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Grand Final Preview
Sea Eagles v Warriors
ANZ Stadium
Sunday, 5.20pm

Ok, hands up who predicted a Sea Eagles v Warriors grand final when the season was kicking off? Or even after the first week of the finals when the Warriors were humbled by Brisbane?

Unpredictability is one of the greatest things about this great game and although at many stages of the season it seemed likely that any of the Dragons, Wests Tigers, Storm or Broncos could take out this year’s title, the first Sunday in October will see 2011’s most consistent side face off against one of the most unpredictable teams in the NRL.

One of the big stories this week is the youthfulness of the respective playmaking duos, with two of the youngest and least experienced grand finals halves combinations in recent memory. This is especially true of the halfbacks, who have just 41 NRL games between them. In fact Warriors No.7 Shaun Johnson will be the youngest and most inexperienced halfback to appear in a season decider since Bulldog Corey Hughes in 1998.

And speaking of experience – Manly have 10 players with grand final credentials, including eight survivors from the 2008 premiership, plus Shane Rodney and Joe Galuvao who won a premiership with the Panthers in 2003.

Two of the three games of grand final experience at the Warriors come from the 2009 Parramatta outfit in the shape of Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu, while Lance Hohaia is the only player surviving from the Warriors’ 2002 grand final side.

Much has been made of the amount of travel the Warriors have had to do – their past three games have been in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, returning to New Zealand between matches, and they are now flying back to the Harbour City. But at least they can count on some local support once they run out – aside from the fact that there will be plenty of ex-pat New Zealanders at ANZ Stadium to cheer them on, Sydneysiders seem to have jumped on board the “anyone-but-Manly” bandwagon.

For Manly, coach Des Hasler has the luxury of welcoming back star lock Glenn Stewart and prop Darcy Lussick from three-game suspensions arising from that stoush with the Storm back in Round 26. Plenty of pundits have nominated Stewart as Manly’s most important player this season and while he has been surrounded by other stars there’s no doubt his inclusion is crucial. He takes his place at lock, pushing Shane Rodney back to a six-man bench that also features Lussick. (Two unlucky players will miss out.)

Manly fans will be relieved that uncompromising centre Steve Matai escaped a charge after collecting Broncos winger Jharal Yow Yeh with his knees last week; and giant back-rower Tony Williams has also escaped suspension with an early guilty plea to a grade two careless high tackle charge for a high shot on the same player.

Warriors coach Ivan Cleary has named the same side as last week with the addition of Steve Rapira to the bench. Although Cleary has again named Feleti Mateo (second row), Aaron Heremaia (hooker) and Sam Rapira (prop) to start, don’t be surprised if all three once again view the kick-off from the sidelines.

Watch Out Warriors: Manly were indeed awesome last week against the Lockyer-less Broncos – but expect their attack to lift another gear this week with Glenn Stewart returning. Stewart adds a whole other dimension to Manly’s already potent right-side attack, playing almost as an extra five-eighth. With his brother Brett in rousing form at fullback offering support, he will really add another string to the Sea Eagles’ bow. Not only is he great at hitting gaps in the defensive line himself, his ball-playing skills allow him to spot a weakness and throw a short ball to put players like brother Brett into space.

Danger Sign: Brett Stewart is among the best support players in the game and is constantly looming up behind the probing attack, putting himself in a position to take advantage of an offload or kick. It earned him a double against the Cowboys in their qualifying final clash and he was in again last week, scoring off a select Daly Cherry-Evans short ball close to the line. With attacking playmakers on both sides of the park Stewart has a licence to roam; whenever the Sea Eagles are on the hunt expect to see him lurking around the back of the ruck for the slightest opportunity.

Sea Eagles Plays To Watch: Manly’s left edge has been one of the most lethal attacking zones in the NRL this year, so look for the halves – and Kieran Foran in particular – to shift it out to that side regularly where the Sea Eagles are so good at creating an overlap. Steve Matai and Michael Robertson have been prolific on that left edge, along with players like Tony ‘T-Rex’ Williams, who now seems to be finally living up to his nickname. Williams was unstoppable against the Broncos, repeatedly bumping off the first- and second-attempted tackle, and he will add to threat on that left side.

Over on the right side, expect 22-year-old Cherry-Evans to continue to wreak havoc with his deft passing game that earned him two try assists last week and almost led to a couple more. Another favoured play when the Sea Eagles are on the attack is the Cherry-Evans high lofted bomb out for the Jamie Lyon challenge – although last week it was Foran who was the beneficiary!

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The red-hot Warriors forward pack out-Melbourned Melbourne last week in the type of ruthlessly efficient display we don’t traditionally expect from the New Zealanders. Although Melbourne made fewer errors and missed fewer tackles, quality runs from the Warriors forwards had the Storm on the back foot for much of the game, especially in the second half. In particular the front row rotation of Jacob Lillyman (111 metres) Russell Packer (94 metres) Ben Matulino (96 metres) and Sam Rapira (108 metres) produced consistently dominant hit-ups and shared the workload brilliantly, ensuring the Storm pack never had a chance to catch their breath.

Danger Sign: Another key man in the forwards has been Feleti Mateo. The sometime five-eighth has previously been criticised for not cashing in on his talent and pushing too many offloads. But 2011 has been one of the most consistent seasons of Mateo’s career on the back of improved fitness and discipline. He’s playing bigger minutes than in past years and although the prolific offloading he’s known for is still there it’s more about quality than quantity – he’s still generating  plenty of second-phase play but without the heart-in-mouth desperation offloads from inside his own 20 metres he has been known for.

Warriors Plays To Watch: That hot-potato offloading has been a real threat from the Warriors this year and while clearly Mateo is the prime exponent (83 offloads so far in 2011, most in the NRL) there have been plenty from the likes of Simon Mannering (32) Manu Vatuvei (31) and Kris Inu (25).

Their surging runs through the middle of the park were a key reason the Warriors got over the top of the Storm last week and dominated the running metres 1669 to 1334. It wasn’t just the front row rotation doing all the work, Mateo also made 151 metres and wingers Bill Tupou (142 metres) and Vatuvei (150 metres) did plenty of dummy-half work to help their side out of trouble.

And the Warriors’ young halves combination will make up for what they lack in experience with enthusiasm and intensity. They are combining well with Johnson’s dangerous broken play running causing plenty of trouble, and you can also expect them to loft a heap of high balls out to Manly’s back three.

Will Hopoate v Manu Vatuvei: It has been a meteoric rise for young ‘Hoppa’ in 2011 but he will have his work cut out here marking one of the most intimidating wingers in the game. Big Manu has always been a rocks or diamonds kind of player but unfortunately for Manly, Vatuvei got the rocks out of the way against the Broncos three weeks ago and it’s been diamonds ever since. But Hopoate has also been in scintillating form, with doubles in each of his two games back from injury. It should be a fascinating match-up – the classy finishing of Hopoate versus the brutal strength of Vatuvei.

The History: Played 20; Manly 13, Warriors 7. The Warriors have won just two of the past 10 meetings between these sides, the most recent of those a 26-24 win at Brookvale in Round 2, 2009. Interestingly the two sides have never previously met at ANZ Stadium.

Last Time They Met: Manly did enough to hold out the Warriors 20-10 back in Round 6, a match in which Sean Berrigan broke his arm midway through the second stanza. Although they tied the penalty count, and the errors and missed tackle count were virtually identical, Manly dominated possession holding 55 per cent of the ball. They also dominated over the ground, running 1590 metres compared to just 1173 for the Warriors. They were led by Hopoate, who made 190 metres deputising at fullback for Brett Stewart, and ominously heading into Sunday’s decider, five forwards also crossed the 100-metre mark compared to just two Warriors forwards. It may just boil down to a battle of go-forward again.

Conclusion: There is no doubt that Manly will start deserved favourites but if the Warriors can reproduce the form they showed in beating Wests Tigers and the Storm then anything could happen.

The Warriors have had a tough road to the decider and may have played their grand final last week, while the weight of finals experience for the Sea Eagles will surely count in their favour. Much will also come down to how the inexperienced halves pairings deal with the occasion.

Manly should be good enough to take this one but the beauty of an NRL grand final is – anyone can win it on the day!

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Luke Phillips & Henry Perenara; Video Refs – Russell Smith & Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 4.30pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 7pm.