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Manly Sea Eagles v Gold Coast Titans
Brookvale Oval
Saturday 7.30pm 

After what must surely be one of the most difficult and protracted road trips in NRL history, the Sea Eagles finally returned home to Brookvale Oval last week with a bang.

After kicking off their pre-season with a trip over to Old Blighty to face Super League champions Leeds, Manly started the NRL proper with a trip over the Tasman, then took their Round 2 home game up to Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford and followed that with three consecutive away games against Cronulla, St George Illawarra and Parramatta.

But last week they showed just how much they love playing at Brookvale, where they went undefeated last year. Despite being without four internationals in Glenn Stewart, Tony Williams, Kieran Foran and Brett Stewart (the latter two only being officially ruled out shortly before kick-off) Manly tore apart the Panthers to the tune of 30-0. Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was the star in a dominant second half that has brought the defending premiers right back into calculations for this season.

The fact they were able to do it while missing not only two back-rowers who would both have been in calculations for the upcoming Anzac Test, but also their star fullback and five-eighth, would have been particularly pleasing for rookie coach Geoff Toovey.

The news is not quite so good for the embattled Titans however – despite receiving some good news regarding their financial affairs recently the team bumbled their way to a fifth straight loss against the Roosters, leaving them stuck with the Eels and Tigers at the foot of the ladder with just a solitary win from the opening six rounds.

The Titans missed 35 tackles and made 17 errors last week as they completed just 62 per cent of their sets. Although the Roosters somehow managed an even worse completion rate of just 55 per cent, the Bondi club outran the Titans by 1419 metres to 1151. The fact the Titans were in with a shot of forcing golden-point following David Mead’s second try was a reflection of how poorly the Roosters handled the footy.

Coach John Cartwright has responded by naming highly rated Bulldogs junior Aidan Sezer as Scott Prince’s third halves partner of the year, dropping Jordan Rankin to a five-man bench. After returning from injury on the bench last week Jamal Idris comes into the run-on side replacing Steve Michaels at centre. Mark Minichiello and Matthew White join the bench, with Brenton Lawrence dropping out of the side.

Toovey has named Brett Stewart to return at fullback for Dean Whare who substituted admirably against Penrith, although Whare remains on a five-man bench as cover in case Stewart does not pull up from the rib cartilage injury suffered against Parramatta. Kieran Foran has been named to return from a hamstring strain at the expense of his older brother Liam, who also deputised with aplomb against the Panthers.

Club stalwart and co-captain Jason King will play his 200th NRL game, all of which have been for the Sea Eagles, aside from the first 22 which were played at the Northern Eagles. 
For the Titans, William Zillman racks up his 100th NRL game.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Hulking centre Jamal Idris, who returns to the starting line-up after being eased back from injury last week, is one of several major off-season signings Cartwright will be expecting to help lead his side out of its current slump.

Idris was equal fifth in the competition last year in terms of tackle busts, with a massive 117 across the 23 matches he played. He also registered the second-most offloads at the club with 31 and the second-most line-breaks with 10. 

Idris scored a double in the Titans’ Round 1 win over the Cowboys and if he can recapture the kind of form that saw him grab a State of Origin bench spot in 2010 it may just give the Titans the kind of X-factor at the back that they need to inspire the rest of the team.

Danger Sign: Idris can have the tendency to switch off a little when he’s playing out in the centres but it’s when he comes in looking for work that he can really create havoc. If he goes out of his way to take some early hit-ups when the Titans are working it out of their own end, or tries to assert himself late in an attacking set, the Manly defence will need to be on their toes.

Watch Out Titans: Daly Cherry-Evans produced one of those all-round games last week where everything fell into place. Desperate to make amends for a lacklustre showing against the Eels and with an increased burden of responsibility in the absence of regular five-eighth Kieran Foran, Cherry-Evans produced a playmaking masterclass.

The three try assists were the key – the highlight an unconventional but very effective perfectly placed cross-field grubber towards the posts for centre Steve Matai to score.

His nine tackle busts were a feature that you won’t see from too many halfbacks, while a crucial 40/20 kick could easily be forgotten in amongst the other highlights. If Cherry-Evans can put in a repeat showing in Manly’s second consecutive Brookvale appearance the Titans will be in huge trouble.

Danger Sign: Not to suggest that there’s anything lacking in Cherry-Evans’ passing game – but it was his running of the football and pinpoint kicks that shredded the Penrith defence last week. The more he takes on the line himself the better, from Manly’s point of view, and the Titans’ big men will have to watch him closely – or they will know how Penrith felt last week.

Steve Matai v Jamal Idris: Unfortunately these two uncompromising centres may not clash directly too often because each tends to play on the left side of the field – but that doesn’t mean they won’t go looking for each other if either wanders infield.

Matai is well known for his bruising defence and Roosters pivot Braith Anasta will certainly attest to the fact that Idris is also capable of crunching defence after wearing a big shot last week. Both players have missed game time already this year through injury but can be game-breakers when in form. Matai was close to Manly’s best in the loss to the Eels and bagged a four-pointer last week, and Idris will be keen to make up for lost time after playing just three of the opening six rounds.

Idris ran just three times for 10 metres last week despite being on the field for almost 40 minutes, while Matai made just a solitary tackle in 80 minutes. Expect far greater involvement from each man this week.

Where It Will Be Won: The mental approach. Quite simply, if each side plays the way they played last week, the Titans have no hope. But this is rugby league, the domain of the upset, where anything can happen on the night – as the Sea Eagles recently found out against Parramatta.

If the Titans venture out to fortress Brookvale believing they can’t win, then they won’t. They will need to find some spark, whether it comes from debutant Sezer who is unscarred by the side’s previous five losses, the effervescent Idris, or the never-say-die Nate Myles – but they need to believe if they are to have a chance.

Conversely if Manly go in believing the game already won then that is where the Titans gain an opening. Manly fans would hope at 3-3, after the upset at Parramatta and with a couple of stars still missing, that complacency wouldn’t be an issue. But league can be a funny game and Manly will still have to do the little things right against a Titans side that will have their backs to the wall.

The History: Played 8, Manly 5, Gold Coast 3. The Titans have a fair record against the Sea Eagles given how dominant Manly has been in the five seasons the Titans have been in the NRL – although they have won just one of four at Brookvale. That one win was on their last trip to the peninsula however, when they emerged 24-22 winners in Round 7 of the 2010 season.

The Last Time They Met: The only meeting between these two clubs last season was played at Skilled Park in Round 10 as Manly edged the Titans 16-12 in a three-tries-to-two victory.

The Sea Eagles exploded out of the blocks as Ashley Harrison was penalised for an incorrect play-the-ball on just the second tackle of the match. A Cherry-Evans cut-out pass followed by a Jamie Lyon flick pass put David ‘Wolfman’ Williams over in the corner inside the first minute of play. Opposite winger Michael Robertson also crossed in the 23rd minute before Scott Prince dragged one back for the Titans late in the half.

Robertson earned a double midway through the second half before Esi Tonga brought the margin back to four when he crossed 10 minutes from time.

Both sides completed around three quarters of their possessions although Manly missed double the number of tackles with 38 against 19 for the Titans. There was little between the teams in terms of running metres, possession or penalties.

The loss came despite huge 80-minute contributions from Titans back-rowers Greg Bird (155 metres from 15 runs) and Ashley Harrison (142 metres from 19 runs).

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Paul Mellor.

The Way We See It: There’s no sugar-coating it – Gold Coast will be massive underdogs here and rightly so. As mentioned above, if both teams put in a repeat of last week’s efforts there can be only one winner. But a week can be a long time in rugby league, as we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, and the Titans have plenty of quality players, while Manly have plenty missing or in doubt. But since we’re playing it safe we’ll take Manly by 13-plus.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

Statistics: NRL Stats
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