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Warriors v Sea Eagles
Eden Park, Auckland
Sunday 2pm (NZ time)

The 2011 grand final rematch could also be billed as the ‘battle of the slow starters’, with reigning premiers Manly unsuccessful since 2007 in opening their premiership account first up, while the Warriors have won a Round 1 fixture just twice this millennium.

Then again, this should guarantee both camps are firmly focussed and motivated for this much-anticipated encounter – which is also the first time in two decades the previous season’s two grand finalists have met in a season opener.

While plenty would assume the Warriors are hell-bent on avenging their 24-10 defeat on the first Sunday of last October, new coach Brian McClennan told that would be far from the case in his preparations, adding it was important “we just don’t put all our eggs in one basket and get wound up about one game in particular”.

But you can bet both sides will lift a gear given the circumstances.

The Warriors have indicated they haven’t lost their hunger with some sizzling trials efforts. They demolished the Gold Coast 26-10 a month ago, blooding promising youngster Konrad Hurrell; however they suffered a major blow with a serious biceps injury to prop Jacob Lillyman set to rule the Queensland Origin star out for a good chunk of the opening half of the season.

They then defeated the Rabbitohs 22-14 with Manu Vatuvei crossing for two tries and Hurrell touching down also – but injuries to Sam Rapira and Micheal Luck again took some of the gloss off the win.

They completed their trials with a 68-10 thrashing of Queensland Cup side the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles, the highlight being centre Jerome Ropati’s successful return from the knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2011.

The Warriors can expect a more torrid time against the ‘real’ Sea Eagles on Sunday, despite Manly’s patchy start under new coach Geoff Toovey. The premiers opened their trials account with a disappointing 38-6 loss to a Todd Carney-inspired Sharks outfit, then looked underdone and disjointed when falling 26-12 to Leeds in the World Club Challenge a fortnight ago.

The Warriors will field six new faces from their grand final starting 13, including the new centre combination of Hurrell and Ropati. They also boast an all-new front row of props Russell Packer and Ben Matulino and new-recruit hooker Nathan Friend, while Elijah Taylor starts at lock for the injured Luck. They need to cull three members of their bench which currently comprises Lewis Brown, Sione Lousi, Ben Henry, Akuma Ta’ai, Glen Fisiiahi, Krisnan Inu and Alehana Mara.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have new wingers in Michael Oldfield and David Williams (for Michael Robertson and Will Hopoate), with co-captain Jason King returning at prop after missing the decider through injury. The extended Manly bench comprises Jamie Buhrer, Vic Mauro, Darcy Lussick, George Rose and Jorge Taufua.

The game looms as a personal duel between opposing centres Steve Matai and Jerome Ropati, who each enter the arena having scored 49 career tries.

Watch Out Warriors: One Sea Eagle who has impressed in the trials is second-rower Anthony Watmough – and he has a liking for ripping into the Warriors. ‘Choc’ may have not received the accolades accorded others like Glenn Stewart, Will Hopoate, Jamie Lyon and Daly Cherry-Evans in the decider but he was a menace throughout, making 19 runs for 131 metres with 32 tackles, six tackle-breaks and two offloads. In their previous match-up in Round 6 he was also productive with 18 runs for 133 metres with 26 tackles. Watmough will look for a short pass from Cherry-Evans or Glenn Stewart to bust the Warriors open just off centre-field.

The Warriors need to be careful with their handling lest they surrender precious field position too often. Last season the Sea Eagles clawed out the third-most metres each match (1375) – and they bookended that impressive stat by conceding the fewest metres (1270) each game. That left them with an average territory differential of +175 metres; by comparison the Warriors finished with a +56 mark.

Danger Sign: The Warriors need to be wary of inside balls to Brett Stewart close to their try line. The star fullback crossed for the first try in the grand final off a Cherry-Evans inside pass and scored against Leeds off an inside ball too. Kevin Locke needs to maintain focus and send clear instructions to his defenders when he sees Stewart drifting infield.  

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Nathan Friend kick-starts his new career at the Warriors with the reputation as the most involved player in the game. When Friend was out injured last year the Titans struggled big time – the previous season (2010) he led the NRL for most touches (115 a game). The Warriors have spent the past few seasons juggling the hooker role between the likes of Aaron Heremaia and Lance Hohaia. With Friend destined to play long minutes the Kiwis’ ruck play will get a heap more consistent.  

Danger Sign: Expect the Warriors to finish the 2012 season with the most offloads by any team. They finished a narrow second to the Panthers last year the smart money is on them unleashing even more dazzling second-phase play over the coming months. Feleti Mateo offered 20 per cent more offloads than any other player in 2011 (making 85) and he was ably supported out wide by big Manu Vatuvei who added the most by any winger (34). If Vatuvei gets the better of David Williams and is allowed to slip the ball to supports like Kevin Locke, Konrad Hurrell or Shaun Johnson close to the Manly try line, points will follow.

Shaun Johnson v Daly Cherry-Evans: Both enter 2012 on the back of outstanding rookie NRL seasons, with Cherry-Evans just shading his counterpart. The two halfbacks present a compelling contrast: Johnson’s pace and quick thinking make him a danger from anywhere on the park, while Cherry-Evans’ solid service is the match that ignites the Sea Eagles’ brilliant backline. Johnson made 18 try assists and six line-breaks in just 16 games in 2011 while Cherry Evans showed strength running to the line and distributing for his supports – he made a competition-high 111 tackle busts and 30 offloads in the No.7, plus 19 try assists. One – or both – of these guys is likely to come up with a telling play.

The History: Played 21; Sea Eagles 14, Warriors 7. Yikes – Sea Eagles have won seven of the past eight clashes between the sides, with the first clash in that run in 2008 their biggest win over the Kiwis (52-6).

The Last Time They Met: The Sea Eagles swooped on the 2012 Telstra Premiership trophy with a 24-10 win in last year’s grand final. Manly led 12-2 at halftime and then 18-2 with 22 minutes to go before Feleti Mateo and Shaun Johnson inspired a stunning Warriors comeback. Tries to Manu Vatuvei and Elijah Taylor in the 62nd and 69th minutes had Manly fans biting their fingernails before tye soon-to-be-named Churchill Medal winner Glenn Stewart sealed the deal with an assist for skipper Jamie Lyon to score on the stroke of fulltime. Missed tackles told the story – the Warriors missed 30 alone in the first half compared to Manly’s manageable 15.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: Two trials for two uninspiring efforts must have Manly fans on edge – especially given the team now faces a flight across the Tasman after journeying halfway around the world just a fortnight ago. We’d have preferred to see them with another hit-out under their belts before tackling a quality outfit like the Warriors first up – especially in New Zealand. Certainly the Warriors have looked sharp and they appear to have the depth to overcome their annoying early injury problems. Things are ticking along nicely for them and on exposed form they get our nod by six points. 

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 12 noon; Fox Sports – Delayed 4pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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