Sea Eagles v Knights
Brookvale Oval hasn't been much of a happy hunting ground for too many teams lately – just ask Ricky Stuart – and Wayne Bennett's charges will have a stiff ask this Monday night against a team that just doesn't know how not to scrap and tear for 80 minutes every week.
The Sea Eagles were valiant in going down to Melbourne 22-19 last week in a match befitting their fierce rivalry of recent years. Manly were actually a little unlucky to lose, given they were up 19-10 with 10 minutes to play, and should have been up more had not their only genuine goal kicker, Jamie Lyon, been sitting the match out with a knee injury.
One goal from five attempts – with no disrespect to stand-ins Steve Matai and Jack Littlejohn – is a recipe for disaster in a close and competitive game such as that one.
But given not only Lyon but Kieran Foran and Glenn Stewart were out and Anthony Watmough and Daly Cherry-Evans looked to be less than 100 per cent fit (and bear in mind, those are five Test players we've just named) the Sea Eagles have every reason to be proud of their efforts.
The same, unfortunately, can't really be said for Newcastle.
Their efforts at home against an under-strength Panthers outfit were well and truly below par. Although he seemed to catch the headlines, unfortunate centre Joey Leilua wasn't the only player who will be hoping for a drastically improved effort this week.
Wayne Bennett has resisted the urge to make any major changes, although he does welcome back Willie Mason and Korbin Sims to the bench. They displace last week's debutants Joseph Tapine and Pat Vaivai who return to an extended bench and NSW Cup respectively.
Manly will have the same side for this one as the one that almost upset the Storm last week, with none of their injured list set for a return just yet, although the one listed change has James Hasson displacing Tom Symonds on the bench.
The Sea Eagles have a chance to consolidate their position in second on the ladder (first is an outside chance but it would require the Dogs to lose handily to the Warriors) but a loss would see the six teams who are just a win behind them on the ladder in with a chance to bump them out of the top four. For Newcastle, they've now slumped to equal last with only Cronulla's inferior differential keeping them above rock bottom – which is where they could well finish after Round 10 if they get lapped by Manly.
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Watch Out Sea Eagles: Believe it or not, the Knights have forced their opponents into more missed tackles this season than any side other than the Rabbitohs. The big contributor here is their tackle-busting centre pairing of Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua, who rank equal third and sixth respectively in that category among all players in 2014 with 47 and 42 tackles broken.
Leilua in particular will be looking to move past a horror afternoon against the Panthers in which he gifted his opponents two tries. With Manly's polished centre Jamie Lyon still out the pressure will be on recently re-signed Peta Hiku to help keep Manly's fringes intact.
Watch Out Knights: While we're on centres, Manly have racked up the second most line breaks in the competition with 48, behind only the Roosters (52), and the biggest contributor there is evergreen centre Steve Matai with a league-best 11 line breaks in nine games, to go with nine tries. And rocketing up that list is Matai's outside winger Jorge Taufua, with six line breaks in just four games. It makes Manly's left edge comfortably the most dangerous edge in the league at this point so Dane Gagai and Aku Uate will have their work cut out for them.
Plays To Watch: Mullen's long kicks turning round the Manly wingers all match; Manly stand-in lock Jamie Buhrer (35 tackles and 154 metres against Melbourne) to continue working himself to a standstill in Glenn Stewart's absence; Willie Mason to show some leadership in his return from suspension as he tries to drag his side out of the mire; stand-in Manly captain Brett Stewart (11 try assists in six games) injecting himself into the attacking line and unleashing clever short kicks whenever Manly threaten Newcastle's line.
Where It Will Be Won: Controlling the footy. If the Knights are to jag an almighty upset in this one they will be relying on superior ball control. Despite Manly's lofty ladder position they are third-worst when it comes to errors, with 113, while the Knights are fourth best with just 91 mistakes. In this season of fast-paced footy and momentum swings an untimely error can be a critical mistake and the Knights will probably need Manly to hand them a couple on Monday night to edge this one.
The History: Played 43; Sea Eagles 26, Knights 17. The Knights have won just two of their past eight against Manly and won just two of 14 all time in matches at Brookvale.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Touch Judges – Adam Gee & Gavin Reynolds; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 7pm.
The Way We See It: A very big ask for the Knights, facing one of the NRL's toughest road trips on the back of their poorest effort this year. Even with Manly struggling under the massive weight of injuries to key players it's tough to see anything but another Brookvale burial for the Knights, Manly by 12.