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VATUVEI v UATE… Mt Smart Stadium will play host to one of the great wing battles tomorrow night when Warriors giant Manu Vatuvei lines up against Newcastle’s electrifying speedster Akuila Uate. The pair have become good friends in recent years but Vatuvei said there would be no time for pleasantries this week in a game that is crucial for both sides’ finals hopes.

“Off the field we’re great mates but on the field we have to play the best for our teams so I’m looking forward to testing myself against him,” Vatuvei said.

“We know what he is capable of on the day. That’s something we need to focus on – shutting him down real early rather than letting him get the space that he wants. He is very dangerous as he showed against Manly.

“If he gets that space he is really dangerous because his speed and his footwork – you never know what he is going to do. We just have to present a straight line and make sure we shut him down.”

Vatuvei has struggled to capture his own best form this season, having endured a tough run with injury, but said he was keen to improve in the run home to the finals.

“This whole year I’ve been on and off, I know that myself, so I just want to be more consistent for the last few games and hopefully get into the top eight. I’d love the chance to make the grand final again. But that’s a week-by-week thing and we’ve got the Knights this week to worry about first.”

PANTHERS LOVE ‘SHACK’… One man unfazed by all the recent dramas at Penrith is forward Shane Shackleton, who has bucked the trend of departing players by joining the club from Parramatta three weeks ago on a mid-season transfer.

Despite rumours of player discontent and the shock loss of veteran lock Luke Lewis, Shackleton told that he has seen no signs of the mass upheaval currently taking place out west since arriving in late June.

“That’s the funny thing – since I’ve been here it’s been unreal,” he said. “I haven’t noticed that so much has been going on. You hear about everything that has been happening but I’ve just enjoyed my time here thoroughly.

“The players haven’t even mentioned any of it. I suppose it comes up because I’m sure the players talk about what’s happening but concentration hasn’t been taken away from training or anything like that.”

Ironically, Shackleton’s departure from Parramatta came just weeks before the sacking of coach Stephen Kearney, with whom the 30-year-old had a public falling out after criticising Kearney on Twitter earlier in the year.

Despite the Eels’ on-field woes, Shackleton played just one game this season before being dropped back to feeder club Wentworthville; however he insists he has no regrets.

“You never have regrets, it’s just a matter of these things happening,” he said. “A lot of players have gone through what I’ve gone through this year. It’s just one of those things – you just have to put your head down and keep working otherwise you may as well hang the boots up.

“I mean, I was pretty much resigned to just playing the year out [for Wentworthville] but when the opportunity came up here… I was able to head somewhere where I was a chance of playing [first grade] and I didn’t think I had that at Parra.”

Shackleton is only contracted to Penrith until the end of the season but said he was hopeful of signing a new deal in the coming weeks.

“Initially they just wanted to have a look at me so I think I need to prove myself first,” he said. “But I’d love to be a part of the future here. At the moment I’m just going week by week and I want to do a good job for the club. They’ve put a bit of faith in me and given me a shot so I feel like I owe them. I want to put my head down and do a job for them.”

MANNAH OPENS UP… Parramatta prop Tim Mannah has described 2012 as the toughest year of his life after missing State of Origin selection, enduring a horror year with the Eels and, worst of all, seeing his brother Jon suffer a relapse in his battle with cancer.

We caught up with the 24-year-old just hours before news broke of coach Stephen Kearney’s sacking yesterday, with the man expected to take over from Nathan Hindmarsh as captain next season opening up about all he has been through over the past few months.

“It’s been pretty tough but I think it has also toughened me up,” he said. “You have days where you question how you’re travelling but I think that mentally, when you go through this, you appreciate the better times more.”

Asked about Parramatta’s struggles this season, Mannah said: “As an athlete you grow up competitive and hungry for results. You want to play in successful sides. When you go through years like this year it can be pretty frustrating but at the same time we’re learning a lot of lessons through this hard time that I guess you’ve got to go through. We’ll be a lot better players for it.”

On his Origin omission: “It does hurt as a plater to have to watch and not be a part of but at the same time ‘Sticky’ [NSW coach Ricky Stuart] has created a culture regardless of who was picked.

“He spoke to me before game one and reassured me that I was in the mix and in contention which was good to hear. It’s not easy when you’re losing by 40 points every week. That makes it hard to stand out as an individual. Obviously it was a tough series to watch but it gives me motivation to work hard on my individual game to get back in there next year.”

Mannah’s brother Jon was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while at Cronulla in 2009 but having beaten his cancer the first time, returned home to Parramatta this season hoping to get his career back on track.

Instead, the cancer returned, with Jon still undergoing treatment (he had another bout of chemotherapy yesterday) and set to find out whether it has again been successful in about a month’s time.

“Jonny makes it a lot easier for everyone around him with the way he conducts himself but it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Mannah explained. “After the first time he was in the clear and it was all good but to get the news this time was harder. In saying that, he is very supportive and is always around at training. He is a good person to be around and I’m grateful that he is.

“I’ve tried not to let it get to me too much. As NRL players your job is to get the job done. I think every player has things going on in their lives that can distract them, it’s just a matter of not making excuses and getting on with the job.”

While Mannah is likely to be the man charged with turning the Eels’ fortunes around in 2013, he said he was trying not to get too far ahead of himself.

“That’s the last thing on my mind at the moment with the situation we’re in,” he said. “We’re trying to dig ourselves out of a dark hole.

“My first and foremost goal is to improve my performances as an individual and try and help the team. We’ve still got seven games, so we want to do our best for Hindy and make sure he enjoys the last few games of what has been an amazing career.”

With much of the focus this week on Des Hasler’s return to Brookvale tonight and the irresistible form of the Bulldogs, it’s interesting to note that Hasler is yet to win a minor premiership after his eight years as coach of the Sea Eagles.

Of course, two premierships more than makes up for that but no doubt he is keen for this current Canterbury side to deliver him the JJ Giltinan Shield in 2012.

Hasler’s Manly outfit finished the regular season second behind Melbourne on three separate occasions in 2007, 2008 and 2011 – winning the comp in ’08 and ’11.

PARKER EYES 300… Could Corey Parker be the man that one day surpasses Darren Lockyer as rugby league’s most-capped premiership player? Parker reaches another career milestone when he plays his 250th NRL game against the Gold Coast tonight but at 30 years of age he has no plans to start winding his career down any time soon.

“I’ve always said as long as I play competitive football and still have that desire I’ll play for as long as I’m allowed to,” he said. I’m only 30 now, so the 300 is well within reach. I guess we’ll just wait and see how it all pans out.”

When we pointed out to Parker that he was 105 games behind Lockyer’s record of 355, which he could potentially reach in another four seasons, he replied “Mate, Locky has every record in the book. I don’t think anyone will catch him… but we’ll see how we go.”

It seems hard to believe now given that he is one of the game’s premier back-rowers – but Parker actually played in the front row when he debuted for Brisbane against the Warriors way back in 2001.

“It was always a dream of mine to play for the Broncos and I was given an opportunity against an enormous New Zealand pack at the time,” he recalled. “They had guys like Ali Lauiti’iti, Awen Guttenbeil and Jerry Seuseu, so they were enormous. I was just a 19-year-old front-rower and I must admit it was pretty daunting over there. We lost the game 13-12 but it is just one of those memories I’ll always cherish.”

Parker said the game had changed considerably during his time but admitted he was proud of his ability to adapt over the years.

“When I was 16 or 17 I was playing lock and when I came to the Broncos I ended up playing in tight there in the front row position,” he said. “Back then the game was a much bigger man’s game, so I was up to as heavy as 108 kilograms at one stage, then when the game started to get more mobile and a fitter man’s game I adapted with the game and I got down to as lean as 97. I think when we won the comp in 2006 I was around 97 or 98 kilograms. The weight I’m at now (102) is enough to accommodate what I need to do.

Asked if the career had gone quickly to this point, Parker said: “It has and it hasn’t. Sometimes you look back and think ‘where did the time go?’ and some mornings you wake up after a game thinking ‘gee whiz’. But I wouldn’t change it for the world – 250 games… that’s a massive achievement.”

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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