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Knights v Sea Eagles
Ausgrid Stadium
Sunday 3pm

The Knights let slip a massive chance to gain some breathing space in their push for a finals berth with an upset home defeat at the hands of the under-strength Cowboys last Monday night. Now Rick Stone’s charges face the daunting task of overcoming the in-form Sea Eagles – without injured skipper Kurt Gidley – or else they’ll fall back into the logjam of would-be finals contenders.

The Knights’ impressive three-game winning streak came to a surprise end at Ausgrid Stadium against a visiting side missing injured superstar Johnathan Thurston. They never seemed under too much pressure but instead of pulling away when it counted they buckled in the final 20 minutes to surrender the contest.

The loss leaves the Novocastrians in seventh place on the NRL ladder on 20 competition points. They can kiss goodbye any chance of a top-four finish – they’re now three wins adrift of fifth-placed Brisbane – and they still have a mighty struggle on their hands just to play finals football, with just one win separating them from five other teams battling for the remaining three positions in the top eight.

A loss to the Sea Eagles and other results going against them could see the Knights fall as low as 10th after this fierce Rivalry Round!

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles rallied in the second half to overcome a spirited Rabbitohs side at Brookvale Oval last Sunday afternoon. It was Manly’s seventh win from their past eight games, with just a loss to the Dragons in Round 16 blotting their copybook over the past two months.

Every week is crucial to the Sea Eagles’ hopes of winning the minor premiership – they trail the competition pacesetters Melbourne by two competition points and have the Dragons nipping at their heels just one point back in third place.

Kurt Gidley’s ongoing struggle with a hamstring complaint sees promising Ryan Stig slot in at five-eighth outside stand-in captain Jarrod Mullen. But there are some positives this week – punishing back-rower Neville Costigan returns, pushing Joel Edwards to lock and Steve Southern onto an extended bench. Hooker Isaac De Gois returns too, with Matt Hilder warming the pine. Evarn Tuamavave is back also, starting at prop with Dan Tolar benched.

In the backline, Keith Lulia will start at right centre with Adam MacDougall benched. MacDougall (who escaped suspension with an early guilty plea after his knee contact on Cowboy Willie Tonga) could suit up for the 14th time against the Sea Eagles after his first game against them on July 16 1995. MacDougall has been on the winning side seven occasions and has crossed for three tries in those 16 years.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have just the two line-up changes from last week: Steve Matai is back at left centre after a week out (replacing Michael Oldfield), while Joe Galuvao will start in the second row with Vic Mauro hitting the interchange bench.

Watch Out Knights: The Sea Eagles are definitely heading for Keith Lulia and Akuila Uate’s side of the field – latest statistics show Manly have scored an NRL-high 38 tries on the left side of the park. More, a breakdown reveals they’ve scored more tries in the left corner than any other team (18) as well as the most tries down the left fringe (20) – including four last week! Kieran Foran scored a double, centre Michael Oldfield added one, while fullback Brett Stewart scored there from close range as well. Michael Robertson (10 tries, most by any winger) scored in the corner too.

Uate and Lulia will need to do better than their 71 and 80 per cent tackle effectiveness ratios or else Manly will plunder again.

On the other side of the field big Joe Galuvao will fancy his chances against diminutive Ryan Stig defending on his line. Stig was steamrolled by ex-Knight Cory Paterson to yield a soft try down the right fringe against the Cowboys last Monday night. (A win would give Galuvao 100 career victories and would be his 24th with the Sea Eagles.)

Jamie Lyon may also look to use some decoy runners in the region before shifting wide to prolific tryscoring winger David Williams (seven four-pointers from nine games, including a double last week).

Danger Sign: The Knights need to keep the Sea Eagles away from their 10-metre zone. The fewer plays Manly get inside this danger area the greater the Knights’ chances of holding them out. If Manly set up camp close to the Knights’ line often then the points will flow.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Akuila Uate and Wes Naiqama are a lightning-fast, penetrative force at the back for the Knights. Uate leads the league for tackle-breaks (93), has made the sixth-most line-breaks (11), has scored seven tries and averages 148 metres a game.

Naiqama is in career-best form since shifting to fullback. In the No.1 jersey he’s averaging 154 metres a game, including 75 metres on kick-returns. He also ranks 10th for tackle-breaks with 68 – and he added 13 against the Cowboys!

The pair were standouts in a beaten side last week. Naiqama made 18 runs for 193 metres and two line-breaks. Uate added 150 metres with 10 tackle-breaks and a line-break.

Meanwhile, Manly will be hoping they don’t have to rely on the points-scoring prowess of their forwards to get them home – from a combined 44 appearances, no member of the Sea Eagles’ pack has ever scored a try at Ausgrid Stadium. Prop Brent Kite has played the most for no return at the ground (nine games) – and has never scored against the Knights in 18 games spanning a decade. Could he be due?   

Danger Sign: The Sea Eagles are guilty of the occasional poor kick-chase – they’ve been lax on 27 occasions – the fifth most by any side. They can’t afford any complacency jogging up the field after clearances or else Uate and Naiqama will slice them open. (The Knights have scored 22 tries from line-breaks, the third most in the comp.) .

Plays To Watch: Uate and Naiqama tag-teaming for huge inroads; Jarrod Mullen’s grubber kicks for the corners; Stig’s sidestep; Matt Hilder’s quick dashes from dummy-half; Brett Stewart’s insertions into the backline; Steve Matai’s brute force out wide; Kieran Foran keeping the opposition guessing whether he’ll pass or run, Daly Cherry-Evans’ evasion skills.  

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. For the Knights this means finding a way to repel the Sea Eagles from 20 metres out – Manly have scored 49 of their 67 tries from inside this distance, including 34 from 10 metres out. Meanwhile 35 of the 50 tries the Knights have conceded have come from inside their 20 metres.

The Sea Eagles need to be switched on in defence or the Knights can surprise them. The home side leads the NRL for line-breaks (average five a game); the Sea Eagles concede the fifth-most line-breaks a game (3.2). While the Sea Eagles miss the second-fewest tackles by any side (27.5) clearly their structure is vulnerable from time to time.

The History: Played 39; Sea Eagles 23, Knights 16. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight games including three of the past four. They beat the Knights 26-12 at Brookvale Oval in Round 3. However, the Knights hold an 11-7 advantage at Ausgrid Stadium.

Conclusion: Defeat will have huge ramifications for the beaten side so don’t expect any complacency. Last week the Sea Eagles went up a notch when they needed to after falling behind against the Rabbitohs, while the Knights failed to do so when in a similar position against the Cowboys. That suggests the Sea Eagles have something left in the tank when required.

Gidley’s loss is a huge blow to the Knights. But his stand-in Ryan Stig has a touch of brilliance about him and, off contract, he gets the chance to define his career.

The home crowd should lift the Knights but the Sea Eagles have been ticking over faultlessly of late (even allowing for the Dragons defeat in what was the game of the year).

We’ll opt for Manly to get home by eight points in a high-scoring game.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ashley Klein; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.