Sea Eagles v Knights
He’s baaaaaack! Brett Stewart returns to Brookvale for the first time since April 2009 to headline what should be a banner match against the currently unbeaten and table-topping surprise packets, the Newcastle Knights.
After two seasons lost to injury and the extra emotional burden of his court case, Stewart finally gets to return home to thank the Manly faithful who stuck by him.
And with 98 NRL tries currently to his name, one gets the feeling there could be a fairytale script waiting to play out.
They might not be right around the corner from each other but these two teams treat these matches like local derbies. There is a genuine ‘hatred’ between the two stemming mainly from the halcyon days when the ‘Chief’ Paul Harragon and ‘Spud’ Mark Carroll went about trying to destroy each other on the field.
Recent encounters have been held up at Gosford at Bluetongue Stadium but this week the Sea Eagles return to ‘Fortress Brookie’, and on the back of a super-impressive comeback win over the Roosters.
When they fell to the Storm in week one, their fans could have been forgiven for thinking it might be a long season ahead but Manly bounced back strong and now look primed to continue an assault on the premiership.
Captain Jason King returns from a one-week suspension at prop, pushing George Rose to the bench. Brett’s brother Glenn Stewart also returns at lock, which sees Jamie Buhrer return to the bench and Daniel Harrison miss out.
For the Knights it has been a dream start with big wins over Penrith and the Cowboys, both away from home, catapulting them in first place. They face their third straight road trip, having named captain Kurt Gidley to return from a back injury at fullback – although he is in severe doubt and is likely to once again be replaced by Shannon McDonnell.
In the only other changes, Cameron Ciraldo has been named to start in the back row with Cory Paterson on the bench and Joel Edwards has been added as an 18th man.
The club has never won three successive away matches played back-to-back-to back.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Knights lead the NRL in line-breaks (16) because they haven’t been afraid to throw the ball around and create options. Granted the defence thrown up by the Panthers and Cowboys has been weak but they have still dominated what was in front of them. They also have a further six half-breaks in the opening two weeks.
Manly on the other hand have just six busts in their first two matches. Junior Sa’u has three line-breaks for the Knights, while Richie Fa’aoso, Cory Paterson and Akuila Uate have a pair each. Seven other players have made a break, showing the team can be dangerous everywhere.
Danger Sign: If the Knights get into the Manly backfield early in this match it could be a sign that once again they are going to be running freely.
Watch Out Knights: Brett Stewart has been waiting for this day a long time and if a movie script were written, this is the part where he dominates and wins the game for his club, brings up a century of tries for his career and finally puts all of the turmoil in his life behind him.
While the Knights have been great in attack, some defensive weaknesses have emerged, which will give Stewart full confidence he can crack them open. With just 81.7 per cent of Newcastle’s tackles deemed effective – the second-worst ratio in the NRL – it is clear that if the Knights have to tackle more, they may just struggle.
Stewart hasn’t fully tested his knee yet – he is running just 57 metres a match – but he does have two line-break assists and two try assists and has supported the ball carrier 10 times, his old forte.
Danger Sign: Stewart lurking around the middle of the ruck waiting to burst onto an offload. One also wonders if Daly Cherry-Evans will do what Matt Orford used to so well – that is shape to kick wide, but instead kick back to the middle where Stewart patrols.
Plays To Watch: Cory Paterson’s sneaky offloads; Jarrod Mullen 40/20s (nabbed two last week); Beau Henry’s cheeky grubbers behind the line; Anthony Watmough charging on the left edge; Manly inside balls on the end of long backline shifts.
Where It Will Be Won: Much will depend on emotional control and composure. The Sea Eagles will be trying to feed off a packed house and the ‘do it for Brett’ mantra, but they must concentrate on the game at hand to actually get it done.
The Knights can go one of two ways mentally as well. They can be intimidated by all of the emotion and be swept up in it, or they can feed off it themselves and use the opportunity to steel themselves for a famous win. They will need to be very insularly focussed and not focus on the surroundings.
Away from the mental aspects, this game will be centred on players pushing up in support of the ball runner – an easy job to forget to do as a player but one that is crucial to success. The Sea Eagles lead the NRL with 116 support runs and the Knights aren’t far behind with 92. “So what?” you might ask… well, any good coach will tell you the more support runs you make, the closer you are to one of them turning into an actual receive and possible line bust. Plus, they also attract defenders your way, creating space in other areas. The team that goes with their mate, and goes often, will win here.
The History: Played 38; Sea Eagles 22, Knights 16. The Sea Eagles and Knights have split the past eight games four apiece, with the Knights winning the past match-up but Manly winning the two prior.
It’s been a long time since the two teams have met at Brookvale Oval, with Manly taking home matches against the Knights to Gosford for the past five years. It proved fruitful, as they won the past four matches in Gosford – but they also have a great record against the Knights at Brookie. Manly have won nine of 11 matches between the clubs at this venue – although the past three times they have played during daytime against all opponents here, they have fallen.
Newcastle have never won three consecutive away matches played in succession and only once in the past decade have they won their opening three matches of a season (2006).
Conclusion: The Knights lead the competition so they can’t be discounted. But history and everything else points towards a Manly win here.
Newcastle won’t mind, as they have knocked off two favourites already this season, but with Gidley likely missing again, Kieran Foran in blistering form (four tackle-breaks, a try and two glorious try-saving plays last week), and the probability the Eagles will defend better than the Panthers and Cowboys did, the smart play is to back the home side.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & David Munro; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.
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