They may have only just assumed the outright lead on the NRL ladder, but Ben Matulino believes there can be doubting the Manly Sea Eagles are the best team in the competition.
Ahead of their clash at Mount Smart Stadium on Sunday, Warriors prop Matulino said there was no bigger challenge than the Sea Eagles, who have won seven of their past eight games.
“They have always been up there in terms of the best teams in the comp, you know exactly what they are going to bring, it’s just a matter of whether we match them or beat them at it,” Matulino said.
“Their toughness and aggressiveness, they have done it every year and some teams can’t match it. Some can but don’t do it for the full 80 minutes.”
With the third-best attack in the NRL, averaging 23 points per game, and the second-ranked defence which gives up only 15.9 points per game on average, the Sea Eagles are the most balanced side in the competition.
Only once in the past month and a half have they failed to score more than 20 points, while it has been six games since they conceded more than 24.
With a run to the finals which includes only three matches against sides currently in the NRL top eight, Warriors coach Andrew McFadden views Manly as the ideal test in regards to how his side is progressing.
“This is the team we have to beat if we want to compete with the big guys at the end of the season,” the rookie coach said.
“It is certainly a great test to see where we are. They are a very physical and aggressive type of team.
“They did enough [to win last Monday against the Dragons]. I don’t think that’s the best they have played and they still did it pretty comfortably, that just shows you how tough their side is.”
Aside from the obvious threat Manly present, with a side featuring 10 players who have represented Australia, New Zealand or their state at Origin level, they are also a traditional bogey side for the Warriors.
With just eight wins from 25 meetings with Manly – a win rate of 32 per cent – and having tasted victory only once since the 2010 season, the Warriors’ record against the Sea Eagles is among their worst for any current NRL side.
“I think in my whole career I have only beaten them once,” Matulino said.
“They are a tough team; traditional old-school guys who like to play tough.
“They can attack from anywhere on the park too, which is rare.”
Meanwhile the Warriors will be seeking a drastic improvement in their own attitude and execution, following last Saturday’s 28-22 loss to the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium.
Despite dominating almost every statistic with the ball in hand – including possession and time in the opposition’s half – the New Zealanders went missing for periods in defence and fell inches short of the try line on several occasions, ultimately costing themselves a fourth straight victory.
“We were pretty disappointed with it, it was pretty much a ghost town if you were in the changing room,” Matulino said.
“Everyone was disappointed because we let in 28 points, and our defence over the past two months had been awesome.
“Desperation and effort just weren’t there.”
While those are not ideal traits to be lacking heading into the final six games of the season, McFadden was confident the problems could be easily fixed.
“We conceded 28 points and we haven’t done that for a while,” he said.
“The players have been brutally honest with each other and they know that we can improve; it’s a quick fix for us.”