Just when the Sea Eagles look like they are cruising back towards the top eight their good form conspires against them, resulting in five of their stars snatched for New South Wales duty.
Of course, Des Hasler and his charges are extremely happy for their representative players to don the sky blue, but it makes this task against a desperate Raiders outfit a fair bit tougher.
The Manly side has pushed up to ninth spot on the NRL ladder, just a win from the finals zone, after another good win over Penrith last weekend.
Since losing their opening four games, the Sea Eagles have won six of the past nine – and four of the past five – to slowly but surely move back into finals contention. But they do not have the luxury of being able to lapse.
With David Williams, Jamie Lyon, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart all part of the New South Wales “sudden-death squad” it is a new-look side for this encounter.
Andrew Suniula comes in on the wing for Williams, Ben Farrar remains at centre with Lyon missing again, Jason King starts at prop for Kite, Adam Cuthbertson comes in for Watmough and Glenn Hall takes the place of Stewart.
Vic Mauro and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves are the new faces on the bench for the home side.
The Raiders, who are just about on their last legs albeit just two competition points behind in 12th, must start winning soon as they have exhausted their byes.
They are boosted by the rejection of Terry Campese from the New South Wales team – but will his disappointment be a driving factor or a hindrance?
Their loss to the Sharks last weekend in Canberra stunted the momentum they’d built from two big wins prior and brings desperation back into their game.
Glen Buttriss has been named at hooker, which sees Alan Tongue start at lock and Trevor Thurling move back to the bench. The only other change is the addition of David Shillington to a five-man bench.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Terry Campese will no doubt be out to prove he shouldn’t have been a scapegoat for the New South Wales loss in Game I with a big club performance.
The strapping five-eighth wasn’t poor against the Sharks, making a few breaks and causing some headaches, but it wasn’t enough to outpoint Trent Barrett who stole his position.
Now he has a chance to prove he can handle disappointment, as true champions do. Look for Campese to run more in an effort to burst through the Manly defence. He has just four line breaks for the season so far and is skilful and big enough to have many more. He has been good for his team-mates, providing nine line-break assists and 15 try assists, and it would be improbable for him not to add to those tallies here.
Watch out Raiders: The Manly attack might be minus some of its star players but they’ll still no doubt stick to the structure that has worked well for them. This means they’ll attack the middle early, sending traffic through the rucks and try to compress the Raiders’ defenders in tight before unleashing the ball wide.
The Sea Eagles tend to have more success attacking to the right, where they have scored 23 tries compared to 14 on the left, so the Green Machine needs to be focussed. The Raiders have been equally poor defensively on the right (19 conceded), left (19 conceded) and up the middle (13 conceded) and must muscle up even accounting for an under-strength Sea Eagles.
Where it will be won: This one will come down to the dominance of the props and then each side’s star half.
Manly halfback Matt Orford needs to take charge of this game for his side to prosper and Terry Campese needs to do likewise if the Raiders are to come away with the points.
Both men play better behind dominant packs and this puts a lot of pressure on the big boppers up front here. The Raiders are starting with Dane Tilse and Scott Logan up front; neither man has been particularly dominant this season, averaging just 84 and 85 metres gained a match respectively.
The Sea Eagles’ bookends to start the match will be Josh Perry and Jason King, another pair whose output has been down this season, with Perry gaining just 76 metres a game and King 85 metres. It is time for these players to show some real muscle and also desire to take the hard yards over and over again.
They also need to get to their feet quickly and help the side with quick play-the-balls. If they can, it will release Campese and Orford to do their thing. Orford has 14 try assists this season and on the back of a dominant pack he’ll be able to direct his depleted side towards victory.
The History: Played 40; Sea Eagles 23, Raiders 16, drawn 1. The Sea Eagles have won six of the past seven matches against Canberra and they hold an 11-8 advantage over the Raiders at Brookvale Oval.
Conclusion: The Sea Eagles are certainly weakened here – but they are playing at Brookvale on a Sunday afternoon and usually this means they’ll put up a big fight no matter who pulls on the jersey.
The Raiders are entering the desperation phase of the season and this should inspire them to let the ball sing.
It’s not easy to pick a winner here so when in doubt it usually pays off to go with the home side.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.