Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Sea Eagles v Panthers
The season proper is drawing to a close, the finals are just a week away and as usual Manly is preparing itself for a tilt at the NRL premiership.
It seems as if this time of year was custom-made for the Sea Eagles. Grand finalists in 2007 and premiers in 2008 and 2011, they know exactly what it takes to succeed at the business end of the season and once again they appear to be building towards something special.
Having found some impressive form over the past two months that saw them record a series of huge wins over their hapless opponents, the only question mark hanging over the Sea Eagles of late had been their inability to beat their fellow top-four sides in 2013.
Well, they answered that emphatically last Saturday with a 28-8 thrashing of old sparring partners Melbourne at Brookvale. With the Stewart brothers playing a starring role, it was the ideal warm-up for the September action and they will be brimming with confidence as they look to farewell the regular season on a high.
Manly’s reward for sealing another top-four berth is one last Sunday afternoon game at Brookvale Oval and they will be expected to easily account for a Penrith side that has improved markedly in 2013 but officially fell out of finals calculations with last week’s loss to Canterbury.
However, if there is one thing they don’t want it will be to suffer a shock loss on the eve of the finals – and the Panthers have shown a great ability to stun any side that dares take them lightly this season.
With a physical forward pack, the NRL’s top try-scorer in winger David Simmons, the surprise packet that is five-eighth Isaac John and the dynamic impact of interchange hooker James Segeyaro, they remain a dangerous proposition.
But the fact remains that Manly should be able to get the job done here and given they are locked on 35 competition points with Melbourne and both sides boast an identical for-and-against, the result of this game will determine whether they face South Sydney or Sydney Roosters in week one of the finals.
The big question is, will they want to play Manly?
Eagles coach Geoff Toovey appears to be taking no chances with a number of significant changes for this match.
Brett Stewart is out with Peta Hiku taking his spot, while Jamie Buhrer joins Anthony Watmough on the sidelines. David Gower gets his chance in the starting side with Jesse Sene-Lefao coming onto the bench.
Brad Tighe returns in the centres for Penrith with Lewis Brown moving back to the second row and Clint Newton pushed to the bench. Nigel Plum starts in the front row for the Panthers in place of Tim Grant with Jeremy Latimore joining the bench and Nathan Smith the 18th man.
Manly are poised for their 50th victory against Penrith in 77 clashes and require just six more tries to make it 300 scored against them.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Steve Matai is renowned for his forceful defence but he will need to be on his game this week because there is no doubt the Panthers will send plenty of traffic his way. Penrith massively favour their right side when attacking the try line, having scored 36 tries on that edge this season compared to just 23 on the left.
Notably, winger David Simmons is the NRL’s top try-scorer in 2013 with 19.
Watch Out Panthers: Beware the short-side play. Manly utilizes the short side more than any other side in the competition in 2013, having done so 229 times down the left and 209 down the right for a total of 438 short side plays. Penrith’s outside men will need to be on the ball.
Plays To Watch: Kieran Foran throwing a short, flat ball to Justin Horo rather than the obvious option of his fullback sweeping around the back. That man is usually Brett Stewart, with the goal being to lure defenders across in cover leaving a gap for Horo to run through; however Stewart’s replacement Peta Hiku has also enjoyed success in this role in 2013 so expect Manly to go to this play again.
Key Match-Up: Matt Ballin v James Segeyaro. The quiet achiever of Manly’s star-studded side, Ballin has been a constant at dummy-half during their many seasons of success and with the likes of Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough sidelined his importance will be even greater.
He will be tested around the rucks though by livewire Segeyaro who has proved to be a superb impact weapon off the bench for a Penrith this year. His hat-trick against Brisbane a fortnight ago was evidence of the danger he poses.
Where It Will Be Won: In the middle, where Penrith are at their strongest. The Panthers are a big, powerful side with some real danger men snooping around the ruck such as James Segeyaro and Lachlan Coote. With Anthony Watmough and Jamie Buhrer among a number of players missing for the Sea Eagles, they will have to lift to get over the top of the visitors.
The History: Played 77; Sea Eagles 49, Panthers 27, drawn 1. The Panthers have lost at Brookvale more times than at any other away venue with 30 losses.
Match Officials: Referees – Phil Haines & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Brenden Wood & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referee – Paul Mellor & Justin Morgan.
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 Panthers clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm.
The Way We See It: A Sunday afternoon at Brookvale is what Manly live for. They won’t have it all their own way, with a number of their big games rested, but it’s hard to see the Sea Eagles going down in this one. They have more to play for and after last week’s big win over Melbourne will be keen to keep the momentum going into the finals. Sea Eagles by 10 points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.