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Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
Bluetongue Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

If these two teams are at their best we are in for one heck of a treat.

The dogged defence of the Sea Eagles against what can be the electrifying attack of the Wests Tigers is enough to make fans make the trek up to Gosford and bring the coasties out of their NRL hibernation. (Yes we are aware the Manly attack is statistically better than the Tigers this year, but when Benji fires no-one compares).

For Manly the game represents another chance to try to reel in Melbourne and also consolidate their top-two position. They made a defensive statement against the Panthers (winning 12-8) to make it three wins in a row. Still, it was their lowest winning score line away from home since April 1996 (def. Gold Coast Chargers 10-6). On the back of their Round 7 victory it’s also only the fifth time in three decades they’ve defeated the Panthers twice in a season.

They now sit just a win behind the Storm, with their match-up in Round 25 likely to determine the minor premiership.

In team changes this week Manly welcome back Anthony Watmough and Michael Robertson, with Michael Oldfield making way and Shane Rodney pushing back to the bench. Tim Robinson has been added to an extended reserves list that will be trimmed by kick-off.  

For the Wests Tigers, this match is still about top-eight survival and proving they can peak at the right time of the year. They are perhaps the best ‘sleepers’ in the NRL right now… hanging on to seventh spot despite playing only average football. If they can find the form they exhibited near the end of 2010 they will strike fear into the accepted ‘fab five’ everyone expects the premiership to boil down to.

Having beaten the Cowboys and Roosters in consecutive rounds they are now back to a 9-9 record and can potentially move to sixth with a win. But a loss here leaves them exposed to potentially falling out of the top eight – even as low as 10th if things go horribly wrong!

Lote Tuqiri’s wretched run with injury continues and he is out, replaced by Matt Utai on the left wing. Wade McKinnon and Matt Groat look set to fight out the final bench spot.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Wests Tigers make no secret of their desire to attack the right fringe for its fruitful returns… they’ll be coming right here. The black-and-gold stripes have crossed a mammoth 26 times on the right edge – by far the most in this area of the field by any side – with Benji Marshall weaving magic for his back-rowers and centres. Manly have been pretty strong defensively in the same area, conceding just 10 tries thus far… but Marshall’s suitcase of tricks doesn’t have a lock to it and if Des Hasler is unlucky they may just spill out everywhere here.

Danger Sign: Just how patient will Manly centre Steve Matai be? He loves to rush up and get physical with his opponents but his over-exuberance often finds him caught out by clever playmakers. Thirty per cent of his tackles are ineffective, so you can be certain Marshall will be looking for his Kiwi team-mate to get troops to test him out. Matai needs to read the plays perfectly and ‘stick’ his tackles, or the Tigers might run up a score.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: By all rights the Sea Eagles should have lost to Penrith last weekend. They had 16 fewer sets of six than the mountain men, were beaten 10-3 in the penalty count and the Panthers gained 1491 metres running compared to 1285 metres from Manly. So why did they win? Obviously their defence was a factor – but you can mainly chalk it up to a near-perfect kicking game. The Sea Eagles kicked for more metres than Penrith, enabling them to maintain some reasonable field position. With halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran sharing the kicking and Matt Ballin capable of poking one away, the side has numerous options. The Wests Tigers need to increase the pressure on the Sea Eagles’ kickers to ensure their good play gets rewarded with field position.

Danger Sign: Jamie Lyon has fond memories from their corresponding clash last year. Lyon contributed 22 points, the most in a match in his career. Lyon has tallied six tries and kicked 29 goals this season, with eight try assists plus four line-breaks and six line-break assists. It was his dogged determination that led to him scoring a great solo try last week and he’ll be keen to get involved here also.

Plays To Watch: The battle between Kieran Foran and Benji Marshall – what a show is in store as the two Kiwi halves showcase their skills. Both will take on the line; Foran will call on strength and vision while Marshall will fall back on guile and brilliance. (Another showdown to watch is Bryce Gibbs versus the Manly pack… they don’t much like each other, so expect fireworks.)

Where It Will Be Won: This game will be about taking chances when they present themselves. Manly’s defence and attack have been mostly first class this season. They average just 13.9 points against them a round (ranked third fewest) compared to the Wests Tigers’ 19 points (seventh), and despite all the hype about the Wests Tigers’ attack they still statistically beat them by three points a game on average, 22.8 to 19.8.

But… the Wests Tigers break the line more often (4.5 line-breaks a game to 4.3) and bust plenty more tackles (40.1 a game to 31.7), suggesting that if they can capitalise on the opportunities they create they can outscore the Sea Eagles.

Manly showed last week they can win with limited ball so the Tigers can’t be wasteful. In a good sign, the side recorded their fewest errors in stats history (four) last week against the Roosters. Neither a running forward or outside back committed a single error. If they can continue this focus they have a chance.

The History: Played 15; Sea Eagles 9, Wests Tigers 6. Manly have won six of the past eight between the two clubs, although the Wests Tigers can lay claim to two of the past three. The teams have squared off at Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford once before – last season – with the Sea Eagles prevailing 38-20. It remains the only loss at Bluetongue for the Wests Tigers against any opponent – they are three from four there. Manly are six from seven at the venue against all-comers. Eight of the 15 total games between the clubs have been decided by eight points or less.

Conclusion: Manly are in great form but the Wests Tigers, on their day, can spring an upset. The Sea Eagles have been steeling themselves to prove their defensive worth and they know this will be a great test. Their consistency and knowledge of what’s at stake just down the track should get them home.

Benji can spoil their party but he’ll need others to pitch in.

The Sea Eagles are the safe option.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Ashley Klein; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW); delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.