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Manly Warringah Sea Eagles v St George Illawarra Dragons
Brookvale Oval
Friday 7.35pm

After a woeful defeat at the foot of the mountains last Sunday Manly coach Geoff Toovey is hoping a return to ‘Fortress Brookvale’ will help the premiers regain form and edge back up the NRL ladder.

Meanwhile his counterpart at St George Illawarra Steve Price will be nervous about the bus trip across the Spit Bridge given his team’s abysmal ‘away’ record in 2012: only Parramatta have a worse record on the road than the Dragons’ one win from five games.

It was an uncharacteristically lethargic Manly that succumbed 22-4 to Penrith last week. Usually reliable in defence, the Sea Eagles dropped off opposition runners like they had spiders on them and by the end of the 80 minutes had tallied an embarrassing 58 missed tackles.

The loss ended a four-game winning streak and relegated them to seventh on the ladder – just two competition points higher than the 10th-placed Dragons who snapped a three-game losing streak against Parramatta at Kogarah last week. However the Red V were far from convincing in the 14-12 win, with the lack of quality to their play doing little to quash the concerns of their fans that have grown over the past month. In particular, their once-feared attack now even has trouble getting to double figures some weeks – things have gotten so bad they are averaging the equal-fewest points in the comp and the fewest in club history (15.2 per game).

They’ll fancy a turnaround this week though: the Dragons have won their past four clashes with the Sea Eagles, averaging 25 points a match while conceding just five points on average.

It’s an important two competition points for both sides, as each rests up with the bye next week.

Steve Matai’s suspension has forced a reshuffle in the Manly backline: Michael Oldfield returns on the wing, with Dean Whare pushed into the centres. Importantly, Kieran Foran will resume his stop-start season at five-eighth, replacing older brother Liam (who missed a whopping 11 tackles against the Panthers last week).

In a huge boost, co-captain Jason King makes a welcome return at prop, with George Rose hitting the pine.

Meanwhile the Dragons have tweaked their starting pack: Origin powerhouse Trent Merrin will run on at prop, with Jeremy Latimore benched, and Dean Young will start at lock for Jack De Belin who will play off the interchange. They’ve named a six-man bench, with utility Nathan Fien returning from injury to take his place alongside other new faces Leeson Ah Mau and Chase Stanley.  

The Dragons will be hopeful ‘lucky charm’ Beau Scott can maintain his wonderful record against the Sea Eagles – he hasn’t lost to them since 2008.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Mitch Rein cut the Sea Eagles wide open back in Round 4; it was his pass that sent Michael Weyman through a gap and over for the first try. Since then Rein has built a reputation as the most elusive runner from dummy-half, leading all-comers with five breaks from the ruck. Manly also need to be careful of both Rein and Dean Young when they slip into dummy-half from close range – the Dragons have crossed for the most tries from dummy-half (six).

Brett Morris will use this game to press his claims for the NSW team for Origin II up against incumbent Brett Stewart – last meeting with the Sea Eagles he was unstoppable, making 18 runs for 206 metres, with seven tackle-breaks and two line-breaks. He continues to be the sole shining light in an otherwise drab Dragons backline – he made 234 metres against the Eels last week.

Manly team members who need to steel themselves in defence after weak displays against Penrith last week include Matt Ballin and Glenn Stewart (six each) and George Rose (five). Expect Trent Merrin and Ben Creagh to test their resolve on the right edge.

Brett Stewart, Michael Oldfield and Jorge Taufua need to be ready for the high ball – the Dragons have gone to the air 42 times so far (second most bombs). Grubbers will be a factor too – they scored twice from grubbers in their Round 4 defeat of the premiers.

Danger Sign: Prop Trent Merrin will present a huge danger offloading after being held at the defensive line. The Blues representative averages 140 metres from 17 hit-ups a game and has made 21 offloads so far.

Watch Out Dragons: The Sea Eagles will be heading for the right corner all night – Manly have scored 12 tries on the right flank so far, a number bettered only by the Cowboys, with David Williams crossing there in Round 4. They love to attack the short right side, too, with 62 raids to date (third most in the NRL). Jamie Lyon, the Stewart brothers and Michael Oldfield, who scored against the Roosters off a superb Lyon pass in Round 11, are the men to watch.

When Manly aren’t targeting the right corner post they’ll also fancy their chances on the left side of the field – the Dragons have conceded 16 tries there.

Daly Cherry-Evans, hoping to press for the Maroons’ bench when the side is announced next Monday, will be hard to contain. He has 44 tackle busts and nine try assists so far. Expect him to run to the line often and link with the likes of Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart.

Also, Cherry-Evans needs to be pressured when kicking – he leads the NRL for 40/20s (with two).

Brett Stewart has just three tries in nine games to date – but Brookvale is a happy hunting ground for the No.1. Look for him to receive the final pass out wide or slice through on an inside line inside the Dragons’ 20.

Danger Sign: Any time Manly gets within a few metres of the Dragons’ line with a couple of tackles up their sleeve. The Red V marker defence on their goal-line has been terrible so far – they’ve leaked six tries from dummy-half, the most by any team. Matt Ballin, Jamie Buhrer and even Jamie Lyon will be the threats.

Jamie Lyon v Matt Cooper: A head-to-head battle between two experienced stars who arguably would have been the first centres picked for NSW in Origin Game One had they not retired from the representative scene. Manly co-captain Lyon’s combination with his outside men has resulted in six try assists on the right side of the field (the most by any centre) and six line-break assists, with Lyon himself crossing for three tries. He’s a tough player to beat, too, averaging 18 tackles a match. Meanwhile veteran Cooper is still growing into season 2012; he led all centres for line-breaks last year (19) and scored 14 tries. He has three tries so far from just seven games and ran 15 times last week against the Eels. Cooper loves to work a short side on the left edge and will chance his hand from dummy-half. He too is a dogged defender, making 20 tackles a game.  

Where It Will Be Won: Little separates these sides in completions and errors, so whichever team shows the greater respect for the football will gain a huge advantage. The Sea Eagles are making 10.9 errors each match, only slightly better than the Dragons’ 11.5. They also have a narrow edge in completions (75 per cent to 72.6 per cent). In particular the Dragons’ outside backs will need to improve their handling this week – they contributed nine of the team’s 14 errors against the Eels last week.   

The History: Played 19; Dragons 14, Sea Eagles 5. The Red V have built an imposing record over the past dozen years, including winning eight of the past 11 clashes. The ledger at Brookvale stands at four games apiece.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons looked crisp when disposing of the premiers 17-6 at WIN Jubilee Oval in Round 4 this season.

A high-quality opening 40 minutes saw both teams complete 85 per cent of their sets of possession but it was the Dragons who seized the advantage, scoring two tries off the back of three unanswered line-breaks to take a 12-nil lead to halftime. Michael Weyman was the first to trouble the scoreboard attendant in the 4th minute, charging onto a Mitch Rein pass to gallop 30 metres and touch down. Jason Nightingale added to the Dragons’ tally when he cleaned up a Kyle Stanley grubber down the right edge in the 36th minute.

David Williams got the visitors back into the contest with a try in the 45th minute before Jason Nightingale crossed for his second try of the evening in the 76th minute. A Jamie Soward field-goal with 90 seconds remaining rounded out the scoring.

Defence and discipline were the standout features of the Dragons’ victory – they missed just 15 tackles and committed only six errors. Meanwhile the Sea Eagles missed 35 tackles on the night.

Michael Weyman, Mitch Rein (line-break, try assist) and Brett Morris (two line-breaks) were the standouts for the home side, while Manly were best served by second-rower Jamie Buhrer who made 19 hit-ups for 120 metres plus 42 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: The Sea Eagles are more likely to bounce back from their insipid effort last week than the Dragons are of finding a magical cure for their woeful attack. In front of a vocal, capacity crowd it has to be Manly… by 10 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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