Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers preview

Manly Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
Bluetongue Stadium
Friday 7.30pm (AEDT)

Premiers Manly will be focused on a decisive victory this week to remind the Wests Tigers exactly who’s boss after many good judges and bookmakers have labelled Tim Sheens’ charges the team to beat in 2012.

Last week the Tigers delighted their faithful with a stirring golden-point victory at Leichhardt Oval; this week the action shifts to ‘Fortress Bluetongue’ as the Sea Eagles attempt to build on the momentum of their impressive defeat of the Warriors in their grand final rematch in Auckland.

Manly may have spluttered their way through their pre-season trial games, including a disjointed loss to Leeds in the World Club Challenge, but there was no mistaking their trademark crisp attack as they ran roughshod over the Warriors early, leading 18-nil before the home side mounted a comeback. All their stars impressed in the 26-20 victory but none more than winger David Williams who delivered a confidence-boosting 80-minute effort.

The win came at a cost though, with centre Steve Matai set to miss six weeks after breaking his right thumb. His position at left centre has been taken by Dean Whare. To compound their woes Churchill Medal winner Glenn Stewart will miss at least a month with a badly damaged finger; his replacement has yet to be named but it’s anticipated Jamie Buhrer will be elevated to the starting 13.

Meanwhile the Tigers showed excellent fighting qualities to bounce back against the Sharks after the visitors looked headed for an upset win when leading 16-12 with just minutes remaining. But their win came at a cost too: they were rocked by a season-ending injury to teenage fullback James Tedesco late in the first half, while prop Keith Galloway has succumbed to a foot injury.

In personnel changes, coach Tim Sheens has handed former Eel Tom Humble the No.1 jersey, with Matt Groat elevated to start at prop for the injured Galloway who will miss at least a month. There are five new faces on the extended interchange, including Junior Moors, Joel Reddy, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Sean Meaney and Shaun Spence.

Revenge will be uppermost in the minds of the Sea Eagles after they butchered a 12-nil lead with little more than 20 minutes to play to lose the last time they met – coincidentally at Bluetongue Stadium – in Round 21 last August.

A boost for the ‘visitors’ is the fact that they are undefeated in four night matches at Bluetongue Stadium.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Tigers were off the speed last week but still prevailed. Other sides would have wilted under the weight of a lopsided stats sheet that listed 13 missed tackles more than the opposition and four fewer line-breaks, plus a woeful 56 per cent completion rate, but class and a will to win carried them through. Bad news for the Sea Eagles is it was the same story the last time these sides met (see below).

It’s likely the Tigers will send plenty of traffic the way of left winger Michael Oldfield who is still feeling his way in the NRL. Beau Ryan was the more involved Wests Tigers winger last week, making almost double the touches of left winger Matt Utai for two excellent tries including the fulltime equaliser. He also ran a game-high 149 metres.

Marshall looked eager to run when close to the opposition line last week and he’ll fancy his chances of posting at least another four-pointer here after watching his ‘clone’ Shaun Johnson bamboozle the Manly defence last round with three try assists.

Danger Sign: Benji Marshall appears to have his kicking boots on in 2012, with his goal-kicking the difference last week. Benji landed three from four to keep the Tigers in the hunt, then booted the winning field-goal, while Cronulla’s Todd Carney managed just two from four and missed with his only field-goal attempt. Don’t let anyone tell you taking the two points is a waste of time in the modern game – two golden-point outcomes from the first eight games illustrates just how close the 2012 season is going to be. Consequently the Sea Eagles need to watch their discipline – they conceded a whopping nine penalties last week, up from their average of six last year when they were the third-most penalised team in the comp. Otherwise Marshall will reel off some easy points.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Could the Sea Eagles under Geoff Toovey be planning a metamorphosis into an even more expansive attacking unit? Last season Manly made just the tenth-most offloads in the competition (11 a game) – but last week they out-offloaded the Warriors 15-7! Tony Williams led the way with four, assisted by Anthony Watmough (three), Brett Stewart (two) and single contributions from six other players. A worry for the Tigers is the fact they conceded 13 offloads last week.

Also, only one side yielded more ground last week than the Tigers, who surrendered 1482 metres – including six line-breaks – to the Sharks. Alarm bells are ringing.

Danger Sign: Expect the Sea Eagles to send plenty of troops headed Blake Ayshford’s way after the right-side centre missed five tackles last week. Look for Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans to isolate Ayshford and send big ‘T-Rex’ Tony Williams rumbling towards him. Williams was at his steam-rolling best last week, with a try (handed the ball from close range) and a game-high 11 tackle busts. Replacement centre Whare will also target him.

Matt Ballin v Robbie Farah: Two of the most involved hookers in the business face off. Both are 80-minute players who thrive on getting their hands on the ball and linking with their big, mobile forwards – especially close to the opposition try line. Expect plenty of scheming and lateral drift out of dummy-half inside each other’s 10-metre zone. Ballin had success with a hand-off to Tony Williams from close range last week while Farah combined with Benji Marshall for a four-pointer against the Sharks.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence – the Wests Tigers’ 34 missed tackles last week were the fourth most in the round, while the Sea Eagles’ 37 were the second most. Adam Blair, purchased for his defensive starch as much as his attacking grunt, missed a whopping six! Whichever side shows dramatic improvement will prevail.

The History: Played 16; Sea Eagles 9, Wests Tigers 7. Manly have won five of the past eight – but the Tigers have won three of the past four. Their record at Bluetongue Stadium is a game apiece. It should be a close contest – three of the past four clashes have been decided by four points or less.

The Last Time They Met: Manly surrendered a 12-nil halftime lead to fall 14-12 in a dour confrontation at Bluetongue Stadium in Round 21 last year. The Sea Eagles looked a well-oiled machine with tries to Brett Stewart and Matt Ballin before the wheels fell off in the second half. And boy did the game change complexion quickly: tries to Robert Lui, Blake Ayshford and Chris Lawrence in the space of seven minutes rocketed the gold-and-blacks to the fulltime score with still 17 minutes on the clock. Possession told the story – both sides made 156 tackles in the first 40 minutes but the Wests Tigers forced their opponents into making a hefty 68 more tackles in the second stanza. The pressure certainly told, with the Sea Eagles missing a whopping 40 tackles after the break (compared to just 12 in the first half). The Sea Eagles were unlucky though, with Ayshford’s try coming from what looked like a forward pass from Benji Marshall.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: The Tigers made too many mistakes at home last week and will need to take a quantum leap if they are to trouble the Sea Eagles. To make matters worse they have to adapt to yet another new fullback. Meanwhile confidence in the Sea Eagles camp will be sky-high after their dominant win last week when they were given little chance after their torrid pre-season travel schedule. At ‘home’ in Gosford, just an hour up the road from their Narrabeen base, they’ll be exceptionally tough to beat. Manly by six points.    

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 11.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats