Wests Tigers money man Robbie Farah will relish hosting the Sea Eagles in their first game at Leichhardt Oval in 2014. Copyright: NRL Photos/Robb Cox. Credit: NRL Photos/Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos/Robb Cox.
Wests Tigers v Manly Sea Eagles
You can already hear Phil Gould waxing lyrical about this one.
Leichhardt Oval. The hill. The best pies in town. Young Tigers stars Luke Brooks and James Tedesco up against the best in the business in Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. A rivalry that stretches back to the Fibros and Silvertails days of the late '70s. The Tigers are even hosting a 'Boot Party' based on the famous tailgate parties of the NFL before the game, where fans can get stuck into a food and beverage package out the front of the ground and belt up a bit of atmosphere before the kick off.
"I love my Sunday footy!"
With the Men of League Heritage Round headed to the most nostalgic of locations it's also worth remembering there are two competition points on the line here, and the Tigers need the win more than the high-flying Sea Eagles. A loss for the home side will have them staring down a total of four competition points after five rounds – a position most judges would've deemed about right for them before a ball was kicked in anger – but given the Tigers' bright start to the year they will be bitterly disappointed if that winds up the case come Sunday evening.
They'll have to be at their very best to topple last year's grand finalists, who have come out the other side of the toughest start to the competition with more battle scars than a turn-of-the-century bare-knuckle boxer and the self-belief of Muhammad Ali and Kanye West combined. In any case the clash promises to be a corker, pitting a Tigers attack that has racked up 19 tries this year (equal best in the NRL) up against Manly's airtight defence, which has let in just 10 four-pointers (second best in the league).
For the Sea Eagles Glenn Stewart is down to start at lock but will continue to be monitored for a concussion he sustained against the Roosters, while props Jason King and James Hasson return from suspension and a virus respectively with Geoff Toovey naming a five-man bench.
Meanwhile the Tigers welcome back Liam Fulton to the starting side and impressive young back Tim Simona to the bench as both return from a week out with concussion, replacing forwards Cory Paterson and Sauaso Sue.
Watch Out Tigers: Kieran Foran was instrumental for the Sea Eagles last week, playing like that kid everyone had in their team in their junior years. A class above, always wanting his hands on the ball, usually getting it and the hottest girl in the crowd to boot while you just stood there shaking your head wondering whether to scratch your watch or wind your backside. The Kiwi five-eighth racked up seven tackle busts and a line break coming back from a calf injury, and the fact he's likely to have the function of both legs at his disposal this week should spell danger for the Tigers.
If Manly's short kicking game – which forced the Roosters into five line drop-outs last week – combined with the Tigers' inability to clean up at the back doesn't have alarm bells ringing for Mick Potter, it should. Tedesco's enforced absence against the Warriors was needed like a hole in the head, but regardless the Tigers should not have conceded four tries to kicks with another disallowed. Particularly as three of these came from fumbles by Pat Richards, Bodene Thompson and of course Robbie Farah's fly-swatting effort to bat the ball dead on the stroke of halftime that led to one of the more ridiculous tries seen on a footy field.
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Watch Out Sea Eagles: It was against the Sea Eagles that David Nofoaluma pulled off 'the try of 2013', and given the fact Brett Morris has since thrown down the old 'anything you can do, I can do better' gauntlet, his opposite number David Williams could be in for a nervous afternoon if Nofoaluma chooses to rise to the challenge. Luke Brooks clearly has the kahunas to give it a go, and if the young half can put the ball anywhere in his vicinity, the Campbelltown junior will do the rest.
The visitors will also have to be wary of their opponents' second phase play, with the Tigers sitting fourth in the NRL for offloads with 41. Forwards Aaron Woods, Adam Blair, Sauaso Sue and James Gavet have registered five offloads each this season, and if they can get their arms free the likes of Farah, Tedesco and Brooks will relish the extra space around the ruck.
Plays to Watch: Manly's left side is firing – Steve Matai and Cheyse Blair have found plenty of space down the flank combining for seven tries and nine line breaks in the four games they've started together.
Also look for Robbie Farah getting out of dummy half – though not even Stevie Wonder could miss him – the Tigers skipper has run from acting half 47 times in 2014 for 424 metres, almost double the next best in the league (Andrew McCullough with 243 metres from 32 runs).
Where It Will Be Won: It's an obvious one, but it's obvious for a reason: discipline wins games of football. While both sides have been sloppy with the ball – the Tigers have recorded 39 handling errors and the Sea Eagles 38, ranking both in the bottom five for coach killers – the Tigers will need to aim up in defence and stay in the referees' good books if they're to have any chance here. The Tigers have missed 134 tackles this year, the most in the NRL, and are second only to the Eels in conceding 36 penalties (9 per game), 13 more than Manly.
The History: Played 19; Sea Eagles 12, Tigers 7. The Sea Eagles have well and truly tamed the Tigers in recent years, winning their last three against the joint venture club, and nine of the last 12 since 2006. In their three victories in this period the Tigers' average winning margin is just 2.5 points, while Manly have typically ran away with the result, with an average 17-point margin.
What Are The Odds: Manly have been backed from $1.60 into $1.50 with Sportsbet.com.au – money three to one in their favour – while the Tigers have eased from $2.35 to $2.65. The Sea Eagles have also been crunched to cover the -5.5 point line at $1.92.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Touch Judges – Russell Tuner & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Luke Patten
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm AEST
The Way We See It: It's hard to see Manly's juggernaut being halted by the battered Tigers, but given the nature of the competition and your correspondent's tipping form, this opinion should be avoided. While Manly look stronger pretty much all over the park there's something about Leichhardt, Sunday footy, the Tigers young guns and a good dose of nostalgia in the air that has us thinking that while Tigers might not get up, they will provide some entertainment. Manly by 8.
*Statistics: Champion Data