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Manly Warringah Sea Eagles v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Brookvale Oval
Friday 7.35pm

Manly coach Geoff Toovey’s joy at gaining bragging rights over former mentor Des Hasler back in Round 8 is a but a fading memory as the misfiring premiers bunker down for a crucial rematch with the table-topping Bulldogs on Friday night.

While Canterbury have proven to be the team on the rise in the Telstra Premiership since their 12-10 loss to the Sea Eagles, Manly have spluttered their way through the Origin period, mixing three defeats with three wins. Their surprise surrender to the Knights last week was an opportunity squandered – they now find themselves sitting seventh on the NRL ladder, the lowest of three sides on 24 competition points and with a posse of wannabe semi-finalists breathing down their necks.

Meanwhile Hasler’s Bulldogs are on a roll. Their 32-12 win over the Eels last week was their seventh in succession in a streak that has catapulted them alongside Melbourne at the top of the ladder on 28 competition points. However, with the Storm meeting the lowly Eels this week coach Hasler will have impressed the need for his charges to maintain their focus given the minor premiership – something he never managed to secure for Manly in his eight years on the northern beaches – is now so tantalisingly within reach.

Meanwhile a win could see the Sea Eagles rise as high as fourth place given other results, while a narrow loss would see them tread water in seventh (they have a 37-points differential advantage over the eighth-placed Wests Tigers who sit a win adrift).

Certainly it will be an evening to remember as Hasler returns to the ground he helped the Sea Eagles turn into a fortress, with the trek to the unfamiliar opposition coach’s booth sure to be accompanied by resounding boos from the Brookvale faithful.

In Manly team changes, Glenn Stewart is expected to resume from injury this week, although in a blow brother Brett remains on the injured list with Dean Whare slated to again start in the No.1. Glenn’s inclusion sees Daniel Harrison revert to bench that also includes Jamie Buhrer, who makes way for the return from injury of centre Steve Matai. 

Meanwhile huge relief for Des Hasler after Sam Kasiano beat his high tackle charge at the judiciary on Thursday night, freeing up the talented, hulking prop to take his place here. Hasler has made just the one forced change to his line-up, with David Stagg to start in the second row for the injured Dene Halatau. Martin Taupau and Josh Jackson are the new faces on the bench.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly fans have their fingers crossed that last week’s defeat was simply an aberration and are hoping their stars were guilty of daydreaming about this clash instead of focusing on getting the better of the Knights. Certainly their 41 missed tackles are a cause for concern going forward, given the strike-power of the Bulldogs who are scoring 4.2 tries each week (second most). More, they have scored an NRL-high 32 tries from line-breaks. They managed two last week – including a 99-metre pearler from Ben Barba.

Both fullbacks were the standout players for their teams last time they met, both scoring crucial tries – although Barba emerged with a narrow points decision in a beaten side. The freakishly talented speedster scored a stunning 60-metre solo try – leaving Brett Stewart clutching at thin air in the process as he dummied his way past Manly’s last line of defence. It was one of 15 runs that yielded him 200 metres on the night, along with eight tackle-breaks. It will be a test for Dean Whare to keep pace in their head-to-head battle.

Manly need to be alert in defence irrespective of the field position of their opponent: Canterbury have scored 35 tries from outside the opposition 20-metre line – with Manly yielding the sixth most to date (18).

Also, anyone who believes the foreign turf of Brookvale Oval will prevent the Bulldogs from troubling the scorer should think again – Canterbury have averaged 29.3 points at Brookvale over the past decade.

Danger Sign: Des Hasler knows Steve Matai, for all his aggression, can be suspect in defence so he’ll be directing plenty of traffic his way down the right corridor. Matai, who made a bad miss that led to a try last time these teams met, has fallen off more tackles than any other centre in the NRL (38).

Watch Out Bulldogs: Manly will target Ben Barba with a relentless long-kicking game, with the aim of shutting down his off-the-cuff involvement and also pressuring the superstar into making some mistakes. Manly have gained 11111 metres off the boot so far, just 64 metres shy of the biggest return achieved by the Storm.    

Kieran Foran has been way too quiet for far too long and is due to cut loose. Last season Foran was among the most creative and valuable playmakers in the NRL, providing 17 try assists, 13 line-break assists and scoring eight tries. He was a master at sending a team-mate over for a try, particularly off a short pass on the left edge. In his injury-interrupted 2012 season (10 games) he’s made just four try assists and is yet to cross the try-line. If Manly are to defend their title they need Foran to stand up right here, right now.  

Manly crafted their Round 8 victory over the ’Dogs around a prolific second-phase game. They made almost twice as many offloads as their opponents – yet 12 weeks later it’s the Bulldogs who lead the NRL for offloads (almost 13 each week). Meanwhile Manly are middle of the pack for offloads – although they made 21 in their loss to the Knights last week. Was it a rehearsal for this week?  

Danger Sign: Any time the ‘T-Rex’ Tony Williams gets the ball and is able to get up a full head of steam down the left edge – Canterbury have conceded 20 tries on that side of the field compared to 15 on the other side. Belmore-bound Williams has a great record against the ’Dogs (four wins from five games) and is undefeated at Brookvale in nine matches dating back to 2010.  

Jamie Lyon v Josh Morris: Manly co-captain Lyon is proving the most important cog in his side’s attack this season, with team-highs in try assists (13) and line-break assists (nine). His head-to-head battle with man-of-the-moment Morris will be one of the most enthralling of the year. Morris is flying – his try double last week saw him overtake Ashley Graham to head the NRL tryscorer’s list with 16. Morris has scored seven tries in his past four games and his 16 line-breaks are the second most in the comp behind team-mate Ben Barba’s 19. Plus, he’s scored in each of his past three matches at Brookvale – another try here and he becomes the first Bulldogs player in history to score in four successive games on the northern beaches. Chances are the winner of this personal battle will sing their team song after fulltime.   

Where It Will Be Won: The effect the crowd has on both teams. Should the Manly fans turn up with raucous, full voice they have the potential to be worth 10 points to the Sea Eagles. And how the Bulldogs soak up the atmosphere and silence the din will go a long way towards securing them the win.   

The History: Played 114; Sea Eagles 61, Bulldogs 48, drawn 5. Manly have won five of the past eight clashes, including the past three. They also hold the advantage at Brookvale, winning 33 of 51 games played there, with one draw.

The Last Time They Met: Manly edged out Canterbury 12-10 in a thrilling battle at ANZ Stadium back in Round 8.

It took Ben Barba just three minutes to make his mark, the fullback brushing aside some flimsy defence to race 60 metres down the right edge for a 4-nil Canterbury lead.

The camouflage jerseys the Sea Eagles wore to commemorate the Anzac weekend round seemed entirely fitting as the sides settled into a grinding war of attrition, with the only other points of the first half coming from a Jamie Lyon penalty goal on the stroke of halftime.

Just as Barba sparked the ’Dogs early in the first half, Manly fullback Brett Stewart returned fire for the visitors in the 43rd minute when he dummied his way through from 10 metres out, shrugging off a high, grabbing attempt at a tackle from Josh Reynolds to land Manly a 6-4 lead.

Another stand-off ensued before Steve Matai clinched the premiers some breathing space when he scored off a wonderful George Rose offload in the 75th minute for a 12-4 scoreline.

However, the Bulldogs refused to lie down, with Bryson Goodwin beating Jamie Lyon to a Kris Keating cross-field kick for a try that set up a dramatic last few minutes and not a few anxious moments for Manly coach Geoff Toovey and fans.

In the end, poor completions and a high error count hounded the Bulldogs’ performance – they managed just a 71 per cent success rate getting through their sets to Manly’s 84 per cent, and committed 13 errors to Manly’s eight.

Barba was a standout for the Bulldogs, while Manly prop George Rose made 15 hit-ups and 150 metres to go with his try assist in an involved 42 minutes on the field.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: We’re prepared to overlook the Sea Eagles’ lacklustre showing last week; we figure their minds were on this game. They are sure to be switched on – however the form of the Bulldogs cannot be overlooked and they deserve to be favourites. Bulldogs by one point in a classic.   

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

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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