Boy, what a difference a month can make! After Round 11, having fallen in controversial last-minute fashion to the Titans, the Sea Eagles were five points adrift of the top eight in 13th position. But three successive wins and two byes have rocketed them to 18 points, good enough for seventh on the NRL ladder when points differential is taken into account.
They share that rung with the Cowboys, Panthers and Broncos and get the chance to push hard for a top-four spot against the Bulldogs at home.
They are at full-strength (although still minus Brett Stewart) and have named Heath L’Estrange, Jason King, George Rose and Tony Williams on the bench, with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Adam Cuthbertson in jerseys 20 and 21.
It’s the last chance for winger David Williams and prop Brent Kite to show they are deserving of retaining their spots in the NSW State of Origin side.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs are coming off a hat-trick of wins over top-eight aspirants the Broncos, Panthers and Cowboys. Jarrad Hickey and Daryl Millard will again be called on to do the job in the absence of the injured Ben Hannant and Jamal Idris, while Josh Morris and Michael Ennis will be pushing their claims for a Blues call-up.
This game will be an emotional one for Hazem El Masri, his first since announcing he will be hanging up his boots at season’s end.
Watch out Sea Eagles: The halves combination of Brett Kimmorley and Ben Roberts has been a revelation for the Bulldogs, with Roberts in particular thriving over the past month. His form turnaround corresponds with his swearing off alcohol at the beginning of the year – maybe there’s a message in there for other/all NRL players given the current environment.
Roberts has 11 line-break assists (5th best in the comp), 10 try assists (11th best), and nine line breaks (13th best). Plus he is averaging 84 metres gained – good territory for a five-eighth. He’s particularly dangerous running to the line inside the opposition 20-metre zone and can confound defences with his lightning-quick decision-making, holding up passes and dropping deft grubber kicks behind the line for chasers Bryson Goodwin, Josh Morris and Luke Patten.
Also, the Sea Eagles can’t afford any complacency on the edges – the Bulldogs may rip them to shreds if they do, having made more line breaks than any other team (79). By comparison, the Sea Eagles will need to ensure they get benefit from their opportunities, having made a lowly 58 line breaks (third fewest in the comp). The good news for them though is they have converted a line break into a try on 24 occasions. The Bulldogs? Just 28.
Watch out Bulldogs: Matt Orford and Anthony Watmough are the men to watch. The Bulldogs need to hustle Orford early; he’s a confidence player and if hounded his play can fall away. Otherwise, expect him to add to his 14 try assists (4th in NRL) and 10 line-break assists.
Watmough is in the form of his career and would like nothing better than to run rampant in front of a large Brookvale crowd. To date he has 84 tackle breaks, 127 metres a game plus 33 offloads (3rd in the comp).
Where it will be won: Matt Orford and Jamie Lyon need to get their kicking games spot-on if they’re to give their side a chance of equalling the territory Brett Kimmorley, Michael Ennis and Ben Roberts will gain for the visitors. To date the Bulldogs have kicked just six times more than the Sea Eagles (280-274) but have gained a whopping 1244 metres more ground (8967 metres to 7725 metres).
Expect plenty of decoy plays from the Manly attack, especially inside the Bulldogs 20-metre line. It’s a ploy that they’ve used to great effect in recent years and stats show they are keen again in 2009, with Brent Kite (64 runs) and Josh Perry (52 runs) in the top 15 for decoy runners.
By comparison, there are no Bulldogs players in the top 20 in the category.
The history: Played 109; Sea Eagles 57, Bulldogs 47, Drawn 5. The Sea Eagles hold a slender advantage in recent clashes winning five of the past eight. But they mere mugged by the Bulldogs 34-12 at ANZ Stadium in Round 1. The home side holds a commanding 31-16 lead in clashes at Brookvale – although they’ve shared the honours two games apiece from the past four clashes.
Conclusion: The Bulldogs may be co-premiership leaders but gaining the competition points at Brookvale against a resurgent premiers side will be a tough ask.
This game could boil down to goal-kicking – already this season 17 games have been decided by poor goal-kicking, with Manly losing by two points or less on three occasions. The Bulldogs have Hazem El Masri kicking at 85 per cent; Manly have Matt Orford and Jamie Lyon kicking at 73 and 70 per cent respectively. If it’s try-for-try, that augers well for the visitors.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Tim Mander.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.