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Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs
Brookvale Oval
Sunday 3pm

After a demoralising loss to the Sharks last week the Rabbitohs make the trek north of the Spit Bridge knowing defeat will see them lose touch with the other would-be contenders on the periphery of the top eight.

Souths sit precariously in 12th place on the ladder on 16 competition points (trailing the Sharks on points differential) but just one win away from joining the congested rung occupied by four other clubs. A win at Brookvale Oval would keep them in the hunt but a loss would mean they’d need to win a minimum seven of their last eight to progress beyond Round 26.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles spent the bye week regrouping after their away loss to the Dragons in what was close to the game of the year. Both sides didn’t give an inch, especially in the second half when they completed their sets at a phenomenal 93 per cent each (both sides incomplete on just one occasion).

The Dragons’ subsequent loss to the Knights and the Sea Eagles’ bye sees the northern beaches team leapfrog the premiers into second place on the table (on 26 competition points, ahead by just one point); they trail the Storm by one win. But that would change again this week should the Sea Eagles stumble, with the Dragons resting up with their second bye.

Meanwhile the Cowboys and Broncos are nipping at Manly’s heels; the Broncos are guaranteed elevation to 26 points while a Cowboys win over the Knights in Newcastle would see them on 26 points too.

It just goes to show how important every match is from here on in, including games involving sides battling for an all-important top-four ranking.

Manly will be out to avenge their 32-30 loss to the Rabbitohs at Bluetongue Stadium in Round 4 when Souths led 32-16 with nine minutes remaining before the Sea Eagles rallied with three quick-fire tries to almost steal the win.

In team changes, Manly will rush back NSW Origin players Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart. Steve Matai is out, replaced by promising Michael Oldfield at left centre. David Williams has recovered from the injury that limited his game time against the Dragons and will start on the right wing. Prop Brent Kite returns from a long lay-off, pushing George Rose to the bench, while Joe Galuvao will start in the second row with Vic Mauro hitting the pine. Back-rower Shane Rodney rejoins the squad after recovering from the shoulder dislocation he suffered playing NSW Cup in Round 1.

Souths will have their fingers crossed star centre Greg Inglis gets through Origin without any injury problems; he slots in for Shaune Corrigan who moves to the bench. In a huge surprise, second-rower Chris McQueen bumps James Roberts from the left wing, with Jason Clark promoted from the bench to partner Eddy Pettybourne in the pack. Ben Lowe is the new face on the bench.

In a worrying omen, Souths have lost 10 of their past 11 day games at Brookvale Oval. In 126 meetings between the sides there’s never been a draw – but their last trip north (26-25 loss) marked the closest game between the pair since 1974.  

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Coach John Lang could never accuse hooker Issac Luke of not putting in during last week’s defeat to the Sharks. The energetic rake set up their sole try and added 121 metres plus a game-high 39 tackles. The Sea Eagles can expect that sort of input from Luke this week; in their last meeting he had 81receives and made 16 runs for 98 metres.

Manly is also a favourite opponent for winger Nathan Merritt who has scored 13 tries from 12 games against them. He made 132 metres and four tackle busts in Round 4.

Rhys Wesser continued his excellent form against the Sharks, running 203 metres and making a line-break.

This trio, along with halves Chris Sandow and John Sutton, hold the key for the Rabbitohs.

Danger Sign: If Sandow and Sutton show a willingness to run to and pass at the line rather than simply shovel the ball to the man outside them you’ll know they’ll create opportunities for their fast outside backs and also their burly back-rowers.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: There isn’t a more powerful or dynamic halfback in 2011 than Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans. The rookie thrives on taking on the line and has created plenty of migraines for all oppositions. He leads his position for tackle busts (51) and ranks third for metres gained with 57 from an average eight runs. He has scored three tries, with four try assists and seven line-break assists. He has developed an almost psychic relationship with five-eighth Kieran Foran and fullback Brett Stewart and his kicking game is dependable and penetrative – his 5068 metres gained are the sixth most by any player.

Last week the Rabbitohs really missed the impact Dave Taylor has provided all year, with neither of their starting back-rowers Chris McQueen or Eddy Pettybourne managing an offload. Also, the duo tallied just three tackle-breaks for the game.

Souths will be without the suspended Taylor until their Round 22 clash with the Eels – if they can’t find a way to get more oomph from their back row they could be sunk. (Much will be expected from Crocker and Clark, too.)

The Rabbitohs may need to try something different in attack this week or else they could be easily contained by the stiff Sea Eagles’ defence. Manly concede the fewest metres of all sides (just 1216 on average); meanwhile the Rabbitohs leak the second most metres (1412).

Danger Sign: If Cherry-Evans is allowed time to think he will punish the Rabbitohs. Souths need to get up in his face and force him back inside, at the same time ‘shutting the gate’ with players ready to collar his switch of the attack.

Also, in the Round 4 defeat, Kieran Foran still managed an astonishing four try assists. He’ll relish the chance to put someone through off a select pass close to the Rabbitohs’ line.

Souths’ fullback Rhys Wesser will need to be super-alert when Foran hits the short left side late in the tackle count – Foran combined with Brett Stewart for another amazing try off a banana kick infield last game against the Dragons and the pair will have confidence in the play again here.

Plays To Watch: Brett Stewart chiming in, running around the opposition outside backs and making a bee-line for the right corner (Stewart has crossed for 16 tries from 12 games against Souths); Michael Oldfield breaking through on the left fringe; Cherry-Evans’ cool head; Matt Ballin having a sneaky dig from dummy-half; Jason King taking no prisoners up front; Rhys Wesser sliding through; Greg Inglis creating headaches for Jamie Lyon; Sutton taking on the line 10 metres out from the Sea Eagles’ try line (on the right fringe especially); Issac Luke looking to fracture the Sea Eagles’ defensive structure with dashes from the ruck; captain Michael Crocker locking horns with King.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle of the Sea Eagles’ left-side attack and the Rabbitohs’ right-side defence, and the Rabbitohs’ right-side attack up against the Sea Eagles’ left-side defence.

Sound confusing? Allow us to explain…

Five of the Sea Eagles’ six tries in Round 4 were scored on the left side of the field. Four of the Rabbitohs’ six tries scored that night came down the right edge – the Sea Eagles have conceded 18 in total down the right all season. Given those sorts of returns you’d expect both coaches to keep fossicking for gold there.

Michael Oldfield will be a thorn in the side of Dylan Farrell all night; the Rabbitoh can be a shaky prospect in defence, having missed 38 tackles, the second most by any centre.

Meanwhile Greg Inglis offered a try assist and a line-break last outing; he’ll target Sea Eagles’ pair Jamie Lyon and Kieran Foran who missed six tackles on the edges last game.

Overall the Rabbitohs have conceded 25 tries on their right side compared to 20 on their left. Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have scored 34 tries on the left side, just one fewer than the Cowboys’ benchmark 34.

The History: Played 126; Sea Eagles 69, Rabbitohs 57. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight clashes between the sides. The Rabbitohs lost 26-25 in a nail-biter the last time they ventured to Brookvale Oval. But they extracted revenge with a 32-30 win in Gosford in Round 4.  

Conclusion: There’s too much at stake for the Sea Eagles to show any complacency here so expect them to be committed.

The Rabbitohs know another loss would leave them with little more than nuisance value to offer for the rest of the season so they’ll turn up ready to play too. Unfortunately for the visitors, they’re missing too much regular strike power (Roy Asotasi, Sam Burgess, Dave Taylor etc) and their fit playmakers aren’t reliable enough week to week.

The recent history between these sides may suggest a close encounter but we just don’t see it that way. Sea Eagles by 10 points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Brett Suttor; Touch Judges – Daniel Eastwood & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.