Sunday, 2pm AEST
The return of Brett Stewart for Manly will turn this game from a likely average, easy win for the Sea Eagles into one that will garner plenty of interest from all rugby league fans.
Because all of a sudden, Manly have overcome a hump of poor form and are climbing back up the table. Now with Stewart in their side, the 2008 premiers are looking daunting for every opponent.
However, Stewart’s return coincides with a downer, with Jamie Lyon forced out with a shoulder injury. Don’t underestimate Lyon’s contribution to the Sea Eagles this year – they are a weakened team without him, even taking into account Stewart’s return.
Even so, Ricky Stuart will have another tough week with his rag-tag bunch of rookies and reserve graders, holding onto their never-say-die attitude in the hope that eventually it will result in a win. That still looks unlikely this weekend.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Despite now losing eight in a row, the Sharks have something no-one can take away from them: pride. They nearly upset the Titans last weekend at their home ground, just by running on the field with more enthusiasm and effort than the opposition. But everyone knows it takes more than that to win a football game.
Anthony Watmough is currently Manly’s best player, but he has some defensive deficiencies the Sharks can exploit. The back-rower will love nothing more than putting a hit on the big boppers of the Sharks, just as he did last time they played when he put a huge shot on Johnny Mannah.
Watmough comes out of the line to put the hits on, but doesn’t effect the tackle when he does. If the Sharks’ big men, including Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas, can stand their ground when Watmough comes charging out of the line and evade him, then pop an offload to a speedy back like Nathan Stapleton, they can break open the Sea Eagles’ defence.
Also, Manly have just a 53 per cent success rate in defusing a cross-field bomb, so Scott Porter or Blake Green should be putting them up for Luke Covell, who is solid under the high ball.
Watch out Sharks: Brett Sewart is an attacking weapon the Sea Eagles will have no trouble unleashing. He also shouldn’t take too long to settle into the game.
After a four-week lay-off to begin the year, Stewart came in for two games and scored five tries, averaged 138 metres and made 12 tackle breaks.
Following through on a kick, or even after making a line break, Sharks fullback Stapleton is not experienced enough to know how to stop a player like Stewart.
The combination of Watmough back again with Stewart is a scary prospect, so expect the fullback to be hanging around Watmough for much of the game, waiting for him to make a bust or line up a pass that puts him into space.
Where it will be won: The Sharks have no hope of matching Manly’s skill and experience in the backline, so they will be relying on their forwards to dominate the Sea Eagles’ pack and contain the space for Matt Orford, Watmough and Stewart.
Paul Gallen, Anthony Tupou, Snowden and Douglas are Cronulla’s best hopes. They are consistent but have their work cut out for them, as Manly averages more than 100 extra metres a game.
In defence, Snowden, Douglas and Grant Millington are Cronulla’s most efficient defenders, with more than a 90 per cent tackling rate.
Manly’s metres come from Watmough (137 a game) and their backs. Props Jason King and Josh Perry only average 88 and 78 metres respectively. For the Sharks, Snowden averages 103, Gallen 137 and Douglas 117. This is where the Sharks have to dominate if they are to have any hope.
The history: Played 75; Sea Eagles 51, Sharks 22, drawn 2. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides. At Brookvale Oval they have played 33 games, with the home side winning 27, the Sharks five with one draw.
Conclusion: At this point of the season at Brookvale Oval in Stewart’s return game the Sharks have very little hope of getting over the top of Manly.
Even if their forwards can dominate, mistakes will kill the advantage. Cronulla have the worst error rate in the NRL (with 303 this season), while Manly have one of the best with 254.
Those loose balls will be pounced on by the Sea Eagles’ backs and their strike weapons Watmough and Stewart will capitalise.
Manly should win this one by a sizeable margin with a top-four finish beckoning.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline officials – Grant Atkins & Mohamad Fajajo; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm (AEST).
* Statistics: NRL Stats.