THESE sides are worlds apart – or at least that’s what their most recent first grade performances would suggest: the Sea Eagles are riding a seven-game winning streak, including premiership glory and world club domination, while the Bulldogs must rally to overcome the stigma of being the holders of the wooden spoon for 2008, their miserable back-end performances thrusting them in line for a ninth – count them, nine! – loss in a row.
But what a difference a week makes. Off-field dramas have sent the premiers’ preparations into a serious spin. They’ve lost fullback Brett Stewart, suspended by the NRL for a minimum five weeks, which severely compounds their lack of availability in the outside backs.
Cult Test star David ‘The Wolfman’ Williams, Michael Bani and new recruit Tony Williams are all out injured, which has forced coach Des Hasler to blood Andrew Suniula on one wing. Now, subject any appeal by the Manly club that might allow Stewart to play, Hasler will also most likely shift winger Michael Robertson to fullback and introduce young centre Shane Neumann (four first grade games) to Robertson’s wing.
The new-look Bulldogs have few injury worries and appear ready to leave their mark in the early rounds of the competition. In the trials they fell 24-12 to the Dragons (but looked impressive nonetheless) and then played spirited footy to down the Raiders 24-16.
New buy Brett Kimmorley appears to have made a seamless transition into the no.7; he will provide the Bulldogs with great authority behind the ruck.
Jamal Idris will play just his fourth first grade game, partnering ex-Dragon Josh Morris in the centres, while former Broncos Michael Ennis, David Stagg and Ben Hannant will pick up where they left off north of the border.
The clash looms as a benchmark in the game’s history, with Hazem El Masri poised to overtake Andrew Johns as the leading all-time point-scorer – he needs just seven points to usurp Joey. (Also, five more goals would give the sharpshooter 800 for his career.) Fans are in for a treat, with fireworks scheduled should the milestone be achieved, while commemorative t-shirts and memorabilia will also go on sale after the game.
Watch out Bulldogs: Manly’s troubles are all off the field. They are the defending premiers and they became only the second side since the Roosters in 2003 to win the World Club Challenge.
With Brett Stewart sidelined captain Matt Orford and centre Jamie Lyon will take on more responsibility in attack – which could end in disaster for the blue and whites. Orford’s short kicking game to his outside men is a popular play that reaps heaps of points, while Lyon will test the inexperienced pair of Idris and Morris.
And you can bet Anthony Watmough will be fired up after his column centimetres in the press this week. There’s no more devastating back-rower in the game; he’ll be looking for short flat passes on the edges before bursting through the Bulldogs line, as he did against Leeds on the way to two tries at Elland Road.
Watch out Sea Eagles: If the Sea Eagles have shown any weaknesses in defence over the past two years it’s been close to their line. They are mostly watertight but sometimes, coming off their own try-line, they have been found out. They’ll want to be totally focussed here, as scheming Michael Ennis will exploit any complacency.
How the Sea Eagles go first up with the two-refs system will be interesting too – last year they conceded the second most penalties in the NRL (179) and their discipline will need to have improved or they will find themselves hammered here. By contrast, the Bulldogs gave away 147 penalties all year. And they are the home side in this clash.
Where it will be won: It’ll be a case of whoever blinks first, loses. Expect this to be a real battle of kicking attrition: it features two of the best ‘boot’ generals in the business. Kimmorley was ranked number one in long kicks to open space in 2008, and number two in overall metres gained by kicks (9470). Orford was ranked three in metres gained off the boot, totalling 8972. Both sides will get plenty of good field position. From there it’s a case of who capitalises the best.
The History: Played 108; Sea Eagles 57, Bulldogs 46, drawn 5. The Sea Eagles have won six of the past eight clashes, including the last three between the sides at ANZ Stadium.
Conclusion: Emotion will play a huge part in the outcome to this game. The Bulldogs fans will give the Sea Eagles players a red hot ‘welcome’ and much will depend on the Manly players being able to block out the jeers.
The Brett Stewart drama can’t help but play on their minds. While they still have the talent to win this, it’s likely to be too much for them – especially given their backline limitations. Still, Cronulla rallied in their first game after Greg Bird was dropped...
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats.