Sharks v Sea Eagles
Some 72 hours after Origin II every man, woman and child in the Shire will be willing another side in sky blue to victory over a maroon-clad foe in this the second edition of the Battle of the Beaches for 2014.
The Sharks had only one win to show for their efforts heading into the Round 6 clash at Brookvale Oval on a soggy Sunday afternoon at Brookvale, and having added just once more to the all-important 'W' column since that 24-4 dusting two months ago, another loss for Peter Sharp's men will leave their season officially deader than disco.
And not to put the boot in here, but the Sharks haven't scored a point in 189 minutes of football. That's longer than The Wolf of Wall Street's running time, with far less bang for the punter's buck. With Todd Carney, and depending on how they pull up from Origin II, Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis the leading names in a host of returning cavalry, Cronulla regain some sorely missed attacking artillery, and they're going to need all hands on deck if they're to challenge the high-flying Sea Eagles.
Just as the Sharks have been stuck in the NRL cellar for all bar two weeks of the year, Manly have been hanging around the pointy end of the competition ladder like sweet-scented jasmine, consistently putting aside rumours of rifts in the ranks and injuries to remain on track for a 10th straight finals appearance.
The Sea Eagles will be fresh off the back of their second bye of the season, and will be hoping for a better return to the pitch than their previous effort, when they lilted in the face of a Broncos onslaught to the tune of a 36-10 thumping, while the Sharks will also be aiming up after resembling a NSW Cup side with 13 regular first graders out in their 30-0 dusting by the Dragons.
Geoff Toovey has named Origin duo Daly Cherry-Evans and Anthony Watmough to play alongside the returning Jason King on an extended bench along with James Hasson and Jack Littlejohn.
The Sharks meanwhile welcome back a big old chunk of their salary cap, with Carney, Lewis Gallen, Jeff Robson, Anthony Tupou, Jonathan Wright, Siosaia Feki all back in the line-up. Michael Lichaa also gets a crack at the starting hooker's gig for the injured John Morris, while Michael Gordon shifts to the wing for Nathan Gardner to jump into fullback.
The downer though is the new injury to Andrew Fifita, who will miss the next two months with a hand injury.
Watch Out Sharks: With 25 tries between them, Steve Matai (10), Peta Hiku (8) and Jorge Taufua (7), have almost outscored the entire Sharks side, and give Manly a stockpile of ammunition out wide worthy of inspection by the United Nations. Matai and Taufua have been the definition of potent down the Sea Eagles' left edge, combining for 18 line breaks and 58 tackle breaks between them to be amongst the most dangerous centre-wing combinations in the game. Given they'll line up on a Sharks' right-side defence of Todd Carney and Blake Ayshford that has missed a whopping 53 combined tackles in the seven games they've played together, there could well be blood in the water come Saturday if the Sharks can't keep the Sea Eagles outside men under wraps.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Admittedly there isn't a whole lot to be on guard for when the opposition hasn't troubled the scorers for over three hours of game time, but with 11.6 offloads per match the Sharks are generating the third most second-phase play in the competition behind the Titans and the Panthers. And with game-breakers Lewis and Gallen set to return and Chris Heighington ranking equal sixth in the NRL with 23 offloads, ball-and-all tackles need to be high up on the Sea Eagles' defensive to-do list. Should they slacken off, former NSW rep Michael Gordon (42 tackle breaks) and upstart hooker Michael Lichaa are nimble enough around the ruck to cause the Manly line plenty of headaches.
Plays To Watch: Brett Stewart to be on anything in the Cronulla in-goal like white on rice after bagging two tries from Kieran Foran kicks against the Bulldogs; Todd Carney to add a welcome boost to the Sharks' long kicking game after being outkicked in all bar one game without the former Blues pivot; Referees Gavin Morris and Gavin Reynolds to have a quiet night at the office, with Manly's 5.3 penalties per match making them the most disciplined team in the game and the Sharks (5.7 penalties each outing) not too far behind them; and Sea Eagles flyer Jorge Taufua to be looking over his shoulder for Sam Tagataese should he find open space after the 110 kilo prop memorably ran him down over 70 metres in Round 6.
Where It Will Be Won: NSW coach Laurie Daley once compared rugby league and rugby union by saying "rugby league is a simple game played by simple people", before going on to say some not-so complimentary things about the folk who play the 15-man game. Well it doesn't get any simpler for the Sharks, if they don't score points and kick-start their floundering attack they've got Buckley's of taking it to the Sea Eagles. With big names Carney, Fifita and potentially Gallen and Lewis returning to bolster the pop-gun attack that has failed to fire in their latest two outings, Sharks fans can expect more than the average 12.9 points a game their side has been churning out in 2014. Manly's backline oozes both class and try-scoring ability; so the Sharks are going to need to roll the dice a bit offensively if they're to match the Sea Eagles.
The History: Played 83; Sea Eagles 58, Sharks 23, drawn 2. Manly have claimed nine of the last 10 clashes between these two clubs, as well as five of the last six when venturing down to the Shire. Should the Sharks insist on some historical inspiration, the nineteen years between 1987 and 2006, when the Sea Eagles were unsuccessful in ten attempts on their turf is as good as it gets for Cronulla.
What Are The Odds: The Sharks are in from $4.35 to $4 but it’s all Manly according to the punters at Sportsbet.com.au – with money running 8:1 to Manly in head-to-head betting, with the Sea Eagles steady at $1.25 at this stage. More support for Cronulla at the line with the Sharks getting 9.5.
Match Officials: Referee – Gavin Morris; Assistant Referee – Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Rickey MacFarlane; Video Referees – Matt Cecchin & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30 pm.
How We See It: Even with the majority of the Sharks' big names returning it's just too hard to see anything but a Manly win in this one. The Sea Eagles have been known to be on the wrong end of an upset or two in recent years, but with Cronulla's defensive frailties down their right edge, no Andrew Fifita, and oodles of class ball-players runners to expose them, Manly should prove to strong yet again for their southern rivals. Sea Eagles by 14.