Dan Walsh, Staff Writer, NRL.com
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
Friday, 7.40 AEST
It's no secret Hollywood's script writers have been out of ideas for ages, with a record number of sequels and dodgy remakes being churned out of La La Land in recent years. But with top billing at the NRL box office, a suburban ground setting and an all-star cast featuring names like Foran, Reynolds, Cherry-Evans, Hodkinson, Lyon, Ennis, Matai and the man dubbed the Brad Pitt of Merseyside – Mr James Graham himself – we reckon this Friday's Brookvale showdown between the top-of-the-table Bulldogs and the high-flying Sea Eagles has all the makings of a winter blockbuster. Heck, if Godzilla can get another run, anything featuring the Oscar-winning 'acting' of Mick Ennis (at least according to Roosters coach Trent Robinson) has got to be worth at least a call-back.
Despite a heavy last-start loss to the Roosters, it's doubtful Des Hasler would've been pulling his hair out over that one, given the final 20-point margin didn't reflect the fight the under-manned Dogs put in for over an hour against the premiers. The Bulldogs still possess the NRL's biggest forward pack, a halves combination freshly injected with the confidence that performing on the game's biggest stage brings, and a backline that can afford to lose an Origin centre in Josh Morris and replace him with Krisnan Inu, a bloke who isn't residing on the same top shelf as Morris, but when at his best is not too far from it.
Similarly, if Geoff Toovey had hair it would've likely remained attached to his scalp even though the shellacking the Sea Eagles copped at the hands of the Broncos at the weekend was their heaviest defeat since the 40-12 beating handed down by Melbourne in the 2012 preliminary final. In the grand scheme of things the 26-point loss north of the border without stars Daly Cherry-Evans, Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart means little, though the fact they were so clearly out-enthused by the Broncos after having a bye should have had Toovs cracking the whip down at Narrabeen HQ this week.
In team news, Origin duo of Cherry-Evans and Watmough return for the home side, pushing Jack Littlejohn to 18th man duties and James Hasson out of the side.
The Bulldogs meanwhile welcome back their Origin halves pairing of Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson as well as Tony Williams on the left edge. Chase Stanley slots in at left centre for the injured Morris, with Inu moving out to the wing.
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Watch Out Sea Eagles: Dogs' halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds will head into this clash with the kind of self-belief Kanye West could only dream of, and why wouldn't they after guiding another side in blue to one of their greatest ever wins over a maroon-clad foe last week? Their combined 16 try assists and 15 line break assists make them the most dangerous playmaking partnership in the competition, while they've more than proven themselves in pressure cooker situations over the course of 2014, having now steered teams in blue, be it sky or royal, to seven wins from nine matches that have been decided by six points or less this year. Sea Eagles fans will need no reminding of their former halfback's prowess with the game in the balance, having watched him boot the Bulldogs to a 32-30 victory in the corresponding encounter last year with six from six off the tee, including a controversial golden point penalty goal for the win.
Watch Out Bulldogs: From topics ranging from cement trucks to investigations, Manly’s clipboard carriers over the years have often added a little spice to post-match press conferences if they’ve felt they didn’t get the rub of the refereeing green, but Toovey’s men have taken a novel approach to easing the strain on both their coach’s blood pressure and hip pocket. The Sea Eagles have twigged that Toovs is less inclined to give an after-game spray if they stay in the whistleblowers' good books, and have now conceded the fewest penalties in the NRL, averaging just 5.5 infractions a game. The Dogs on the other hand are worth almost two penalties more a game at 7.4, and there's no surprise that niggling skipper Mick Ennis has raised the officials' ire the most with nine penalties so far this year. If the Bulldogs give Manly any piggy-backing penalties last year's grand finalists possess more than enough fire power to make them pay, with their left edge of Kieran Foran, whose return from injury was one of their few highlights against the Broncos, Steve Matai (nine tries, six try assists) and Jorge Taufua (seven tries, seven line breaks) particularly potent.
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Peta Hiku can expect plenty of traffic to come down his right edge after a couple of poor reads led to Broncos tries last weekend, and his cause won't be helped by the return of Tony Williams to his side of the field. Williams, all 120 kilos of him, draws defenders like moths to a hurricane lamp whether he's receiving the ball or running a decoy, and the Dogs will look to exploit the Kiwi winger if he gets any split-second decisions wrong.
The Bulldogs possess two of the most prolific dummy-half runners in the game in skipper Mick Ennis (441 metres) and Sam Perrett (339m), but they'll find any easy yards out of the ruck just that little bit tougher than usual against the Sea Eagles – who have conceded the least amount of yardage to dummy half scoots (1164 m) in the competition.
Where It Will Be Won: With both halves pairings more than capable of engineering match-winning plays in their sleep it's the metre-eaters up front that hold the key in this one. And while you can use stats to prove almost anything, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to work out that Manly need to aim up from last week’s effort against the Broncos; where not a single Sea Eagle cracked the ton when it came to covering Suncorp turf. Up against a Bulldogs starting front row of Aiden Tolman (1549m) and James Graham (1447m) that occupies positions one and three when it comes to hit-up metres in the competition, Manly’s forwards will need to be at their best if they’re to match the big Dogs.
The History: Played 134; Sea Eagles 69, Bulldogs 58, drawn 7. The ledger stands at five-apiece from the past 10 clashes between two of the NRL's glamour clubs, and the Bulldogs won't mind travelling what is traditionally a graveyard for visiting sides, having knocked off the home side in three of their past four ventures to Brookvale.
What Are The Odds: Manly are $1.70 favourites with Sportsbet.com.au but more than twice as much money has come for the Dogs who are in from $2.25 to $2.12. But punters favour Bulldogs 1-12 in line betting with more than 50 per cent placed on that option.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.40 pm (NSW); delayed 9.30pm (Qld).
The Way We See It: This Manly line-up just oozes both class and toughness, a combination that will take them well into the business end of 2014, but right now, at the season's halfway point the Bulldogs seem to have just a wee bit more form coming into this one, particularly with the halves combination humming along nicely. The Sea Eagles are always tough at home, but the Dogs have plenty of experience and bit more grunt up front. Bulldogs by 8 points.