William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent
Sea Eagles v Storm
A modern day rivalry spawned from a sustained period of success for both clubs, Manly v Melbourne has become a must-watch fixture in recent seasons. Other than 2010, when the Storm were docked all premiership points, Craig Bellamy's men have reached at least the semi-finals in every season since 2002. It is a similar story at the Sea Eagles who will aim for a 10th consecutive finals appearance this season. If successful they will be the only team in the past decade to compete in every finals series.
Both teams come into Saturday night's clash with patchy pre-season form, having both bowed out at the group stage of the Auckland Nines competition. The Storm went winless in both their trial matches while the Sea Eagles' only victory was a late come-from-behind win against Parramatta two weeks ago.
Another off-season meant another significant shuffle of personnel, with a loss of first-grade experience a concern for both clubs.
The retirements of Jason Ryles and Brett Finch see 540 games of NRL experience leave the club. Add to this the defection of Gareth Widdop to St George Illawarra and the support for Cooper Cronk at halfback is suddenly reliant on Storm's youngsters.
It is a similar story for their opponents in the front row. Manly cult hero George Rose crossed to the Storm in the off-season after seven years and 127 games for the Sea Eagles. Geoff Toovey's side also saw fellow front-rowers Brent Kite (Penrith), David Gower (Eels) and Joe Galuvao (retired) leave the club, taking with them almost 700 games of NRL experience in just one area of the field.
The change in personnel means Manly will likely rely more than ever on the leadership of club stalwarts Steve Matai and Glenn Stewart.
The team sheets for Saturday night read rather grimly for both teams. Try-scoring dynamos Jorge Tofua (shoulder) and David Williams (knee) are significant exclusions for the Sea Eagles, as well as co-captain Jason King who continues to battle shoulder trouble.
The news doesn't read much better on the purple side of the spectrum with Cooper Cronk (knee) ruled out leaving a gaping hole at halfback. Billy Slater has been named for the trip to Brookvale Oval, though will be underdone after failing to partake in any pre-season football.
Melbourne captain Cameron Smith will become equal most capped Storm player in the club’s history, joining Matt Geyer on 262 games
Watch Out Sea Eagles: The absence of injured wingers Jorge Taufua and David Williams cannot be understated – the Sea Eagles ranked second for tries scored last season, thanks largely to Taufua and Williams both leading the competition with 20 tries apiece and ranking first and second respectively for line-breaks. Take this threat away against a Storm team right behind Manly in try scoring (third in 2013) and suddenly a big asset has become a significant weakness.
If there is a glaring weakness for Manly it lies in its forward stocks – in last year's grand final Brenton Lawrence was partnered with 288-game veteran Brent Kite however on Saturday night he will be lining up with unheralded recruit Josh Starling, bringing their NRL experience to a combined 52 games. Adding to the forwards concern is the absence of co-captain Jason King, who remains sidelined with an ongoing shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined since Round 7 last year.
Watch Out Storm: What was to be a mouth-watering clash at halfback has turned into an area of glaring concern for coach Craig Bellamy – with his star No.7 Cooper Cronk ruled out with a shoulder injury, new recruit Ben Roberts steps in to partner 21-year-old Ben Hampton in the halves.
Cronk's withdrawal would be unwelcome at the best of times but given the quality of the opposing team's No.7 it seems all the more worrisome. Last year's Clive Churchill medalist Daly Cherry-Evans is set for another blistering season, after impressing in the Kangaroos' triumphant World Cup campaign late last year. The difference in quality between the two halfbacks could prove vital on Saturday night.
Despite the absence of try-scorers Williams and Tofua, Manly still has the playmakers to play any teammate over the line. Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran and Brett Stewart all ranked 13th or higher in try assists last season, setting up their wingers time and again. On Saturday night their favourite target man may be on the wrong wide of the touchline but rest assured this trio will create plenty of chances, it is just up to the replacement wingers in club-debutant Cheyse Blair and Peta Hiku to take those chances.
Plays To Watch: Daly Cherry-Evans picking up where he left off – keep your eyes glued to the No.7, tries could be set up from anywhere; Kieran Foran assisting at will – with 19 try assists last season he could run rampant against an inexperienced opposing number; Cameron Smith conducting the Storm ensemble; Will Chambers breaking free – with 17 line breaks (10th overall) and 12 tries (equal 2nd at club) last season – Chambers is hungry for a Maroon jersey and Saturday night may be his first step in breaking towards it.
Where It Will be Won: It is too hard to go past Manly's dominance on paper in the halves. Roberts and Hampton simply do not have the flair, experience and creativity of Foran and Cherry-Evans.
With a combined 33 try assists to the Manly pairing compared to five for their Melbourne counterparts last season, this gap in class seems too great for even the Storm's other playmakers across the field to cover.
History: Manly hold a narrow 5-4 lead in the past 10 meetings, with a draw last year as well. The Storm have won just three of their past nine games on the Northern Beaches.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Official – Steve Carrall, Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Luke Patten.
What Are The Odds: Punters torn having wagered the same amount on both sides with Sportsbet.com.au who have Manly clear favourites at $1.53.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Sea Eagles all the way. Despite missing their top two try-scorers from last season, the absence of Cooper Cronk and the fact Billy Slater is yet to have a competitive hit-out this season, Brookvale Oval should prove a fortress too difficult to conquer for the Storm.
• Stats: Champion Data.