Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
Even though it's more than 18 months since Des Hasler's shock defection to Canterbury, this game looms large on the calendar for both of these clubs – and rest assured there is no love lost.
Much like Manly's long-standing rivalry with Melbourne, this is a game that the Sea Eagles faithful desperately want to win against a side that is not only overseen by their former two-time premiership winning coach (in 2008 and 2011) but also boasts former Manly players Tony Williams and Trent Hodkinson.
However, rivalries aside, this is a crucial game for both teams as they look to consolidate their spots in the top eight.
The Sea Eagles will certainly welcome the chance to play on a Friday night at “Fortress Brookvale” again given their noticeable dip in form of late. After a particularly impressive start to the year, they have won just two of their past six games and could potentially drop out of the top four should they lose this one as well.
It's not that Manly have been playing poorly – although they will be disappointed to have thrown away the win against the Warriors last Sunday after leading 12-0 early – but that they are struggling to find the relentless consistency that has been the staple of their success in recent years.
Aside from narrow wins against St George Illawarra and Canberra and a tremendous performance in their 10-all draw with Melbourne they have lost to South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and the Warriors and, most glaringly, are yet to beat any of their main rivals for a top four spot.
That's where Canterbury comes into the equation.
After their injury-riddled start to the season saw them record just one win from their opening six games, they are now one of the form teams of the Telstra Premiership with five wins from six including three in a row leading into this weekend's round. Last Saturday's 36-26 defeat of North Queensland saw them move into the top eight for the first time in 2013 and they can make an even more significant statement of their return should they beat Manly at Brookvale.
The Bulldogs are finally back to full-strength and opposition coaches won't have missed the fact that Ben Barba scored two tries against the Cowboys – another great sign for Hasler going forward.
Still, Canterbury can expect to face a much tougher challenge this week than any they have faced on their recent winning run and we'll all know a lot more about just how well they're travelling by the time the full-time siren sounds.
Manly have named the same 17 that fell to the Warriors last weekend but Des Hasler has tweaked his side with Tony Williams back into the starting side for Josh Jackson who returns to the bench.
Williams' return from injury last week was well timed ahead of this clash with his 16 offloads and 23 tackles the best by any Canterbury forward this season. Teammate Josh Morris will make his 100th appearance for the Bulldogs and with 61 tries in that time he is set to overtake Rod Silva (0.56) for the club centurion with the best try scoring record in the club's history.
Manly captain Jamie Lyon needs 10 more points for 1000 career points and four tries for 100 career tries.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Former Manly back-rower Tony Williams has struggled to find his feet at Canterbury this season but the signs are good in recent weeks that he is starting to turn it around. Williams was heavily involved in last week's win over North Queensland – setting up a try and scoring another – and he will no doubt be keen to put on a good show at his old stamping ground. Williams has averaged just 80 metres with the ball in hand in 2013 but ran for 95 against North Queensland and 101 in his previous outing against the Warriors.
Watch Out Bulldogs: There was plenty made of Brett Stewart's injury last month which saw him ruled out of State of Origin but the Bulldogs could find themselves in trouble if they ignore the claims of his temporary replacement Peter Hiku. The quietly spoken Kiwi has been superb at the back for Manly – averaging 137 metres per game, producing four line-breaks and making 18 tackle-breaks in his five appearances. He also scored a clever try against the Warriors last week which will only boost his confidence further.
Plays To Watch: The return to form of Tony Williams in his past few outings has seen the Bulldogs develop a simple but highly effective play that brings the big man right into the thick of the action and will no doubt test Manly's left-side defence. When attacking close to the line in centre-field, hooker Michael Ennis will head right and fire a ball to Josh Reynolds with a backline spread out behind him. But rather than find them, he will run to the line and throw a short, flat pass to a rampaging Williams who is near impossible to stop from that range if you don't get numbers in the tackle. Williams actually played much of last week on the left but when he was shifted to the right he scored a try in exactly this manner – an identical try to the one he scored against Wests Tigers in Round 8.
Key Match-Up: Kieran Foran v Josh Reynolds. There is a lot to like about this battle that pits two remarkably similar players against one another. Both are renowned competitors that love nothing more than getting down and dirty with Foran having stepped up his involvement on Manly's left edge this season, while Reynolds is now a part of the NSW State of Origin set-up and will be looking to remind Blues coach Laurie Daley why he should be given a run in Origin II.
Where It Will Be Won: On the edges. Manly's back row has long been one of their great strengths and with Anthony Watmough, Justin Horo and Glenn Stewart working well they will take plenty of stopping. Likewise, the Bulldogs' back row asks plenty of questions on the edges with the likes of Frank Pritchard and Tony Williams taking a heap of stopping. Both sides will be looking to gain momentum in this area.
The History: Played 117; Sea Eagles 62, Bulldogs 50, drawn 5. Manly have won nine of their past 14 games between these two sides, but the Bulldogs have won six of their past 10 games at Brookvale – the most of any club over the past decade.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Ashley Klein & Henry Perenara.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it's being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Sea Eagles v Bulldogs clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm AEST.
The Way We See It: What an absolute thriller. Manly's shock loss to the Warriors last weekend has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works after a great start to the season but they are always incredibly tough to topple at Brookvale Oval. Canterbury, meanwhile, is one of the form teams of the competition but face one of their toughest tests of the year. Both sides will certainly come ready to play and we can't see much separating them but the home ground advantage might just help the Sea Eagles edge it. Sea Eagles by four points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats