Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Titans v Sea Eagles
Saturday 4.30pm (Qld)
An intriguing early evening match-up at Skilled Park sees undefeated Manly travelling north to face a Gold Coast outfit quickly growing in confidence following strong performances against Cronulla and Canberra.
Having very nearly spoiled the party against a fired-up Sharks outfit in Round 1, falling by a single missed conversion, the Titans hit top gear last Sunday as they whitewashed the Raiders 36-0.
There is a lot to like about the Gold Coast if the football they have dished up so far is a taste of what we can expect all season. Their big men are full of running, they are eager in defence and new halves pairing Aidan Sezer and Albert Kelly look to have provided some much-needed spark.
And of course while much of the focus this season has been on the forward packs fielded by Canterbury, South Sydney and this week’s opponents, it’s hard to go past the Titans forwards as the most rounded in the competition – having Luke Bailey, Ryan James and of course Dave Taylor coming off the bench is a truly scary proposition!
While the Sea Eagles have enjoyed solid wins over Brisbane and Newcastle to start their campaign, most pleasing for them would be the fact that they have done so with a number of telling injury problems up front, including the absence of NSW back-rower Glenn Stewart and co-captain Jason King as well as impact prop George Rose.
They will no doubt be sweating on their return, although former Titan Brenton Lawrence has been one of the buys of the year so far while fellow arrival Justin Horo has impressed on the left edge. Their efforts have certainly limited the impact of the side’s injury woes.
The early signs suggest that we can expect more of the same from Manly in 2013 – a powerful, well-drilled outfit that will challenge for the top four – so the question this week becomes whether the Gold Coast has improved enough to join them amongst the NRL’s elite.
The Titans have named an identical side to the one that thrashed Canberra last week, with Luke O’Dwyer added as the extra cog on a five-man bench.
Manly coach Geoff Toovey has also refrained from making changes following their big win over Newcastle.
Watch Out Titans: The Titans boast a couple of big boppers on their right side in Jamal Idris and Dave Taylor but they can expect a working over in defence this week given the Eagles’ propensity to head left in attack. With five-eighth Kieran Foran enjoying his first full pre-season in years, his increased workload with the ball in hand is showing with Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua reaping the benefits so far in 2013.
Matai was superb against Brisbane in Round 1, finding acres of space and crossing for a double while Taufua scored a hat-trick against the Knights last week. In all, Manly have scored five of their 10 tries by spreading the ball to the left this season.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Greg Bird factor could have a huge say in the outcome of this game given his superb early season form. The NSW back-rower has led by example in 2013, averaging 144 metres and 23 tackles per game. His ability to offload and break the tackle makes him a real handful through the middle where he has been particularly effective this year.
Plays To Watch: The Sea Eagles have developed an extremely effective set play out to the left this season that can already count both Brisbane and Newcastle as its victims. The play is poised to be unleashed whenever they are in an attacking position and win a quick play-the-ball to the right-hand edge of the posts.
The ball comes left to one of Manly’s halves – both Foran and Cherry-Evans can slot in here – who will have four men running at pace on their outside. Two of these will be forwards running inside lines back towards the posts. Foran or Cherry-Evans will dummy to one or both of these before sending the ball out the back to one of the two speedsters (usually Brett Stewart) loitering behind the play. From here, if the play has worked as designed, it is simply a matter of quick hands out to either Steve Matai or Jorge Taufua to score. Watch for the Sea Eagles to utilise this play for a third week in a row against the Titans.
Key Match-Up: Jamal Idris v Steve Matai. This shapes as a particularly physical battle given Idris’ size and power and Matai’s propensity to hurt opponents in defence.
Matai left the field with a neck injury last week but is rated a better than 50-50 chance of lining up against Idris and the Titans. And given that both have been in fine form in the opening rounds it is certainly a battle worth the price of admission. Idris has averaged 131 metres this year as well as contributing six tackle-breaks.
Where It Will Be Won: This really is a battle of the big men. The Gold Coast forwards more than held their own against Cronulla two weeks ago and dominated Canberra last Sunday so they will be confident of matching it with the Sea Eagles. And while Manly’s forwards have long been a well-drilled unit – hunting as a pack, as they say – it will be interesting to see how they handle the Titans’ big men given the absence of so many of their most experienced players. Expect Brenton Lawrence to be fired up for a big showing against his former club.
The History: Played 10; Sea Eagles 6, Titans 4. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past nine clashes, including a 24-16 win at Skilled Park in Round 26 last season. They hold a 3-2 advantage in games at Skilled Park – although the Titans secured their biggest ever win over Manly at the venue with a 28-14 thumping in Round 14, 2010.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Michael Wise & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Tony Maksoud.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm AEDT.
The Way We See It: From what we’ve seen this season, the Gold Coast are a far superior side to the one that has languished towards the bottom of the NRL ladder the past two years. And they boast a forward pack that is more than capable of dominating all-comers on their day.
The big question remains their lack of experience in the halves. Aidan Sezer and Albert Kelly are rated highly but their opponents this week won a title together in 2011 and have both represented their respective countries.
This is a danger game for Manly but they have been a good side for a long time now and with two from two to start the year it’s hard to go past them here. Sea Eagles by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats