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ANZ Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

WHAT a difference a week makes! The reigning premiers enter this clash with all the momentum after favourite son Brett Stewart sensationally jump-started their flat-battery 2009 campaign with a hat-trick of tries to blow away the Wests Tigers at Brookvale last week.

Meanwhile there were worrying signs for the Rabbitohs at this venue just last Monday night – they scored from their first set to totally dominate the Bulldogs early but then surrendered two tries to the home side in easy fashion to go under.

Des Hasler’s boys are long way off the premiership pace in 15th place with a -27 points differential elevating them only above the rock-bottom Sharks (-30). Without Stewart and with a host of niggling injuries to key outside backs they lost their first four straight to the Bulldogs (34-12), Warriors (26-24 late), Panthers 12-10 (late) and Knights (26-12). Their two two-point losses were theirs for the taking and had they grasped those opportunities no doubt the knives that are out for them would not be nearly as sharp as they are.

With a retained squad of 17 for this game they may get the chance to build on the continuity they so desperately seek.

Meanwhile the Rabbitohs have shown they have the muscle to compete with the toughest NRL outfits. They flogged the Roosters 52-12, suffered a narrow loss to a never-say-die performance from the Eels (14-8) before stringing together wins against the Knights (22-12) and Warriors away (22-16). It was the latter performance that stamped them as quality – although the Warriors’ loss to the Knights puts that form line under scrutiny.

The Rabbitohs will take to the field with the same 17 that took on the Bulldogs, with consistent prop Luke Stuart playing his 150th match in the red and green.   

Watch out Rabbitohs: Try as teams might it’s just impossible to negate the impact of Brett Stewart. The key is to limit his opportunities – that means stopping the ball from getting to him (kicks to space) and wrapping up the Sea Eagles close to the ruck, before they offload and get the ball wide.

In that regard the Rabbitohs really need to improve on their lowly 68 one-on-one tackles which ranks them last in the NRL. If not, Stewart (a line break, three tries and 172 metres last week) and Anthony Watmough (a line break, 120 metres, a try assist and six offloads last week) will eat them alive.

Watch out Sea Eagles: Manly’s defence has holes in it that didn’t exist in 2008. To date they’ve conceded 19 tries, the fifth-most in the comp, for an average 21.6 points conceded per game.

Expect the Rabbitohs’ assault to be focussed down their left side, where they’ve scored nine of their 20 tries (with five in centre-field and six on the right flank). Also, they’ve scored seven tries from kicks to be the NRL leaders in the category. Manly right-side winger Michael Bani can start getting ready for a hail of cross-field bombs – especially given the Sea Eagles have just a 50 per cent defusal rate.

Where it will be won: Individual brilliance, creativity and the ability to capitalise on chances in open play. There’s not a lot between these sides as far as go-forward is concerned, with the Bunnies advancing an average of 1330 metres a game compared to the Sea Eagles’ 1249 metres.

The Rabbitohs will rely heavily on John Sutton for creative spark – his 21 offloads is the best in the NRL. And they’ll need Fetuli Talanoa (four line breaks) and Luke Capewell (11.7 metres on average for kick returns) to continue their form.

Manly just need Stewart and Watmough to reveal early levels of enthusiasm; if they do it will no doubt permeate through their whole side.

The History: Played 121; Sea Eagles 66, Rabbitohs 55. The premiers hold the advantage winning five of the past eight games between the sides – although the Rabbitohs will be buoyed by their 40-32 win over the maroon-and-whites at ANZ Stadium (where they hold a 3-2 advantage) in Round 21 last year.

Conclusion: This is arguably the game that defines the Sea Eagles’ year. If they go on with the job after beating the Wests Tigers they can set themselves up for a decent crack at the middle stages of the comp. But if they fall here it will be like taking one step forward and two steps back.

They have the weight of recent history on their side – they have won 20 of their past 25 matches against the Rabbitohs; incredibly there has never been a draw between these two great combatants.

They should be too good.

Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Daniel Eastwood; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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