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Sea Eagles v Cowboys
Sydney Football Stadium
Saturday, 8.30pm

Junior Passes get into Sydney Finals for Free

Manly could hardly have picked a more dangerous first-up opponent in Week One of the finals than the Johnathan Thurston-led Cowboys. Despite some questionable form of late, the boys from north of the border have re-established themselves as one of best attacking outfits in the Telstra Premiership in 2011, with Thurston and dynamic fullback Matt Bowen leading the side back into the finals for the first time since 2007. (Ironically, their last finals appearance was a 28-6 loss to the Sea Eagles in the grand final qualifier that year.)

It’s been an eventful few weeks for Manly, with four players suspended in the wake of the infamous Brookvale brawl against Melbourne in Round 25 and they will be pleased to welcome back five-eighth Kieran Foran following last week’s narrow loss to Brisbane in his absence. His partnership with in-form halfback Daly Cherry-Evans will be crucial to the side’s success. Fullback Brett Stewart is also back. However, they are still missing his brother Glenn Stewart and the absence of his huge work rate will be tough to replace. Notably, Manly haven’t lost consecutive matches all season.

North Queensland welcome back inspirational lock Dallas Johnson this week after he missed last week’s trip to New Zealand with concussion. The move away from Brookvale Oval to the Sydney Football Stadium for this clash is an intriguing one, with both sides boasting impressive records at the Moore Park venue. The Sea Eagles have won seven of the nine finals game they’ve played at the SFS while, incredibly, North Queensland averages more points per game at the SFS (21.7) than at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Their record in Sydney of late has been poor, however, with just three wins from 21 matches played since the 2007 finals.

Key to their survival in 2011 will be starting well – North Queensland have conceded the first try in their past eight matches – but if they can do that they boast plenty of weapons to finish the job. The Cowboys lead the league for both tries scored (17) and line-breaks (21) from their bench. Similarly, fullback Bowen represents an ever-present danger, with more touches per game (47) than any other outside back in the competition this season.

Manly centre Steve Matai needs just one try to join Bob Fulton, Terry Hill and Michael O’Connor as the only Manly centres to have scored 50 career tries for the club.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Cowboys should be be wary of Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran who will be primed for a huge performance following his one-match suspension last weekend. Although he has been overshadowed by in-form halfback Daly Cherry-Evans of late, Foran has been the driving force behind his side’s brilliant season with his ability to inspire the attack and hit above his weight in defence. In Round 2 he put a huge hit on Roosters half Mitchell Pearce to turn the game in Manly’s favour then scored a try to give his side the lead. He has 16 try assists and 12 line-break assists in 2011.

Danger Sign: North Queensland’s right-edge defence will have to be vigilant against the powerful strike that Sea Eagles centre Steve Matai provides. A favourite target man of Foran’s, Matai has arguably been Manly’s most lethal attacking weapon this season with a team-high 15 line-breaks from 19 games and nine tries to his name. He has also produced 72 tackle-breaks and 16 offloads. Ironically, Matai has historically been renowned for his bruising defence but it seems he has found a new gear in 2011. There is nothing subtle about Matai’s play – watch for him to run hard and fast, challenging the Cowboys’ defence to stop him.

Sea Eagles Plays To Watch: Manly love nothing more than spreading the ball wide to their plethora of speedy and dangerous backs. In 2011, they have shifted the ball strongly either left or right on 233 occasions. Only Wests Tigers are more prolific when it comes to moving the football. However, it is their left side that the Sea Eagles prefer, having headed that way on 132 separate occasions – more than any other side in the Telstra Premiership. A typical shift will see Kieran Foran – who is master at weighing up his options – either throw a short ball to his second-rower running in at an angle or cut him out completely for Steve Matai and Michael Robertson to take advantage. Manly has scored 49 tries on the left this season compared with 37 on the right and only 12 up the middle.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Cowboys winger Kalifa Faifai Loa has been a revelation this season and Manly will be well served not to give him any room to move. A ball of power with speed to burn, Faifai Loa has scored 10 tries and averages an impressive 126 metres per game in 2011. More importantly he has a tendency to come up with the big play. In Round 3 he announced his arrival in Townsville with a stunning line-break to send Matt Bowen away for a try, then scored a spectacular solo try of his own against Parramatta a week later in which he raced 70 metres before leaving Jarryd Hayne stranded in the one-on-one battle.

Danger Sign: Right alongside their opponents this weekend, North Queensland are one of the hottest attacking sides in the competition. In fact, the Sea Eagles and Cowboys – ranked first and second respectively for both tries and points scored – boast almost identical stats in 2011. Manly average 4.1 tries and 22.5 points per game compared with North Queensland’s four tries and 22.2 points. The Cowboys offer plenty with the ball, ranking third for line-breaks with 4.5 per game and third for tackle-breaks behind Newcastle and Wests Tigers with 39.6.

Cowboys Plays To Watch: Without question, North Queensland’s attack inevitably stems from the hands of captain Johnathan Thurston. Be it a dart through a gap or a piece of inspired playmaking, he is the man that has all opposition coaches worried. And like Manly, Thurston loves nothing more than shifting the ball wide at the first opportunity. The Cowboys have spread the ball strongly out wide on 224 occasions in 2011 and adding to the threat is that Thurston doesn’t particularly favour either side. Watch also for Bowen chiming into the backline in a sweeping move that will see Thurston pass to his fullback with Bowen then getting on the outside of his man and sending the likes of Brent Tate and Kalifa Faifai Loa over for the try.

Daly Cherry-Evans v Johnathan Thurston: What a match-up! Dally M Rookie of the Year halfback Daly Cherry-Evans has been a revelation this season with a series of brilliant performances towards the back-end of the year lifting Manly to their second-place finish. In fact, Cherry-Evans has really boosted the side’s threat on the right over the past six weeks with three tries, four try assists, five line-break assists and three line-breaks since Round 21. However, he is facing one of the world’s best this week in Thurston who, despite missing five games with injury post-Origin, still ranks among the leaders in key attacking categories in 2011. Thurston tops the NRL for line-break assists (26) and ranks third for try assists (21).

The History: Played 17; Sea Eagles 10, Cowboys 7. Manly downed the Cowboys 24-4 the last time these sides played at Brookvale Oval earlier this year but the visitors were without Thurston on that occasion. In fact, North Queensland averages an impressive 24 points per game in their six trips to Brookvale and they’ll be buoyed by the fact that this time around they get to play on the far less-hostile surrounds of the Sydney Football Stadium. Still, Manly hold a 4-2 advantage in Sydney and will be confident of securing another win. The two sides are one win apiece in 2011 with North Queensland securing a narrow 22-20 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 8.

Last Time They Met: Manly’s dominant 24-4 winning scoreline over the Cowboys in Round 14 overshadowed what was in reality a high-quality game of football at Brookvale Oval. A brilliant early try from the home side, in which Cherry-Evans’ in-field chip was swooped upon by Brett Stewart, set the Sea Eagles on the path for a comfortable win but they had to fight hard against a Cowboys’ side missing Origin stars Thurston and Scott. Indeed, it was the Cowboys’ inability to score points that cost them in the end. Still, both coaches would have been pleased with their side’s error rates – Manly completed 34/40 and North Queensland 32/37. And completions will hold the key in what could well develop into a cliffhanger.

Conclusion: All of the evidence points to this being an absolute thriller. In fact, six of the past 10 meetings between these two sides have been decided by four points or less and Manly’s 24-4 win in Round 24 came with the Cowboys missing Thurston, Matt Scott, Brent Tate and Willie Tonga. Notably, Daly Cherry-Evans boasts the best career field-goal percentage of any player in the finals with three from five at 60 per cent. Should the game come down to the wire, watch for him to be the go-to man.

The Sea Eagles will be better off for the presence of Kieran Foran and are deserved favourites given their superb season, but the absence of Glenn Stewart is a huge blow and away from Brookvale they are susceptible. This could be one of the games of the season.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Luke Potter; Video Refs – Steve Clark & Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 8.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed, Sunday, 11.30am.