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Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
Brookvale Oval
Sunday 2pm

There will be maximum focus from both sides in this blockbuster as the Sea Eagles look to maintain their hold on a home semi-final while the hungry Bulldogs know they must win all three of their remaining games to have any chance of advancing past Round 26.

The Sea Eagles weathered an early squall from the Eels last week before the blue-and-golds imploded to surrender the match 26-20. There were some alarming signs for coach Des Hasler who would have rammed home the importance of not dropping intensity at this stage of the season. Manly have won five of their past six games, losing only to ‘surge side’ Wests Tigers.

A win would see Manly hold onto second position, four points adrift of the Storm (assuming they account for the woeful Dragons on Friday). Should they lose here and the Broncos defeat the Knights, Manly would still enter Round 25 in second place but only courtesy of a superior points differential. Clearly this is no time for complacency.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs contributed a mixed bag in defeating the Sharks 19-12 away from home last Monday night. The win keeps their finals dream flickering although they’ll need hefty wins and other results to fall their way to match it with the best in September.

Manly coach Des Hasler has recalled David Williams to his starting side to cover for Will Hopoate who suffered deep bruising to his knee in the Eels clash. The Sea Eagles’ only other change sees Joe Galuvao named to start in the second row, with Shane Rodney relegated to the bench.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs are breathing a huge sigh of relief after second-rower Frank Pritchard was successful in having  his dangerous contact charge downgraded, freeing him to take his place against the Sea Eagles. Their only changes from last match are the return of Joel Romelo to the bench after a week’s suspension, while Chris Armit also joins the interchange.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Bulldogs need to take a lead from the Rabbitohs and attack, attack, attack! A grinding win might see Jim Dymock inch closer to the fulltime coaching job next year but, given their -53 points differential, it won’t do their semi-finals hopes any good. The Rabbitohs have managed to almost square their ledger over the past two weeks (just -5 now) and that’s the sort of approach the ’Dogs need to take into battle.

Canterbury are lethal from long distance and average almost one try from over halfway each game. They’ve notched 21 to date, the most by any side, with tearaway fullback Ben Barba crossing for nine of those – including his support of Greg Eastwood to make it try number 21 last week against the Sharks.

They’ve upped their metres in the past few weeks – last week they ran 1590 metres, way up on their season average of 1281 (third fewest). All their backs ran with urgency, in particular centre Josh Morris who added 127 metres and a team-high five tackle-breaks. Sea Eagles’ captain Jamie Lyon can’t afford to take Morris lightly.

The Bulldogs may rank only 13th for tackle-breaks with an average of 31 per game but they have two of the competition’s most powerful runners in Barba and right centre Jamal Idris. The duo have made 105 and 97 tackles busts respectively – good enough for fifth and sixth most by any player. If they are given space to wind up points could flow.

Danger Sign: The Bulldogs got off to a flying start to the season, scoring 76 points in their first three games, by spreading the ball wide early. If Trent Hodkinson and Kris Keating send it wide to Idris and Morris, especially from scrums, the Bulldogs can unsettle the Sea Eagles’ defensive structure.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Daly Cherry-Evans will be out to continue his rollercoaster rookie year and prove he’s a better halfback than the man he replaced in the No.7 at Manly this year, Trent Hodkinson. Young DCE has proven a dominant runner of the football, reminiscent of former Sea Eagles’ great Johnny Gibbs, and he has a deft offload that keeps the potent Sea Eagles’ backline flowing. Last week Cherry-Evans scored a wonderful try, offered a try assist and made a game-high eight tackle-breaks. Given he’s taking some of the brunt of contact each week it’s really freeing up the outside backs to chime in with selective quality plays, as evidenced by Steve Matai’s try double last week.

The strike rate of the Manly backline is incredible – Brett Stewart and Michael Robertson lead the way with 11 from 15 games, backed up by David Williams (seven from 10) and Matai (eight from 16).

The Bulldogs can’t afford to stand back on their heels and wait to see what Cherry-Evans and his outside man Kieran Foran do with the ball or they’ll be easy meat for the energetic, rushing Sea Eagles. The ’Dogs need to push up as one line and compress, showing the ball carrier the sideline. Otherwise, a disjointed defence will create holes and it will be goodnight and farewell 2011.

The Bulldogs also need to be alert immediately after halftime – Manly rank second in the premiership for scoring tries within 10 minutes of the resumption of play.

Danger Sign: Pretty much whenever Manly gets in striking distance and heads left – they’ve scored 46 tries on the left edge so far, the most by any side, and the Bulldogs have conceded 30 to date. If Idris and Steve Turner don’t muscle up there could be carnage.

Plays To Watch: Kieran Foran’s runs and second-man sweep passes; Brett Stewart timing his runs to perfection; Davis Williams’ diving finishes; Cherry-Evans’ under-arm offloads; Barba’s long-distance raids; Idris’ loping strides and shoulder charges; Aiden Tolman crunching into the Sea Eagles (19 hit-ups for 161 metres last week).

Where It Will Be Won: Momentum – and in this regard back-to-back tries will be crucial. Both sides play well when their confidence is up and nothing will release the shackles more than gaining a buffer.

Manly are the best at repeat strikes – they’ve scored twice within five minutes on 11 occasions this year.

The two key match-ups are fullbacks Stewart and Barba and opposing centres Matai and Idris. In their Round 13 clash Stewart contributed two try assists while Barba scored the Bulldogs’ only points, while Idris made a game-high six tackle-breaks and Matai punched out 108 metres.

While the Sea Eagles are almost unstoppable when they head left don’t be surprised if they try to ‘blindside’ the Bulldogs with plenty of plays down the right sideline – back in Round 13 Jamie Lyon scored a double and made two line-breaks on the right fringe, while winger David Williams scored and was busy making 171 metres.

The History: Played 112; Sea Eagles 59, Bulldogs 48, drawn 5. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight, including a 38-4 thumping at ANZ Stadium in Round 13. But Canterbury have won five of their past eight games at Brookvale Oval and Manly have beaten them twice in a season just once in the past 25 years.

Conclusion: It will take a season-best effort by the Bulldogs to overcome the Sea Eagles here. Manly will be focused on building combinations and momentum and won’t want to enter next week’s crucial game with the Storm with any self-doubt.

Expect the Bulldogs to play with plenty of heart but the mobile Manly pack should have it all over the slower Bulldogs pack and out wide Steve Turner and Johnathan Wright will be in for a torrid afternoon. Manly by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.