Sea Eagles v Panthers
Brookvale Oval
Friday 7.30pm

We have heard the scuttlebutt – Manly coach Des Hasler was (or is) on the Penrith coaching hit list for next year with the revelation he has a get-out clause in his contract at Manly.

As a former Penrith junior it makes sense for the Panthers to approach the premiership-winning mentor… that is if they plan to go in a different direction from current anchor Matt Elliott.

But despite starting it all at the foot of the Blue Mountains, Hasler has been a Manly boy predominantly as both a player and a long-term coach – and perhaps his current players will be looking to show their coach just which side of the fence he should stay on.

Conversely – perhaps some Penrith players might fire up a little more, knowing this could be a future boss of theirs… at the very least it is an interesting side note to what should be a tough match.

The home side Sea Eagles enter the Good Friday clash off the back of a nice win over the Warriors, moving their record to 4-2 and putting them in fifth place on the ladder.

They hope to welcome back Brett Stewart at fullback, meaning impressive youngster William Hopoate moves back to the wing and Michael Oldfield hits the bench.

If Stewart doesn’t make it back Hopoate is a more than capable replacement – in only his fourth appearance in place of Stewart, the rookie is currently averaging the most runs (19.8) and metres (177.5) ever by a Manly fullback in stats history!

The only other change is on the reserves list, with Tony Williams out and Tim Robinson in.

The Panthers were rolled by the Storm last round, leaving them languishing in 14th place with a 2-4 record. They are sticking solid to the team from last week, although Tim Grant is slated to start at prop with Sam McKendry moving to the bench. Yileen Gordon has been added as an 18th man.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Michael Gordon really is a fantastic player. It’s phenomenal to think he is Penrith’s second-choice fullback. Last weekend against the Storm he had an amazing 26 runs for 308 metres, nine tackle-breaks, four offloads and a line-break – in a losing side!

‘Flash’ now averages 159 metres a match and looks dangerous every time he touches the ball. He is ninth in the NRL for most runs with 94, third in the NRL for metres gained with 952, averages 13.1 metres on kick returns, leads the league in intercepts, is fifth in the NRL in tackle-breaks with 34, is third in the NRL in try saves and is 10th in the NRL for support runs.

The Manly boys also need to be wary of Timana Tahu off the bench. Tahu has recorded five wins from seven appearances against the Sea Eagles, scoring six tries. Only once has he played at Brookvale Oval – which happened to be last year when he inspired the Eels to an upset victory (11 runs for 100 metres).

Danger Sign: If the Sea Eagles’ halves start kicking to Gordon on the full, the Panthers will have a positive start to their sets and the potential to dominate field position.

Watch Out Panthers: The Sea Eagles have been deadly from close range this year and this is compounded by the fact the Panthers’ goal line defence has been close to disgraceful at times. The Manly boys are equal second best in the NRL at scoring tries from 0-10 metres this season with 14 on their books, proving they can make the most of good field position.

The Panthers have conceded an uninspiring 14 tries from the same distance, making this a potential mismatch if the home side can get deep into Panthers territory.

Danger Sign: Pay special attention to the Sea Eagles’ first visit deep in attack. If they score or get an easy repeat set, it could be a long long, long night for the Panthers.

Plays To watch: Trent Waterhouse probing on the right edge; Luke Walsh grubbering for Gordon; Sandor Earl’s vertical leaps; Jamie Buhrer combining on the left edge with Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans slotting the ball in behind for repeat sets.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence is going to claim this match – which isn’t great news for the Panthers as they have the fourth-worst defence in the league. They are letting in an average 24.2 points a game and with their attack also spluttering (the third-worst in the NRL, scoring just 16 points a game) they need improvement and they need it fast.

The Sea Eagles have been sensational in defence so far this season. They are behind only the Dragons for least errors committed per game (10.7) and they are ranked in the top four in the league for least metres conceded (1213), offloads conceded (7.8) and tackle misses (26.3). They are leaking just 16.8 points per game on average and scoring 21.3.

The History: Played 73; Sea Eagles 46, Panthers 26, drawn 1. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight – but Penrith won last year’s encounter. Brookvale Oval has notoriously been an unhappy hunting ground for the Panthers, who have won just nine of 35 matches there – although they did win the last match there between the clubs back in 2009.

Conclusion: The Panthers showed improvement last week against Melbourne but were still off the pace and with a poor record at Brookvale Oval you should think long and hard before giving them your tip here.

The Sea Eagles certainly can play better, and yet they are winning games. Stick with the home side; they should get the job done in front of their loyal fans.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Touch Judges – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – delayed 9.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – delayed 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.