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Newcastle Knights v Manly Sea Eagles
Hunter Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

The desperate Knights require a morale-boosting victory over the premiers so as to avoid slumping to ‘do-or-die’ status in their quest for a berth in the top eight.

Last Sunday’s 34-14 pummelling by the Rabbitohs leaves Newcastle mired in 16th place on the ladder, needing to win a minimum six – but more likely seven – of their remaining eight games to sneak into the playoffs.

Meanwhile Manly will be out to show they are more than just one-half wonders after they blitzed the Eels to lead 34-nil at halftime last Sunday before putting their cues in the rack and allowing their opponent to outscore them 24-6 in the second half. 

Certainly the players’ ears will still be ringing from the blast they copped from coach Geoff Toovey and a more dedicated 80 minutes is on the cards here.

Manly sit in fifth place and can climb as high as third with victory – while a loss could tumble them to seventh position. Worryingly the trip up the F3 hasn’t been kind to them in recent years – they’ve won just two of their past 10 games in Newcastle.

Wayne Bennett has made just a couple of changes to his line-up this week, elevating Zeb Taia to the stat at prop in his 100th NRL game, with Zane Tetavano benched. Also, Marvin Filipo joins the interchange, replacing brave Kyle O’Donnell who was rattled senseless by a Sam Burgess hit last week.

Meanwhile Brett Stewart’s unavailability due to a hamstring strain sees Dean Whare promoted to start at fullback, while brother Glenn, a late withdrawal last week, is expected makes his return at lock (fitness permitting), pushing Daniel Harrison to an extended interchange.

Meanwhile Geoff Toovey becomes Wayne Bennett’s 91st coaching opponent in the super-mentor’s 650th game in charge at first grade level. (Bennett came out on top when coaching against Toovey as a player, winning 11 times from 19 games.)

Watch Out Knights: Manly are among the best at maximising attacking kicks in 2012, co-leading the way with 18 tries from kicks so far. Daly Cherry-Evans grubber-kicked for Jamie Lyon to score last time these teams met and it’s likely that ploy will be used again here. 

Cherry-Evans is Manly’s good luck charm when they mount long-range raids – the halfback leads the competition in scoring tries that originated within the Sea Eagles’ half (five so far). He’s the support player the cover defence needs to monitor whenever the visitors break free.  

History shows that if Manly wins, it will be the members of the backline who reap the spoils. No Manly prop has ever scored at Hunter Stadium, while just one hooker has bagged a try. Further, just one try has been scored by a maroon-and-white second-rower at the venue in the past 20 years. That leaves lock Glenn Stewart as the only likely Manly forward to trouble the scoreboard attendant – which is exactly what he did back in Round 19 last year. 

Danger Sign: If Manly concentrate their attacking moves and kicks one man in from either sideline it’s because coach Toovey has noted Newcastle are among the weakest teams defending through the centres. The Knights have leaked 15 tries 10 metres in from both the left and right corner posts. That’s music to the ears of centres Steve Matai and Jamie Lyon – Lyon scored a double last time they met, while Matai also crossed. Each player has six tries to date in 2012 but chances are at least one player will add to that tally here.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Akuila Uate, still smarting at being dropped from the NSW Origin team, will be out to replicate his involvement the last time these sides met when he made a game-high 17 runs for 166 metres. Despite the Knights’ lowly position Uate ranks second for line-breaks (14) and eighth on the NRL tryscorer’s list (with 10) – and he bagged a double against the Rabbitohs last week. He’s also the second-toughest winger to halt, making 53 tackle busts to date. Expect plenty from the Fijian, who is bound to test out any uncertainty at the back and on the edges with Brett Stewart sidelined. 

Newcastle have hoisted the second-fewest cross-field bombs to date (just 30 all up) but expect plenty to rain down on the fringes on Saturday – that’s because Manly’s wingers are displaying massive fumble fingers attempting to negate these attacking kicks. They have defused cross-field bombs at a woeful 40 per cent rate.

Expect the Knights to keep hitting the short left side – they’ve done so the fourth-most times by any team so far (108). Jarrod Mullen, Darius Boyd and James McManus will be the key players who put plenty of pressure on Jamie Lyon, Glenn Stewart and David Williams.

Danger Sign: Darius Boyd on the fly chiming in down the left edge inside the Manly red zone. He still hasn’t scored a try in 2012 but you’ll get short odds about him ending the season on a duck egg. He was super-involved against the Rabbitohs, making 18 purposeful runs for 165 metres. We think this could be the week!  

Dane Gagai v Steve Matai: How Gagai handles Matai, and vice versa, could be the key to victory. Gagai has proved an instant hit since switching from the Broncos; in four games he’s scored two tries, made two line-breaks and added three try assists and line-break assists. But his defence has been a little shaky – he’s missing 2.5 tackles a game, which will be an invitation to fleet-footed Matai to test him out. Matai has made eight line-breaks in 11 games and crossed for six tries – but he too is suspect in defence, missing 3.5 tackles a game, the second most by any centre. Whoever gets the better in this head-to-head battle will earn plenty of back slaps team-mates.  

Where It Will Be Won: Dedication in defence. Flashy attack will amount to nothing if it’s not countered with steely defence, and both of these sides are guilty of dropping off more than their fair share of tackles to date. Manly are averaging the third-most missed tackles each week (34.1) while the Knights are fifth worst (33.5). Whichever team makes a statement throughout the 80 minutes will increase their chances of victory.   

The History: Played 40; Sea Eagles 24, Knights 16. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes, although the Knights hold an 11-8 advantage in games played between the two sides at Hunter Stadium – including winning eight of the past 10.

The Last Time They Met: The Sea Eagles thumped the Knights 32-10 at Hunter Stadium in Round 19 last season. 

The writing was on the wall for the home side with just 52 seconds gone when Manly co-captain Jamie Lyon finished off a length-of-the-field raid to score. Three more tries – including Lyon’s second off a deft Daly Cherry-Evans grubber into the in-goal on the stroke of halftime – saw the visitors rocket to a commanding 22-nil lead at the break.

Newcastle finally got on the scoreboard in the 61st minute when left winger James McManus crossed for the first of his two tries, but four-pointers to Steve Matai (68th minute) and Brett Stewart (71st minute) had the local fans heading for the exit gates early. McManus’ second try at the death added a modicum of respectability to an otherwise horrible afternoon.

However, Newcastle coach Rick Stone must have been scratching his head at fulltime given the stats that showed his team actually dominated most of the key categories: the Knights made 150 more metres, two fewer errors, a whopping nine more offloads and missed nine fewer tackles. But they had no answer to the Sea Eagles’ powerful running game, with the soon-to-be-premiers making five line-breaks to the home side’s one.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Phil Cooley. 

The Way We See It: If Newcastle turn up with menace and purpose they can ride the wave of what’s certain to be some massive crowd support and unsettle the premiers. There are some worrying chinks starting to appear in Manly’s defensive structures and attitude that if not repaired will seriously hamper them in the run home. We’re not discounting an upset but if Manly put together a complete 80 minutes they should be too strong. Sea Eagles by four points. 

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm. 

Statistics: NRL Stats

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