Sea Eagles v Storm
Brookvale Oval
Friday 7.35pm

Round 25 kicks off with a mouth-watering clash as second- placed Manly play host to the ladder-leading Storm. Plenty of pundits have been eagerly eyeing off this clash of the heavyweights for several weeks and it should provide a great barometer as to how each of these two sides are travelling as they charge into the 2011 finals.

Although it’s likely these sides will enter the first week of the finals in their current ladder positions Manly can still mathematically pip the Storm for the minor premiership if they win their last two and the Storm lose both remaining games. Manly can also fall to third and allow Brisbane (who they play next week in yet another top-of-the-table extravaganza) to push into second, providing the Broncos beat Souths this week.

There will certainly be no shortage of motivation for both of these clubs – not only is this a replay of the 2007 and 2008 grand finals, it could easily end up being a preview of the 2011 finale. If that happens each club would love to go into the game’s biggest event with bragging rights and the psychological edge.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy will be delighted with the way his side responded to a big reshuffle last week against the Dragons, due to the loss of key playmaker Cooper Cronk as well as replacement pivot Maurice Blair. Although they only scored eight points (their second lowest ever in a win and lowest in a win in Melbourne) they kept the Dragons to just six – the lowest score of the year for the red-and-whites. It also signalled a new club record of 12 straight wins for the Storm.

Bellamy was left with 16 players last week following those withdrawals and will go in with those same players this week, with Sisa Waqa added to the bench. There has been a further reshuffle though – Ryan Hinchcliffe goes from five eighth to the bench, Rory Kostjasyn goes from lock to five eighth, and Jesse Bromwich goes from the bench to starting prop, shifting Sika Manu to the back row and Kevin Proctor to lock. Phew!

Manly have retained the 17 players who gained a hard-earned win over the Bulldogs last week, with Jamie Buhrer added to a five-man bench. (It’s possible Des Hasler could again switch second-rower Shane Rodney to the starting side and Joe Galuvao to the pine as he did last week.)

If the Sea Eagles get up here it will be just their second perfect season at Brookvale in close to four decades.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: With Cooper Cronk absent last week for just the seventh time in the past five seasons, the Storm won for the sixth time in those seven games. The loss of a player of Cronk’s calibre would cripple most teams, and the Storm’s efforts reflect the quality of players around him and the players on the fringes, and the quality of the systems Bellamy has put in place.

By this point we’re not sure it’s even possible for Kangaroos hooker and skipper-in-waiting Cameron Smith to raise the bar any further, but at the very least he maintained those standards last week with an incredibly busy 120 touches, 10 runs, nine kicks and two line-break assists. Star fullback Billy Slater also had a massive game with 215 running metres from 18 runs, including one line-break.

Gareth Widdop has been a revelation alongside Cronk in the halves this year and was always going to have to step up in Cronk’s absence (which he did admirably during the Origin period). The England international had another huge game as the key playmaker, setting up his side’s only try and contributing a line-break assist and 133 running metres including two line-breaks.

It showed that even without Cronk, the Storm are still a major force with the players to trouble any team.

Danger Sign: Widdop will get his hands on the ball more in Cronk’s absence and he won’t be afraid to run it – his 16 line-breaks are equal third in the NRL, alongside Slater. Look for him to try and scythe through the Manly line at the first sign of any staggered defence.

Watch Out Storm: The Sea Eagles have been the attacking team of 2011. They currently lead the league for tries overall (93) and tries from backs (66). That is already the sixth most in a season in club history, with the record set in 2008 when the Manly backs alone racked up 80 tries.

Despite the obvious quality on the right side with Jamie Lyon and David Williams, not to mention Glenn Stewart hitting gaps down that side, the left side is where Manly have scored an avalanche of tries in 2011.

Winger Michael Robertson (11 tries in 16 games) and centre Steve Matai (nine in 17) have been prolific on that side but the Sea Eagles have looked even more dangerous with Brett Stewart now hitting top gear. In addition to running in 11 tries in his 16 games, the former Test and Origin custodian has also contributed 13 try assists and nine line-break assists.

Danger Sign: Manly are the masters of the overlap. As the ball shifts out to the left, with forward after forward running decoys and flat pass following flat pass, opposition defences need to be well drilled not to come in too far and create that overlap out wide. But if they don’t come in enough, the likes of Matai and Stewart are just as likely to punch through the line or call for the grubber.

Plays To Watch: Cameron Smith stealing 15 metres from dummy-half at the first hint of a lazy marker; dangerous running on the right edge from Glenn Stewart looking to pop an offload to his brother Brett; and a spectacular contest as two of the game’s best fullbacks try to outdo each other and Stewart looks to square the ledger: Brett’s last try against the Storm came in 2006 while Slater has run seven past Manly in that time. In the seven games where both have played Melbourne lead 5-2.

Where It Will Be Won: When you’ve got a team that has the best attack and third-best defence in the competition (Manly) hosting the team with the best defence and second-best attack (Melbourne) you’d expect a high-quality brand of football where every little moment becomes vitally important. Possession becomes even more crucial and therefore so does discipline.

Both coaches should be happy with their side’s handling (although we can’t actually picture Craig Bellamy or Des Hasler being happy with anything less than a 100 per cent completion rate). Only St George Illawarra (10 errors per game) drop less ball than Melbourne and Manly (10.5 and 10.6 respectively).

However these are two of the worst-behaved teams when it comes to penalties. Only the Panthers (6.9 penalties per game) give away more than the Storm and Sea Eagles (6.2 and 6 respectively). That’s just too many times in one game to be giving opposition a piggy-back into your half when you’re up against a quality side and both coaches will be drilling that into their worst offenders. Glenn Stewart (19) and Anthony Watmough (15) for Manly and Adam Blair (13) Billy Slater and Cameron Smith (both 12) for the Storm all need to watch their discipline or risk feeling the wrath of their coach post-game.

The History: Played 20, Storm 11, Sea Eagles 9. At Brookvale Manly lead 6-3. The Storm have won five of the past eight clashes between these two.

Conclusion: Despite the quality of players still in the Melbourne line-up the loss of Cronk is a crucial one. Nevertheless this should be a top-shelf contest that will tell us plenty about how each side is travelling heading into the finals. The fact the match is at Brookvale where Manly have won every game this year, combined with the absence of the Storm’s star halfback, has us leaning ever so slightly towards the Sea Eagles.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Paul Holland; Video Ref – Russell Smith.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.