Brisbane Broncos v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
It’s no insult to either the Bulldogs or Titans to suggest the main course is being served first in the super feast of football that comprises the Suncorp Stadium double-header on Friday night.
The clash between the second-placed Broncos and sixth-placed Sea Eagles is certainly a mouth-watering prospect, throwing together two big yet mobile packs of forwards and two talented backlines into one big melting pot.
Brisbane lost few admirers following their defeat to the Warriors last Saturday, their first loss in seven weeks. But they need to bounce back here or risk surrendering their position as lead chaser of premiership pacesetters Melbourne.
Meanwhile Manly banked the cash against the Raiders to record just their second back-to-back win of the season. In a high-quality game the premiers powered to their most metres in any game since August last year (1603).
The Broncos’ hopes have been dented by the loss of halfback Peter Wallace to a niggling hamstring injury. His place has been taken by Ben Hunt, who deputised for Wallace in their Round 7 win over the Raiders. Former Rabbitoh and Titan Luke Capewell has been drafted onto their interchange.
Meanwhile Manly coach Geoff Toovey is still lamenting the unavailability of his star pivot Kieran Foran, with older brother Liam warming his jersey for at least one more week. But in good news David Williams returns on the right wing, with Dean Whare – who scored a try double last week – added to their extended bench along with Joe Galuvao. Their only other starting change sees Jamie Buhrer run on in the back row, with Daniel Harrison warming the pine.
Brisbane will be hoping history doesn’t repeat – the last time they lost successive NRL games was against Manly at Suncorp Stadium last year.
It’s a milestone week for George Rose who suits up for his 100th NRL game, and Matt Gillett who will play his 50th game in Broncos colours.
Watch Out Broncos: Gerard Beale can expect a hammering under the high ball. The right winger spilled a bomb clean last week, with Shaun Johnson swooping to score in the first half. Not long afterwards Manu Vatuvei out-leapt him to bat the ball back for Elijah Taylor to score. Beale will also keenly remember his last outing against the Sea Eagles when he substituted at fullback for injured Josh Hoffman – Sea Eagles five-eighth Kieran Foran charged through to steal a bomb from his grasp to score a crucial try.
Anthony Watmough always clicks into top form against the Broncos and stats show he is a strong chance to cross the tryline. ‘Choc’ has scored seven tries in 12 games against the Broncos – including six from eight at Suncorp Stadium. The back-rower loves to rip in against quality opponents and will raise the bar against Sam Thaiday, Alex Glenn and Corey Parker. When the teams last met Watmough was relentless, tallying a game-high 22 hit-ups for 185 metres plus 33 tackles. He ranks second for line-break assists among back-rowers and averages almost two tackle-breaks a game. He’ll be a huge threat.
Danger Sign: Any time Glenn Stewart gets the ball in the attacking red zone. Stewart, Daly Cherry-Evans and Jamie Lyon form one of the most potent right-edge combinations in the NRL. Stewart is growing in confidence after his injury lay-off and set up Dean Whare last week. He’ll give Jack Reed and Dale Copley cause for concern at some stage.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: If the Broncos get on a roll down the centre of the park the Sea Eagles may find it tough to stay in the contest. Brisbane make the second-most metres every week (1435), with their broken-play runners Josh Hoffman (average 162 metres), Justin Hodges and Corey Parker leading the way. Also, a whopping 10 members of their squad of 17 make in excess of 10 runs a game, with Parker (19 runs) leading the way.
The Brisbane kickers need to be pressured or else the Sea Eagles will spend long chunks of the game battling to get close-range attacking field position. Brisbane are second best in the comp at kicking to open space (60.7 per cent accuracy). Given the Sea Eagles make only the tenth-most metres (1297) they can’t afford to give the Broncos a ‘free kick’.
Danger Sign: If Matt Gillett, Andrew McCullough or Justin Hodges start making breaks from dummy-half it either means the Manly marker defence hasn’t done their homework or they are asleep on the job. Brisbane have made the most line-breaks out of dummy-half (six) with the above-mentioned trio combining to make most of those.
Justin Hodges v Steve Matai: Two of the NRL’s best outside runners clash head-on. Hodges was a powerhouse in a beaten side the last time they met, making 15 runs for 140 metres with a staggering 11 tackle-breaks plus two offloads and a line-break. His right-foot sidestep is sure to get him into space at some time here. Meanwhile Matai has the best strike rate for line-breaks among centres, averaging one a game to go with his 104 metres. Last week he ripped the Raiders apart with two line-breaks and nine tackle busts. Matai’s left-foot sidestep is sure to get him into space at some time…
Where It Will Be Won: Two words: errors and completions. When two top sides like these meet it always boils down to respecting the Steeden. Currently the Sea Eagles make the fifth-fewest errors, with the Broncos middle of the NRL pack. Manly are completing their sets at 76.2 per cent to Brisbane’s 75.6 per cent – oh so close! The side that puts a gap on the other in this category will prevail.
The History: Played 34; Broncos 17, Sea Eagles 16, drawn 1. The premiers have the wood on the Broncos, winning six of the past eight games. The Broncos boast an 8-6 record in games at Suncorp Stadium – although the Sea Eagles have won four of the past five games played in the Queensland capital.
The Last Time They Met: With injured skipper Darren Lockyer looking on from the sidelines, the Broncos were knocked out of the 2012 premiership race 26-14 in their grand final qualifier at Allianz Stadium.
Manly got off to a dream start when hooker Matt Ballin dived over from dummy-half with just three minutes on the clock, before tries to William Hopoate (off a Broncos turnover) and Brett Stewart (off a delightful Daly Cherry-Evans double-pump pass) saw Manly rush to a 16-nil advantage inside 20 minutes.
Jharal Yow Yeah gave Broncos fans cause for minor celebration when he caught a Matt Gillett bomb to touch down on the half hour for a 16-4 scoreline.
Hopoate bagged his second try six minutes after the halftime break following a swift right-side shift, before a Peter Wallace try courtesy of a fine Corey Parker offload made it 20-10 with 22 minutes remaining.
Kieran Foran scored the match-winner when he out-leapt Broncos fullback Gerard Beale to snatch a Cherry-Evans bomb in the 58th minute. The Broncos had the final say on the scoreboard however, with Dale Copley crossing in the left corner inside the final 10 minutes.
A glut of possession in the first half paved the way for the Sea Eagles’ win, with the Broncos forced to make 39 more tackles in the first section alone.
William Hopoate had one of his best games for Manly, making 18 runs for 185 metres plus two line-breaks to go with his pair of tries. Broncos lock Corey Parker made 128 metres and three offloads.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: It’s destined to be close – incredibly, after their 34 clashes just 31 points separate the two sides (Brisbane 587 points to Manly’s 556). The loss of Peter Wallace is significant but Ben Hunt has already stepped up to the plate as a capable substitute this season so they shouldn’t suffer too much in the continuity department.
It all boils down to hunger – and the adrenaline the huge crowd can generate for their charges. We’ll side with the Broncos by six points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 6.45pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 11pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats