 qualifying final, when the Broncos prevailed 16-4 to end Manly’s season.

Last Time They Met: It’s important to point out that Manly were severely under-strength (no Brett or Glenn Stewart or Kieran Foran in particular) in their recent Round 26 meeting with the Broncos when they went down 18-10, but they still fought valiantly and pushed the Broncos all the way. It was even more impressive given they were on the wrong end of a 9-4 penalty count and conceded 1561 running metres while only running for 1224 metres themselves, and they also missed nine more tackles. It proved costly given the sides had identical completion rates and there was little difference in the errors, offloads and line-breaks.

Conclusion: Wayne Bennett recently said ‘no Lockyer means no Brisbane’ and with due respect to Brisbane it’s hard to argue with him, such is the influence of the champion playmaker. With Lockyer missing the Broncos will do it tough making it to the grand final. And the question must also be asked: did the Broncos already play their grand final last week in that titanic golden-point win over the Dragons?

Emotion will take the Broncos a long way but Manly will start deserved favourites.   

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Refs – Russell Smith & Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10pm.