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Leeds Rhinos v Manly Sea Eagles
Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds
Friday 8pm (Saturday 7am AEDT)

Can NRL Premiers Manly make it four successive Australian victories in the annual international showdown after the Dragons’ win over Wigan last year, or will English Super League Champions Leeds extract revenge for their competition and for their 28-20 defeat at the hands of the Sea Eagles in their heated 2009 clash?

New coach Geoff Toovey’s charges will be quietly confident of quietening a packed Headingley arena and overcoming a fiercely focused opponent, with nine players remaining in their squad from their 2009 victory. This is the Sea Eagles’ first real test in 2012 – they suffered a 38-6 defeat at the hands of the Sharks a fortnight ago, although their side was sub-strength and succumbed to some Todd Carney wizardry.

Meanwhile the Rhinos will be looking for a return to form after a patchy start to their season. They kicked off strongly with a 34-16 victory over Hull Kingston Rovers before stumbling 20-6 to Wigan Warriors last Saturday. Worryingly they’ve lost former England winger Lee Smith – who tested the Sea Eagles out wide with seven damaging tackle busts and 117 metres the last time these sides met – after he injured his rib cartilage during the Wigan defeat.

Leeds will rely on the mastery of captain and five-eighth Kevin Sinfield, who suits up for his massive 402nd game, as well as veteran halfback/hooker Rob Burrow, damaging second-rower Jamie Jones-Buchanan and former England captain Jamie Peacock. Leeds players familiar to NRL fans include former Titans back Brett Delaney (now in the second row), former Eel Weller Hauraki, former Sea Eagle Kylie Leuluai and former Kiwi international Brent Webb.

Manly is expected to field a full-strength squad, with former Test winger David Williams to make his comeback from the serious neck injury he sustained in Round 25 last September.

A plus for all fans is that the bitter freeze that has gripped Europe for the past three weeks has eased over recent days, with continued mild weather forecast in the lead-up to kick-off.

However, you can expect the players will warm to the task early – the corresponding game in 2009 erupted into a massive brawl that saw Jamie Peacock and former Sea Eagles prop Josh Perry sin-binned. Leeds coach Brian McDermott lit the fuse on a possible new confrontation during the week when he said “… if it is on, it is on. We are ready for whatever comes”.

Clearly, neither side will be short on passion.

Watch Out Rhinos: While most of the Sea Eagles’ faces are familiar their halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans are strangers to the Rhinos. But they’ll get to know them soon enough. Last year Foran and DC-E formed a lethal combination, sending team-mates over for 29 tries. Cherry-Evans showed a stunning level of natural poise and maturity on his way to winning the Dally M Rookie of the Year award and representing the Kangaroos. His running to the line kept oppositions guessing, and he showed tremendous strength to stay alive in plays, making 111 tackle-breaks – more than any other half. Plus he showed he could handle whatever workload was tossed his way, slipping into the role of chief tactical kicker (263, fourth most in the NRL) without a hitch. Also, Manly’s halves, plus their co-skipper Jamie Lyon, each figure in the top dozen players for ‘good chases’ in the NRL, showing their eagerness to pounce on even the slightest opportunity.  

Manly’s back three of Glenn Stewart, Anthony Watmough and Tony Williams will terrorise the Rhinos with guile, footwork and, in Williams’ case, brute strength. ‘T-Rex’ finished last year’s Four Nations series as one of the most devastating forwards in the game: if the Rhinos let him get on a roll they’ll concede field position and the potent Sea Eagles backline will do the rest. Watmough meanwhile will be licking his lips at ripping into the Rhinos again after scoring two tries and making three line-breaks and eight tackle busts against them in 2009.

Danger Sign: Any time the Sea Eagles head left! Last season they scored 49 tries on the left side of the field, the most by any team. But they were most creative and productive one player in from the sideline, crossing a whopping 30 times. Centre Steve Matai, fullback Brett Stewart and running forwards Jamie Buhrer and Anthony Watmough were the main targets of Cherry-Evans’ and Foran’s artistry. The Leeds defenders need to watch for short balls to runners into space close to their line on the left edge – and the alternative play, which sees Stewart chime in as a second-man sweeper to either attack the line himself or else offload to his winger (which this year will be Michael Oldfield). They’ll use this play on the right side of the field too, with Stewart linking with David Williams.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Sinfield holds the key: the veteran leads by example and can inspire his troops to gain the ascendancy early. The last time these sides met Sinfield was a constant thorn in Manly’s side, making a game-high eight tackle-breaks and four dangerous offloads. (It should be noted he kept Storm five-eighth Gareth Widdop on the bench during England’s Four Nations campaign.) The Manly defenders will need to get up quickly late in the tackle count or else Sinfield’s raking boot will have them back-pedalling all evening – last game he punched out 38 metres a kick.

Prop Jamie Peacock will be called on for plenty of tough stuff – in the 2009 WCC he made 18 strong hit-ups and 125 metres, as well as 44 tackles.

And Jamie Jones-Buchanan will be looking to score another WCC try after busting the Sea Eagles open three years ago.

Danger Sign: Exciting 20-year-old centre Kallum Watkins crossed for three second-half tries against Hull a fortnight ago. If he recovers from a wrist injury and takes his place, Manly’s edge defenders need to watch him carefully.

The History: Played 18; Australian champions 11, British champions 7. Leeds have figured in four of the past seven World Club Challenges, defeating the Bulldogs 39-32 at Elland Road in 2005 and the Melbourne Storm 11-4 in 2008, the last time an ESL side saluted. They fell to Manly 28-20 in 2009 and to the Storm 18-10 the following year. Manly’s only other appearance resulted in an 8-2 loss to Wigan in 1987. This is the first time the WCC has been held at Headingley Carnegie Stadium.

Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein (Australia); Video Referee – Ian Smith.

The Way We See It: Fast and furious, with an emphasis on brilliant attack rather than effective defence. But inevitably that’s where the game will be won – by coming up with the try-saving tackles when they are needed. The last time these sides met they busted each other open often – the Sea Eagles made 53 tackle-breaks, the Rhinos 54. But both sides’ defence was poor: the Sea Eagles missed 54 tackles, the Rhinos 52. (In 2011 Manly finished with the second-fewest missed tackles in the NRL, averaging just 27.)

Possession told the story in 2009 too – the Rhinos were forced to make 73 tackles more.

While NRL teams have a good recent record Leeds traditionally attracts the highest WCC crowds, so no doubt a hostile reception awaits Manly.

It’s too hard to predict on exposed form, with just a total three games between the two sides this year, but if Manly can recapture even a few moments of their sharpness from 2011 they’ll post plenty of points. A patriotic call: Sea Eagles by 8.

Televised: GEM (Channel Nine digital) – Live from 7am (AEDT) Saturday; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 9am (AEDT) Saturday; Channel 9 – Delayed 2.30pm (AEDT) Saturday.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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