The season’s opening Monday night fixture should be a beauty between two Sydney clubs desperate to get off to a flier.
The Wests Tigers camp has been brimming with confidence after way too many lean years in a row and with Lote Tuquri comes another strike weapon to add to their impressive attacking arsenal. They now boast a halves pairing with added potential – something missing since the departure of Scott Prince – plus Robbie Farah is an established superstar at hooker.
They also have some added aggression in the pack, thanks to Jason Cayless’ arrival, and as such another year without a finals appearance would be unacceptable.
Manly, on the other hand, finished 2009 in sad circumstances. A personal tragedy to a team-mate forced problems with their finals preparations and then upsets pushed them out the back door.
They have bubbled along nicely in the pre-season, back under the radar somewhat, where Des Hasler loves them to be. Most of the Sydney focus has been on the Eels, Rabbitohs, Dragons, Tigers and even Roosters.
The big question mark for the side comes at halfback… can Kieran Foran replace Matt Orford without too many hassles? Or will it take time for the Sea Eagles to take flight?
With one of the best back rows in the NRL they have plenty of talent to be successful. Tony Williams is going to play centre, while Brett Stewart is hoping to let football do the talking for a while.
The Wests Tigers started the trials with a 28-4 win over North Queensland, then they fell 28-10 to the Roosters in the Foundation Cup before touching up the Sharks 36-12 in Gosford.
Manly lost 42-12 to the Rabbitohs at Redfern before beating Cronulla and fighting out a 16-all draw against the Warriors.
Tim Sheens has Tuquri named on the wing, Tim Moltzen at fullback and Liam Fulton is back starting for the Tigers in the second row after some time in England.
Watch out Wests Tigers: The Stewart brothers are primed to shake off the uncertainty and annoyance of off-field distraction with great on-field play.
Brett at his best is one of the NRL’s best fullbacks with pace to burn and an uncanny knack of finding the try line.
Glenn has blossomed into one of the best workhorse second row forwards. He tackles himself to a standstill and still has time to chime in as an attacking ball runner.
You can be sure both men will be heavily involved in Manly’s game plan and the Tigers will have to contain them to survive.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Even if they try to downplay it, we all know the Wests Tigers are predominantly an attacking team. The Sea Eagles have to be aware the Tigers won’t discriminate when it comes to launching attacking plays. They will have set moves from penalties and scrums, they will get creative in their opponent’s quarter, but they will also have a crack from long range.
In 2009, the Wests Tigers led the NRL with 134 line-breaks over the regular season, with 14 of those coming from dummy-half and another nine from kick returns. Manly must kick-chase with purpose and they cannot for even a second take their eyes off Robbie Farah.
Where it will be won: Robert Lui and Kieran Foran are both young halfbacks with plenty to prove and the youngster who gets on top of the other in this battle could help propel his side to victory.
Foran played nine NRL games in 2009 and managed six line-breaks and six tries – pretty decent for a rookie. He showed off pace and tenacity, something the Manly faithful already love about him.
Lui played just three NRL games in 2009 but showed enough potential to have people excited for his and the Tigers’ future. He managed two line-breaks in his three games and threw in a try assist. While Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah will direct most of the play for the Tigers, Lui’s impact can’t be underestimated. He has the confidence to overcall his senior team-mates and has the football nous to know when to do so. So while the performances of Jamie Lyon and Marshall are pivotal, it is the two youngsters and their contributions that will be all-important.
The History: Played 13; Wests Tigers 5, Sea Eagles 8. Manly have won five of the past six games between the two clubs – although the last clash went the way of the Wests Tigers, 19-18. That is the only previous clash between the two clubs at the SFS, so the Tigers hold the advantage at the venue.
Conclusion: This really does shape up as a great finish to the opening round, as both teams have legitimate claims to favouritism.
The Wests Tigers have the attack to blow away Manly if they get a roll on but the Manly side has proven match-winners and premiership-winning footballers (yes, yes, the Tigers have a few of those also…) who aren’t poor in attack themselves.
One gets the feeling the tries scored in this match will be exciting. Don’t be afraid to tip either way on this one.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Gavin Reynolds & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Chris Ward.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.