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Sea Eagles v Broncos
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7pm
There’s a lot at stake in the first game of the blockbuster double-header north of the border, with both sides locked on 16 points and looking to keep their momentum. But the Broncos look to be up against it, with none of their five Origin stars named in the run-on side.

The Sea Eagles, with five wins from their past six games, hold down third place on the NRL ladder with a +55 differential – just seven points ahead of the fifth-placed Broncos. And sandwiched between the pair in fourth place are the Cowboys, just a field goal behind the Sea Eagles on a +54 differential.

While the Sydneysiders have held things together pretty well over the past month the Broncos have slipped. After seven straight victories following a Round 1 defeat to the Cowboys, an under-strength Brisbane lost 29-22 to the Storm at home in Round 9, then turned in a shocker and were thrashed 33-10 by the lowly Panthers in Round 10 before their bye last week.

The Storm loss was significant as coach Anthony Griffin showed he won’t be swayed into backing up his representative stars, with just winger Jharal Yow Yeh taking the field the day after playing New Zealand while Darren Lockyer, Justin Hodges, Sam Thaiday and Ben Hannant were left to watch from the stands. This week Griffin remains unmoved; he’s named a quintessential ‘Baby Broncos’ unit, with just Corey Parker and Yow Yeh pencilled in on an extended bench as Origin players with a chance of backing up. 

In a massive reshuffle, Dale Copley shifts from the wing to the centres. Dane Gagai will play his fourth game for 2011 on one wing, with Shea Moylan making his debut on the other. (Moylan becomes the 27th player called on by coach Griffin in 2011.) Corey Norman starts for Lockyer at five-eighth, Mitchell Dodds joins Nick Kenny as the starting props, Dunamis Lui joins Alex Glenn in the second row and Ben Te’o returns from injury to lock the scrum. Kurt Baptiste and Dane Carlaw rejoin the extended bench.

On paper the Sea Eagles appear to have it all over the inexperienced Broncos, with only co-captain Jason King on back-up duty from Origin I.

In the past month they were two-point losers to the Cowboys in Townsville, before fullback Brett Stewart sparked a 20-nil spanking of the Raiders at Brookvale Oval. With Stewart sidelined again they just managed to get the chocolates against the Titans on the Gold Coast before the bye last week.

Stewart has again been named at fullback this week, but that doesn’t guarantee he’ll line up. Meanwhile a knee injury has ended Michael Robertson’s club record 139-game live streak. The flyer had played every game since his Manly debut in Round 2, 2006. He’s replaced by Will Hopoate, with David Williams named on the other wing.

Jason King’s inclusion sees George Rose revert to the bench, with Joe Galuvao to start in the second row and Jamie Buhrer benched. Michael Oldfield has been added as 18th man – presumably as cover for Stewart.

Curiously, the Sea Eagles (and the Bulldogs in game two later in the night) are the ‘home’ sides at Queensland’s spiritual home of rugby league this week. Not that it will bother Manly coach Des Hasler too much – the Sea Eagles have won six of their past nine games at Suncorp Stadium.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Broncos’ lock Corey Parker deserved his recall to the Maroons’ squad for Origin I. The back-rower is in sparkling form, ranking third in the comp for hit-ups (176) and fifth for offloads (24). His 1336 metres rank him eighth for most made.

Also, Parker should create history if he backs up – he needs just four points to become the first player to score 400 at Suncorp Stadium (he remains streets ahead of next-best Terry Matterson’s 286 points). 

The Manly kicking game needs to be focused or Broncos fullback Gerard Beale will make inroads – he has made the fifth most kick-return metres (510) with 13 metres on average. 

Although Manly are the ‘home’ side, they might find support a little thin on the ground here. The Broncos have by far the best home crowds in 2011, averaging 31,923 through the turnstiles at Suncorp Stadium. Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have tallied the fewest supporters to their games at Brookvale Oval, with just 10,635. 

Danger Sign: If the Sea Eagles’ defence gets a little loose in the middle of the field Parker has the skills to make them pay, offloading for trailers like Peter Wallace who will then get the ball wide for their speedsters. 

Watch Out Broncos: Will Hopoate has been devastating in his first full season in the NRL and represents a huge threat, whether he’s running the ball (team-high 17 runs a game for team-high 149 metres, plus team-high 35 tackle-breaks and six line-breaks), or putting team-mates into space (team-high seven line-break assists). 

Meanwhile jilted Blues forward Anthony Watmough is primed for the game of his life. Still smouldering after being dumped by Ricky Stuart from New South Wales State of Origin calculations, Watmough steps out in his 200th NRL appearance here.

While he hasn’t been dynamic in testing the opposition defensive line, with just two line-breaks, Watmough is the type of player who lifts for the occasion. He’s still a danger; he’s the only Manly forward with triple figure for average metres gained (122) and he has 30 tackle breaks. Significantly, he’s rubbed out a lot of the errors that used to plague his game, with just seven to date.

Danger Sign: The Sea Eagles have made the fifth-most line-breaks in 2011 (46) but get the chance to explode here. Expect Watmough to look for good ball from Daly Cherry-Evans or Kieran Foran in the centre third of the field, especially late in either half when the Broncos’ forwards tire.  
Plays To Watch: Cut-out balls to Manly wingers David Williams and Will Hopoate; Jamie Lyon sucking in his opposite before offloading with a back-hand flick pass; Kieran Foran chipping ahead and regathering to send a support away; Matt Ballin having a dig at the Broncos’ tryline from dummy-half; Jharal Yow Yeh making crunching tackles on Will Hopoate; Peter Wallace grubbering behind the Broncos’ defence from close range and also going high for the corners for his wingers. 

Where It Will Be Won: Territory and defence. There’s really not much between these sides and if the ‘Baby Broncos’ can hold their own, who knows?

To date the Sea Eagles have guarded their territory like no other team, yielding an NRL-low 1221.5 metres, while the Broncos aren’t far behind with 1268 (fifth fewest). And in the metres-made department… well, there’s less than a long step between them, with the Sea Eagles fifth with 1341.7 metres gained to the Broncos’ 1341.

The Broncos have surrendered the second fewest points per game (14.2), with the Sea Eagles fourth best with just 15.2 leaked. The ‘home’ side have missed the second fewest tackles (average 27.4) to the Broncos’ 29.8 (fifth fewest). 

Jamie Lyon could have a huge say in the outcome – he’s lost to the Broncos just twice in 10 games over 11 years. During his time at Manly he’s undefeated in three efforts, including his last outing nearly two years ago when he scored three tries to hobble the Broncos. 

The History: Played 31, Broncos 16, Sea Eagles 14, drawn 1. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight games although the Broncos hold bragging rights, having won 22-6 at Brookvale Oval last year. The Broncos hold a 7-5 advantage at Suncorp Stadium although the Sea Eagles have won the past three there. Seven of the past eight Brisbane losses at Suncorp have been by 10 points or less.

Conclusion: Even with their stars the Broncos were flat against the Panthers a fortnight ago. Now they take on the enormous task of matching the physicality and flair of the Sea Eagles with a unit that lacks experience. 

One positive is they’ve had a week off and will have trained solidly with their shadow players in preparation for this game. But that’s about it.

A Broncos win would go down in the annals as one of their bravest ever; a Sea Eagles loss will be frowned upon as the one that got away. The Sea Eagles should be several shades too brilliant. 

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
Statistics: NRL Stats.

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