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Canterbury Bulldogs v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

The battle lines for this intriguing Anzac Round clash were drawn a fortnight after last year’s grand final when Des Hasler climbed out of the Manly trench and entered the Bulldogs’ bunker.

No question it’s the game all NRL fans have been waiting for: the confrontation between a ‘turncoat’ general and his former troops. It’s team five versus team eight, with Hasler eyeing a spot in the top four and new Manly coach Geoff Toovey desperate to inflict a defeat on his former mentor (and, as press accounts would have it, still friend) that would give the premiers a buffer inside the top eight.

There’s much at stake, with both sides certain to lose key players to the looming Origin period.

After opening 2012 with three successive wins Canterbury have struggled over the past month, defeating just the lowly Titans and losing to the Knights, Rabbitohs and Storm. However, they were impressive despite falling 12-6 in Melbourne and it took a standout defensive effort from the premiership favourites to hold the Bulldogs at bay during the final 30 minutes.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have been guilty of some complacency and inconsistency in recent weeks. They fell to lowly Parramatta in Round 5, pounded the Panthers 30-nil at Brookvale Oval in Round 6, before inexplicably falling 26-14 to the then cellar-dwelling Titans when they returned to Brookvale just five days later.

To make matters worse Tony Williams still has three matches to serve on the sidelines and they enter this game without highly touted prop Darcy Lussick following his one-match ban for a dangerous throw on David Mead.

But in a huge boost, the trio of players who’ve been linked to Hasler at the ’Dogs – Kieran Foran and Stewart brothers Glenn and Brett – are back on deck for this blockbuster.

Brett Stewart replaces Jorge Taufua at the back, with Foran replacing older brother Liam in the No.6, and Vic Mauro makes way for Glenn Stewart. The three displaced players revert to the bench, which numbers six at this stage.

Meanwhile Des Hasler has made two changes: David Stagg will start at lock for Greg Eastwood, with Martin Taupau added to the Bulldogs’ interchange.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Expect Anthony Watmough to fire up, given Des Hasler was the man largely credited with bringing out the best in him as a footballer. And there’s no better occasion: ‘Choc’ will overtake Bob Fulton in the pecking order for appearances in the maroon and white (212). Look for more involvement than his current average 14 runs, two tackle busts and offload a game.  

Dean Halatau’s confidence seems to dip every time he faces Manly. The back-rower has played the seasiders 10 times for a return of just two victories and his least impressive game-day stats against any opponent – only seven runs for 58 metres. You can bet Watmough and co will be targeting him with some hard defence early.

Expect Daly Cherry-Evans (seven try assists) to have a huge say in getting fullback Brett Stewart into the opposition in-goal, either from a grubber or a deft inside ball near the Bulldogs’ goalposts.

Danger Sign: Any time the Sea Eagles get inside the Bulldogs’ 10-metre zone it will spell danger – the ’Dogs have conceded 12 of their 18 tries from close range, while the Sea Eagles have scored eight tries from last-ditch passes, the second most by any team.  

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Bulldogs’ runners will need to be contained. Canterbury have scored 14 tries through line-breaks, the most in the comp. That’s bad news for Manly, who have conceded a high seven tries from line-breaks and have also struggled to harness opposition busts, conceding 4.3 line-breaks a game.    

Under Des Hasler the Sea Eagles registered just the third-fewest missed tackles in 2011 (30.9) but are now missing the third most (34). Given that statistic you can bet the Bulldogs will fancy their chances of creating opportunities. They boast the two leading tackle-busters in the comp in Josh Morris (41) and Ben Barba (40) and rank third as a team with 36 each game. Also, left centre ‘J-Moz’ ranks third in his position for line-breaks (six) – he’ll test out opposite Jamie Lyon, who’s missed 16 tackles to date (fourth most by a centre). Origin-bound Morris keeps finding the try line, too (five scored).

Manly need to keep a sharp eye on ball-playing prop Sam Kasiano – he leads his position for line-break assists (three).

Danger Sign: Some teams have offloading specialists but the Bulldogs, who rank third in the category with 13.6 every week, have a host of players who can spark second-phase play. In fact they have eight players who make at least one offload a game, with their leading exponents Barba (11), Frank Pritchard (10), Sam Kasiano (10) and Johnathan Wright (10). Back to his best form, Pritchard’s offloads are particularly dangerous – he’s totalled three try assists.

Ben Barba v Brett Stewart: The ANZ Stadium could catch alight if these explosive runners deliver on the night. Barba has scored three tries, made six line-breaks and is averaging 127 metres of territory; but it’s his ability to promote multiple-phase play that’s hurting opponents – he has 11 offloads so far, the second most by a fullback.

Meanwhile it’s only a matter of time before Brett Stewart gets back to his best try-scoring form. ‘Snake’ was Manly’s leading tryscorer in each of the five full seasons he’s played since 2005 – including a massive 22 in 2008. But through five games in 2012 he’s crossed just twice.

This pair’s desperate defence is sure to be a feature too – Barba leads the NRL for try saves (10) with Stewart close behind (nine).

Where It Will Be Won: Whichever side finishes the game with the biggest differential in territory will win – and to date that means the Sea Eagles are decidedly behind the eight ball even before kick-off. Surprisingly the premiers are conceding more metres than they gain each week, returning a -125 metres differential. Meanwhile the Bulldogs, who were the worst in the league last year with a -158 points differential, now finish games with +40 metres difference.

One of the biggest setbacks for the Sea Eagles so far has been their poor kicking accuracy – Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran and Jamie Lyon have the worst rate of kicking to open space, doing so just 46 per cent of the time. (They need to be avoid charge-downs too – Michael Ennis has notched a league-high two already.)  

The History: Played 113; Sea Eagles 60, Bulldogs 48, drawn 5. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides, including both meetings last year. Also, the visitors hold a 4-3 advantage at ANZ Stadium and were rousing 38-4 winners in Round 13 last season.

The Last Time They Met: The Sea Eagles beat the Bulldogs 27-16 at Brookvale Oval in Round 24 last year – but they had to do it the hard way, overcoming a 10-7 halftime deficit.

David Williams opened the scoring in the 14th minute off a neat flick pass from Jamie Lyon before Josh Morris hit back midway through the half, pouncing on a Joel Romelo grubber from close range. Leading 6-4, Daly Cherry-Evans looked to close out the scoring with a field-goal in the 39th minute – but with the clock winding down to the halftime siren Johnathan Wright intercepted a long Glenn Stewart pass and raced 50 metres to score.

It was a more-focused Sea Eagles side in the second stanza. Back-to-back tries to Glenn Stewart (cleaning up a Cherry-Evans cross-field bomb) and Jamie Lyon (off a Cherry-Evans offload) saw them lead 19-10 after 54 minutes – but the Bulldogs hit back immediately through a scrappy try to Ben Barba regathering his own grubber kick that bounced off a host of players before falling sweetly into his hands.

However, the Bulldogs’ challenge ended in the 65th minute when they allowed dummy-half runner Steve Matai to scoot 45 metres to score.   

Opposing centres Steve Matai and Jamal Idris were the sounding boards for their teams, each man creating havoc with 10 tackle busts.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: Manly have been struggling under the weight of injuries and suspensions and it will take a season-best effort to get over the top of their rivals here. How much they lift against former coach Des Hasler will be a huge factor – but the Bulldogs players are sure to be pumped as well. A tough game to predict but on exposed form we’ll side with the ‘under-the-radar’ Bulldogs by seven points.  

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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