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Sea Eagles v Storm
Brookvale Oval
Saturday, 5.30pm

The rivalry between these two teams was set in stone in the 2007 and 2008 grand finals, as both teams were vying to be the top dog in the competition. Melbourne had been the benchmark team in ’06, ’07, and ’08, but the day Manly won their record 40-0 premiership decider, the rivalry was guaranteed to last.

A lot has changed since then, with the salary cap scandal decimating the Storm, while Manly seems at times to be a shadow of their team of 2008. Nevertheless, no matter what happens off the field and where either team sits on the ladder, you can bet that each team will step up another gear when the Sea Eagles take on Melbourne.

The Storm come into this game after two solid victories at home against the Raiders and Panthers, following three straight losses on the road. The big question everyone has asked is if Melbourne would be able to continue to play well with no points on offer. While their eight losses this season certainly indicates they are not the “invincibles” of old, the Storm would be fifth on the ladder were they playing for points, one win ahead of Manly.

The Sea Eagles have been difficult to predict this season, constantly dipping in and out of form in the most random of ways. After four losses from five games, they won in convincing style against the Sharks and Tigers (the Tigers had won seven from eight at the time). But just when Manly looked to be putting a good run together at the right time of the season, the team was beaten convincingly by a desperate Newcastle, going down 32-14.

But if Manly’s loss against the Knights shows anything, it’s that any team can win when enough is at stake. Despite their inconsistency, the Sea Eagles are sixth on the ladder with five rounds to go, and are fully aware that a loss could see them fall out of the eight and, more importantly, severely dent their chances of getting a home semi-final. Given the up-and-down form they’re in, that must be their main priority.

While less is at stake for the Storm, this will be the last game against their arch-rivals for Ryan Hoffman, Jeff Lima, Brett Finch and no doubt some others, who’ll love nothing more than to boot the Sea Eagles out of the eight and repay them for their victory in Melbourne in Round 6.

The Sea Eagles have made no changes to their starting line-up, with Ben Farrar cleared of injury after being forced off the field against the Knights.

Melbourne have brought in Matt Duffie for Justin O’Neil, while Brett White’s return pushes Jeff Lima to a five-man bench.

Watch out Sea Eagles: Is it a train? Is it a plane? All the talk in the rugby league world seems to revolve around Jarryd Hayne, yet as Hayne’s form can go missing, Billy Slater remains arguably the best fullback in the world.

Slater has scored nine tries and has made nine line-breaks this year, but it’s his support play that makes him so dangerous. Slater has 16 line-break assists this year – third most in NRL – as well as 10 try assists.

Slater also averages 100 metres per game, and with 71 tackle-breaks this season, he will be a constant threat to Manly’s defensive line. If the Sea Eagles defend like they did (or rather, didn’t) last Monday night, Slater will rip them to shreds.

Watch out Storm: When you come into a big game, you want a big game player – and that’s exactly what you get with Anthony Watmough.

Watmough makes the most metres for his side, and is especially successful down the short side. ‘Choc’ has broken the line six times this season and is a difficult player to bring down, breaking 64 tackles and making 17 offloads.

More than just a running back-rower, Watmough knows how to read the game and can spot weaknesses in the opposition’s defence; so just like Slater, his support play makes him that extra bit more threatening to the defence than other players.

No-one in the Manly side will relish the chance to beat Melbourne more than him.

Where it will be won: In the defensive line. Both sides have a plethora of attacking talent (above) but both have been vulnerable in defence at times during the season.

Melbourne’s problem has been a lack of concentration, letting the opposition in for 10- to 15-minute periods. However, the team concedes the second-fewest tries and misses the second-fewest tackles in the competition.

Manly’s problem has been an inability to move quickly off the defensive line and apply pressure to the opposition. This has resulted in the Sea Eagles conceding 4.3 line-breaks per game, as they have given too much time to the other side. Against the likes of Slater, Cronk, and Smith, that needs to change.

The history: Played 18; Storm 10, Sea Eagles 8. Manly fans would love to tell you that Brookvale Oval will be the X-factor in this game, but the truth is that Melbourne won’t fear the trip to the northern beaches at all. Manly have won the past two games in Melbourne, but the reverse is true as well, with the Storm winning the past two clashes at Brookvale to hold a 6-4 advantage in their previous 10 games.

Brookvale Oval has been far from a fortress this year, with Manly losing four of their seven games at the venue. With that in mind, it would be foolish to think there will be much home-ground advantage going to the Sea Eagles.

Monday’s night loss to the Knights was embarrassing for coach Des Hasler and his team, so it’s a safe bet Manly will put in a much better performance here.

Melbourne has been capable of beating anyone when the players have been switched on, and there’ll be no lack of motivation for this encounter.

Both teams will be absolutely primed for the latest chapter in this fierce rivalry, but the winner will be the team that can apply the most pressure by moving quickly off their line and disrupting the other side’s game.

All things considered Melbourne should be too good for a Manly side reeling from a lack of confidence.

Match officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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