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Sea Eagles v Eels
Brookvale Oval
Monday 7pm

The soaring Sea Eagles are now officially gliding well and truly above the radar, despite coach Des Hasler’s best attempts to play down the sparkling form of his charges – but it is well and truly crunch time for the battling Eels.

Parramatta come into this encounter three points adrift of the eighth-placed Bulldogs, having used both their byes and with another tough road trip against the Raiders next week. Losses in the two coming games will have them at serious risk of losing touch with the top eight altogether, but a couple of wins would have them back among the finals contenders.

On the other hand, the sky is the limit for the high-flying Sea Eagles, who are coming off a dominant win over the Thurston-less Cowboys and are on a five-match winning streak. Manly have won those five matches by the commanding total of 132-30.

They are just one point behind ladder leaders St George Illawarra – but with the Dragons and second-placed Storm substantially more disrupted through the Origin period Manly have a real chance to claim top spot in the coming weeks.

They will be reinforced for this match by the returns of Origin players Will Hopoate and Anthony Watmough. ‘Hoppa Junior’ returns on the wing pushing Michael Oldfield out of the side, and Watmough’s return shifts Tony Williams to the bench and Darcy Lussick out of the 17.

The Eels should be well rested from the bye, and assuming Origin players Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah come through their representative duties unscathed coach Stephen Kearney will have the rare pleasure of naming an unchanged 17.

An Eels win here would represent the first time the blue-and-golds have gone back to back at Brookvale since 1997-98. Meanwhile the in-form Sea Eagles have an opportunity to win four consecutive games by 20 points or more for the first time since 1995.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Have the Eels turned the corner? If they have it’s on the back of a remarkable defensive turnaround that has seen them climb away from the unwanted title of worst defensive team in the competition. They are now equal 11th defensively overall, conceding 47 tries in the 12 games. But crucially they have given up just four tries in their past three games combined, including their last-start draw against a full-strength Dragons outfit.

It all comes on the back of their forwards who are amongst the most effective tacklers in the league, led by Tim Mannah (94.3 per cent effective), Nathan Hindmarsh (93.8 per cent) and, perhaps surprisingly, Matt Keating (95.3 per cent).

But defence is just one side of the coin and you can be guaranteed the Eels will need plenty of points to be sure of a win here.

They may look to former Sea Eagle Jeff Robson, who played just six games in five seasons for the northern beaches club before heading west. Robson scored on his return to Brookvale last season and another here would mark a personal season-high for most tries in a premiership campaign, having so far scored three each year since 2009. Robson’s kicking game has been good in recent weeks and his five try assists are second for the Eels behind Hayne (nine), while his three tries trail only Luke Burt (six) and Hayne (four) at the club.

Danger Sign: The growing confidence of the new halves combination takes the pressure off fullback Jarryd Hayne; when Robson calls for the ball on the fifth tackle to loft a high kick to the fringes or grubber in behind the line, it shows the Eels’ playmakers are beginning to work in unison.

Watch Out Eels: Plenty of attention has been focused on Brett Stewart and teen sensation Will Hopoate – and rightly so – but over on the right wing David Williams has quietly racked up four tries in his six games back from injury.

The Baulkham Hills junior is just one of many current NRL stars the Eels have let slip away, and the former Test winger has so far won both his previous NRL matches against the Eels – scoring two tries in each. A repeat dose here would see him become the first player since Sean Hoppe in 1993-94 to do so in three games against Parramatta.

Manly have scored 31 tries on the left side through the likes of Michael Robertson (eight tries), Will Hopoate (eight) and Steve Matai (three) – but it’s the Eels’ left-side defence, which will be marked by right winger Williams, that has been their major concern. The Eels have leaked 15 tries on the left fringe compared to eight on the right edge, suggesting ‘The Wolfman’ could see plenty of action this Monday.

It’s also worth noting Steve Matai was in peak form in the win over the Cowboys: the former Kiwi Test centre notched seven tackle-breaks, four offloads, two line-breaks and 18 runs for 218 metres, the most metres he has recorded in his 119 NRL appearances.

Danger Sign: Young halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans have shown maturity beyond their years in 2011, and they won’t be afraid to shift it to the right, Manly’s less fruitful side, if they spot a defensive lapse from the Eels out wide.

Plays To Watch: More freakish side-of-the-boot kicks from Foran and Cherry-Evans; Brutal defence from Steve Matai; Immediate impact late in the first half at the injection of Carl Webb; Brett Stewart to be in the right place at the right time to pounce on any opportunity to score; Jarryd Hayne to selectively inject himself at second receiver in attack when he spots an opportunity; David Williams to continue his merry tryscoring ways against the Eels.

Where It Will Be Won: The weather will be crucial in this one – if Sydney’s wet weather hangs around the Eels will be able to play this as an arm wrestle in the middle and try to spring a defensive upset. But if, as predicted, the skies clear up before Monday this will become a battle at the fringes as Manly’s enterprising young halves spread it wide – and often – to their in-form backs.

The Eels have scored just seven tries on the fringes (five left, two right) while Manly have scored 25 tries by attacking the wings (16 left, nine right). The story doesn’t get much better for the Eels in defence – they have let in 23 tries on the flanks (15 left, eight right) as opposed to just 12 for Manly (five left, seven right).

It all means that if the conditions are right for free-flowing footy, the Eels’ outside backs will need to improve their defence significantly to hold out the Sea Eagles and give their side a chance.

The History: Played 124; Manly 76, Parramatta 44, drawn 4. Manly have dominated the Eels in their own backyard, winning 38 times to the Eels’ 17. And although the Eels beat the Sea Eagles both home and away in 2010, Manly won the five previous match-ups.

Conclusion: Parramatta’s form is a little hard to gauge although they were impressive in their last-up draw against the Dragons. What is easier to judge, however, is the current form of the boys from the northern beaches – Manly have been simply superb in the past month of footy and it’s hard to envision anything other than a Manly win here.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.