Halfway through the season, you can imagine club officials at Manly circling this game on the calendar as an easy win and a time to celebrate securing a home semi-final.
But as we finally reach the ultimate round of the regular season, there will be a white elephant walking around Brookvale Oval, with the uncomfortable truth hanging in the air that the Sea Eagles aren’t guaranteed a place in the finals.
The situation is this: if Manly loses to the Bulldogs, and the Rabbitohs can beat the Dragons, then the season could be over the northern beaches club. It would then depend on the winning margins in both games. You can bet there will be no-one more nervous than Des Hasler this weekend.
Considering the Bulldogs will be playing with nothing to lose, it sets up a dangerous scenario if you are a Manly fan.
Neither side comes into this game carrying much momentum, with both teams having won only two of their past five games.
For the Sea Eagles, their recent wins came against the Warriors and Storm – both of whom performed well below their best. In their other games, against the Knights, Dragons and Roosters, Manly seemed unable to put together 80 minutes of footy, controlling the game for patches then inexplicably letting the game go. Last week was the perfect example, with the side racing out to 14-0 after 38 minutes before conceding 30 unanswered points.
The Bulldogs may not have the same scoring ability as the Roosters did last week, but if the Sea Eagles put in another second-half display like last week, they will find themselves sweating on the Rabbitohs display and, even if results went their way, they would then face the Dragons or Tigers at home with no momentum – easy pickings.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs very nearly toppled the Panthers on Monday night after letting a lead go just like Manly’s. The Panthers are by no means at their peak in form, but the effort showed will give the team a huge lift as they prepare for their final game. In their other recent games, the side has beating the Cowboys and Knights, with their losses coming against the Knights and Raiders – both of whom were running hot at the time.
This will be the final match in the NRL for Luke Patten and Brett Kimmorley, while Ben Hannant will also be leaving the Bulldogs after the game.
Watch out Sea Eagles: It’s no fluke Brett Kimmorley has played 306 first grade games in the NRL, and he’ll be fired up to leave a lasting impression in the minds of everyone watching in game #307.
Despite the side struggling throughout the season, Kimmorley has proven that he’s still one of the best halfbacks in the competition – you only have to look at the number of clubs that chased his signature for 2011 to realise that. With 10 try assists, nine line-break assists, a combined eight line-breaks and tries of his own, and arguably the best kick-chase in the game, Kimmorley is still a player that can make or break this match.
Watch out Bulldogs: If this game is about the master Kimmorley, then so too is it about the apprentice Hodkinson. The young Manly halfback will be moving to Belmore next season, and this is his first chance to show his new club he’s worth the cash, and to show the Brookvale faithful what they’ll be missing.
Hodkinson has 10 try assists, a combined nine tries and line-breaks himself, and has proven his abilities with the boot, averaging 261 kick metres per game. But after stunning everyone with his early season form – resulting in representative selection for City Origin – his second half of the year hasn’t been quite as impressive. He’ll know better than anyone that he needs to step up and secure Manly its spot in the top eight, meaning he’ll have all the motivation to pull out a big one on Sunday.
Where it will be won: Good old-fashioned discipline. Without sounding like a broken record, last week showed that without a consistent performance over the entire 80 minutes, any team in the competition can make you pay, and discipline on and off the ball will be an important part of that.
The Sea Eagles and Bulldogs are ranked 2nd and 7th respectively for lowest error rates, but it will also come down to which side can give away the fewest penalties. Serial offenders like Anthony Watmough (24), Michael Ennis (18), and Jason King (17) will need to be careful of not inviting the opposition into the game through ill-discipline.
The history: Played 110; Sea Eagles 58, Bulldogs 47, drawn 5. At Brookvale Oval Manly have won 32 of the 51 contests, but the Bulldogs won’t be scared of the venue by any means, having won four of the past seven games there, including a 56-24 mauling in 2003.
Luke Patten and Andrew Ryan will have particularly good memories of the venue; the pair have scored eight tries there.
Conclusion: Common sense would tell you that Manly should be far too good and should win easily, but you get the sense that the Sea Eagles are really struggling to reclaim their mojo.
Manly are clear favourites with the bookies, but if you have that gut feeling telling you there’ll be an upset, listen to it.
Footnote: To add to Dessie’s anxiety, Bill Harrigan is back in the video ref’s booth, just weeks after stiffing the Sea Eagles by awarding a controversial Mark Gasnier try… against the Sea Eagles!
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Sideline – Jeff Younis & Paul Holland; Video Referee – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm.