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Manly Warringah Sea Eagles v Penrith Panthers
Brookvale Oval
Monday 7pm

At long last the wait is over for Manly fans who get a first glimpse of their premier heroes back at ‘Fortress Brookvale’ after four gruelling road trips plus a ‘novelty’ home game in Gosford.

In fact, it’s been a massive 227 days since the side have run out through the western tunnel onto the ground to the strains of ‘Eagle Rock’.

Certainly the Sea Eagles have struggled for rhythm and continuity in the early stages of their title defence. They opened strongly, with two commanding victories that saw them firm into equal premiership favouritism with bookmakers, but have since slumped to three consecutive losses – the most recent a demoralising defeat to the Eels who just days beforehand were quoted as 12/1 chances to not win a single game in 2012! The Sea Eagles now sit a lowly 13th on the ladder.

In mitigation, they were missing linchpin star and captain Jamie Lyon, who returns this week after being a late dropout with an elbow complaint. Their only other injury concern, Kieran Foran, has recovered from the hamstring strain.

Lyon’s return sees Dean Whare revert to an extended interchange bench, with one player to miss out. The rest of the Sea Eagles are as per last week’s line-up.

Coach Geoff Toovey will be desperate for the side to right their ship – the Sea Eagles have only lost four games in a row once in the past eight seasons (back in April 2009).   

Meanwhile Penrith fans are still wondering how their side managed to exit Centrebet Stadium without the two competition points last week after they outscored Cronulla three tries to two. It was only the goal-kicking accuracy of Todd Carney (three from four, plus the winning field-goal, compared to Luke Walsh’s one from two attempts) that proved the difference.

The 15-14 defeat leaves the Panthers in eighth place, heading six teams on four competition points but leading the bunch courtesy of their +26 points differential. (Manly are last of those six, with a -13 differential, which emphasises the importance of this match for both sides.)

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has stuck with his 17 from last week, with the addition of Matt Robinson to a five-man interchange.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Lachlan Coote loves playing Manly – last time they met he scored a try, made 155 metres and added a game-high 10 tackle busts to keep his opponents guessing whenever he went searching for the football.

Left centre Michael Jennings is in great form with five tries, 133 metres, 27 tackle-breaks and six offloads and is sure to make his presence felt. The Panthers enjoyed success down the left edge twice the last time they met and Jennings will be in the thick of their sweeps – they’ve scored 13 tries on Jennings’ left side of the field compared to just three on the right in 2012.

Under-rated halfback Luke Walsh’s passing game will be a threat on both sides of the ground. He possesses a lovely looping left-to-right cut-out ball that Brad Tighe and David Simmons will be alert to, while he can pop great short balls or cut-outs on the left. Walsh has two try assists and two line-break assists but can add to that tally here.

Danger Sign: Expect Luke Walsh to contribute a variety of attacking kicks this week. Manly are the second worst side at defusing grubbers (64 per cent) and have safely handled just 58 per cent of cross-field bombs. Manly have conceded six tries to kicks, the equal most.

Watch Out Panthers: Manly will target the area between the Panthers’ left upright and left corner post, where they’ve let in five tries. By comparison they are yet to let an opponent score in their right corner. Steve Matai, Kieran Foran, Brett Stewart (who holds the best try-scoring strike rate of all active players with 80 per cent) and Michael Oldfield will be the usual suspects.  

However, the Panthers are bound to concede points on the right side of the field at some stage in 2012 and Jamie Lyon is the man who can hurt them here. Lyon made a damaging seven tackle busts last time they played and also scored a try. David Williams has the seventh-best try-scoring rate of all active players so he is a threat too.

Danger Sign: Manly will look to place Lachlan Coote under pressure with bombs targeting the Panthers’ goalposts – Penrith are defusing bombs just 63 per cent of the time, the second worst rate in the league. Chasers like Brett Stewart and Jamie Lyon are a good chance of stealing the footy and scoring.   

Sam McKendry v Jason King: The Panthers dominated the ruck the last time the sides met and Sam McKendry will be out to lay the foundation for his side here. The Kiwi international has been a powerhouse up the middle, averaging 114 metres and 25 tackles so far. But Manly co-captain Jason King will be focused on making a statement back on home turf. King has really upped his workload over the past fortnight and he now tallies 110 metres and 23 tackles.  

Where It Will Be Won: It will all be about territory – and on paper the Panthers appear to hold the advantage. To date Penrith concede the fewest metres to oppositions, averaging a miserly 1166 a game. Couple that with the fact the Sea Eagles are struggling for attacking field position, making just the third-fewest metres each week (1260) and that puts pressure on the Manly forwards and also their kickers to deliver the goods. To date Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran and Jamie Lyon are the worst at kicking to open space, returning a disappointing 41 per cent success rate. Meanwhile the Panthers kick to open space a middle-of-the-pack 54 per cent.   

The History: Played 75; Sea Eagles 48, Panthers 26, drawn 1. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes, including both match-ups last year. Brookvale Oval is somewhat of a graveyard for the visitors who have won just 10 of 39 games on the northern beaches.

The Last Time They Met: The Sea Eagles beat the Panthers 12-8 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 20 last year.

Manly led 6-nil at halftime through a controversial try to Jamie Lyon; the Sea Eagles captain broke through several tackle attempts on the right edge before being felled by opposition fullback Lachlan Coote who fell off Lyon just metres out from his goal line. With the referee yelling ‘not held’, Lyon got to his feet and scampered over to score.

The Panthers struck back when Coote scored off a Matthew Bell offload near the line shortly after halftime, before Kieran Foran edged the visitors out to a 12-4 lead when he backed up Brett Stewart in the 65th minute.

Winger David Simmons latched onto a Travis Burns grubber to score in the final minutes, with the Panthers declining the conversion attempt as the seconds clicked down to fulltime.

Manly were best served by winger William Hopoate who made 148 metres while Panthers props Petero Civoniceva and Tim Grant were unstoppable up the guts with 170 and 166 metres respectively.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Gavin West; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: If you’re worried about the road trip factor for Penrith, don’t be: they have a 2-0 record away from home. But the fact it’s Manly’s first Brookvale home game of the season weighs heavily in the equation. The premiers haven’t set the world on fire of late but with a vocal crowd behind them, they could catch alight. We’ll give Manly one more chance but wouldn’t be surprised in the Panthers spring an upset. Manly by six points.  

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

    Statistics: NRL Stats

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