Their positions on the ladder through seven rounds of 2009 might come as a huge surprise but don’t let anyone hoodwink you into thinking this clash will be anything less than a torrid, absorbing, physical and entertaining affair from start to finish.
Three words guarantee it: grand final rematch.
The Manly camp have spent all week bunkered down away from the media focus, while the Storm have been asked the obvious questions aimed at generating headlines like “Revenge” after their 40-nil drubbing last October.
But the truth is, that was then and this is now. And with just five wins between them from a total of 14 games, this clash looms as the acid test for both sides.
Manly’s greatest fear was realised last week: after three losses without star fullback Brett Stewart, then two wins with him contributing five spectacular tries, they crashed back to earth against the Cowboys in the first of 11 more weeks when he won’t be trotting out in their no.1 jersey. Some blow.
They sit in 12th spot on four points with an unimpressive -25 points differential; another loss and their already fragile psyche may shatter. But a win could just be the making of their season.
At least they’ve got some continuity this week, heading in with the same 18 they named for the Cowboys game.
Meanwhile you would have thought Melbourne may have entered this game with a “nothing-to-lose” attitude, having been whipped 40-nil the last time they met. Not so.
Craig Bellamy’s Storm outfit have lacked cohesion over the first two months and ticking their box in the footy tipping comps is no longer a given. They’ve lost their invulnerability at home (losing once and salvaging a lucky competition point from a 90-minute slugfest with the Warriors last week) and are struggling for impact out wide.
For this game, big Joseph Tomane replaces the injured Anthony Quinn on the wing, while Wairangi Koopu starts in the second row replacing the injured Kevin Proctor.
Origin prop Brett White has recovered from his toe injury and is an addition to the bench along with Matt Cross.
Watch out Sea Eagles: If the forwards don’t pull their weight in defence this could be a disaster – Craig Bellamy would have noticed the Sea Eagles’ low tackle effectiveness rate of 85.8 per cent and licked his lips. Meanwhile the Sea Eagles are already struggling for points (just three tries a game, down from more than five a game in 2008) and here come up against the NRL leaders for making effective tackles (91.4 per cent).
Manly also need to be extremely careful with their discipline, even allowing for playing at home with an overwhelming local crowd in support. The Sea Eagles have conceded 54 penalties in defence at an average of 7.7 a game to be the biggest offenders in the comp. By comparison the Storm are almost angelic, giving up just 40.
Watch out Storm: A lack of penetration in attack must also be starting to eat away at their coach Craig Bellamy. Despite a star-studded backline boasting the likes of Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis the Storm have scored the third-fewest points in the NRL (99). Their average per game is down from 23 points last year to a meagre 14 for the first seven games of 2009.
Much will depend on five-eighth Brett Finch’s ability to give Greg Inglis good ball and quickly – Inglis was able to bust the line out wide against the Warriors last week in Finch’s first outing for his new club, and he’ll be desperate for more.
Down the other end of the park they’ll need to watch Glenn Stewart whose form has been a few rungs above that of some of his team-mates. Last week against the Cowboys he made 12 runs for 86 metres, with two try assists, an offload and a line break. And he made 46 tackles to boot.
In baby brother Brett’s absence he’ll do everything he can to create opportunities, especially inside the Storm 20-metre line where the Melbourne side have conceded 12 of their 17 tries (and nine within 10 metres).
They’ll need to watch Matt Ballin too – hopefully they won’t have forgotten his grand final try from dummy-half.
Where it will be won: Field position. With rain forecast for Sydney in the lead-up to the game it will mean slippery conditions, so field position will be vital.
Both sides have excellent “generals” at halfback, but each will really need to strap on their best kicking boots to give their sides the edge.
Currently there’s not a lot of difference in their kicks to open space – the Storm hold a slight edge 51.2 per cent to 45.3 per cent. But Cronk is largely responsible for giving the Storm a heap more territory off his kicks – the Storm average 204 metres a game compared to the Sea Eagles’ 161 metres. That could put added pressure on Matt Orford – pressure he certainly could do without!
The History: Played 14; Storm 8, Sea Eagles 6. The sides are four games apiece over their past eight clashes. However, at Brookvale Manly hold a 5-2 advantage.
Conclusion: No clear-cut winner here. There really are a few scenarios: 1) On form, the Storm will prove a touch too strong for the premiers who will yet again struggle without Brett Stewart; 2) The Sea Eagles will rally at home, rise to the challenge and play to their potential to win a close game; and 3) The Storm click into gear and embarrass an opponent way down on confidence. You choose.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed from 9am Saturday.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.