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Manly Sea Eagles v Warriors
Patersons Stadium, Perth
Saturday 5.30pm (local)

What a difference a year makes: last year’s grand finalists – each coming off the back of worrying two-match losing streaks – lock horns in Perth with the loser either fading from the top-four frame or else falling into do-or-die territory in the battle for a berth in this year’s rapidly approaching finals series. 

The Sea Eagles have spent the week licking their wounds after having their wings clipped 20-12 by the Bulldogs in an enthralling, Origin-intensity encounter at their Brookvale base last Friday night. Meanwhile the Warriors have indulged in some soul-searching following their capitulation to the Knights in Auckland last Saturday after they led the Novocastrians by 18 points before folding to lose 24-19. 

Manly enter the clash in outright seventh position just two competition points ahead of the Wests Tigers and two wins ahead of a raft of five teams – including the Warriors – who are struggling to keep their heads above water with six games remaining.

While Manly have some breathing space in the overall finals picture, needing to win just three of their final games to guarantee a spot in the top eight, they probably need to win at least four to push for the elite top four. 

Meanwhile the Warriors need a minimum four wins from their remaining six just to figure past Round 26. In their favour is the fact they are the highest-ranked of the teams outside the playoffs zone.

This match triggers a horror fortnight for the premiers who will rack up oodles of frequent flyer points – no sooner do they hit the ground from the 7,000-kilometre round trip to Perth than they’ll be back in the air headed for Townsville to take on the Cowboys in Round 22. (Mind you, the Warriors will spend eight hours in the air just to get to Perth… could jetlag be an issue for them?)

Manly coach Geoff Toovey has named an unchanged 17 this week, adding Vic Mauro and Daniel Harrison to form an extended interchange of six players at this stage.

It’s a massive occasion for ‘The Beast’ Manu Vatuvei who returns to take control of the Warriors following Simon Mannering’s ankle injury. Mannering’s unavailability sees Ben Henry shift from centre to second row, with Lewis Brown named to partner Konrad Hurrell in the three-quarters.  

It’s also a huge game for Manly co-captain Jamie Lyon who is poised to make his 200th NRL appearance (70 for Parramatta, 129 for Manly).

Watch Out Sea Eagles: ‘Special K’ is back! Steve Matai will have his work cut containing rookie sensation Konrad Hurrell who has scored 12 tries and punctured 12 line-breaks in 13 games. The 20-year-old averages more than five tackle busts a game – meanwhile Matai has missed the third-most tackles by any centre.

Halfback Shaun Johnson created plenty of headaches for Manly last time they met; he was involved in all of the Warriors’ tries, creating three and scoring the other. This season both he and five-eighth James Maloney have recorded 30 try assists, trailing only Melbourne’s Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop for most by any halves pairing in the league.

While Manly hooker Matt Ballin is used to a huge workload in defence (806 tackles, most by any player), if the Warriors work him over early it could leave the No.9 fatigued and present opportunities on the fringes of the ruck. Ballin has missed three tackles a game so far, the second most by a hooker.

Danger Sign: Manly’s defenders need to get to Feleti Mateo in numbers to stop his sneaky offloads to supports. Mateo leads the league for offloads (38); they’ve helped him make 14 line-break assists – the most by any forward – as well as eight try assists. The Sea Eagles need to wrap up Mateo before he raises and frees his ball-carrying arm. Or else. 

Watch Out Warriors: The Kiwis will still be having nightmares about Tony Williams aiming up at them back in Round 1. ‘T-Rex’ made 18 hit-ups and pounded out 152 metres with 11 tackle busts and a try – Shaun Johnson in particular will be having night sweats in the lead-up given he’s averaging almost four missed tackles per game. He will be a prime target as Williams winds up.

Jamie Lyon will be out to leave his stamp in his 130th game for the maroon and white since joining the club in 2007. Lyon remains the sixth-most prolific scorer in club history (712 points) and combining his time at Parramatta has amassed 88 try assists, 87 tries and 83 line-breaks for 130 victories in his 199 career games. He’ll be optimistic about his chances of adding to those numbers given the Warriors have leaked 34 tries through their left-edge defence (third most by any side). 

Danger Sign: The Warriors need to show some urgency in regrouping any time they turn over the football given they’ve conceded the most tries from turnovers this year. Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran will be quick to counter-attack.

Kieran Foran v James Maloney: If Manly are to go back to back they need Kieran Foran to create more opportunities in the No.6 – and we’re expecting him to up the pace from here to the finals. Against the Bulldogs Foran was more involved than he has been in ages, running the ball nine times for 102 metres, making a line-break and promoting second phase on a couple of  occasions. Look for him to seek out Steve Matai and Jamie Buhrer with short balls on the left edge. Meanwhile Maloney has found open space more than any pivot (11 line busts) and ranks second for try assists in his position (13).    

Where It Will Be Won: Holding out the opposition’s flashy attack. Both teams have disappointed with their defence in 2012, ranking equal second worst for missed tackles (35 per game). 

Also, defending attacking kicks will be crucial – Manly are having huge problems reading and defusing kicks, having conceded a whopping 23 tries off the boot (four more than the next-worst sides). The Warriors have let in 14 tries from kicks.

The History: Played 22; Sea Eagles 15, Warriors 7. Manly certainly have the wood over the Warriors, winning seven of the past eight clashes. They’ve also won eight of the past nine ‘home’ games played away from Brookvale Oval.

The Last Time They Met: In a rematch of the 2011 NRL decider, Manly defeated the Warriors 26-20 at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 1.

The premiers looked like they’d get the job done easily when they raced to a 16-nil lead inside 22 minutes courtesy of tries to David Williams, Daly Cherry-Evans and Steve Matai. However the home side struck back with rapid-fire tries to Manu Vatuvei (30th minute) and Shaun Johnson (34th minute), leaving Manly with a six-point buffer at the halftime break. 

The maroon and white surged ahead just three minutes after the resumption of play when Tony Williams crossed from close range off an inside pass from dummy-half, before Kevin Locke added to the Warriors’ tally cleaning up a cross-field bomb on the half hour. 

Vatuvei made it a 22-20 scoreline with 12 minutes remaining when he crossed for his second try, capturing Shaun Johnson’s long cut-out pass that took a deflection off a desperate intercept attempt from David Williams. The try came immediately after Manly was reduced to 12 men following hooker Matt Ballin’s sin-binning for a second-effort tackle on Lewis Brown after the man in possession had gotten to his feet 20 metres out following a long break.

Glenn Stewart was the final try-scorer, benefitting from Kevin Locke’s fumble of a Cherry-Evans grubber from close to the goal line to touch down eight minutes from the fulltime siren.
However, the victory came at a cost for the premiers, who lost Glenn Stewart to a broken thumb as well as Steve Matai to a broken wrist.

Both sides looked rusty in their first NRL hit-outs for 2012; each continually handed over possession, with the Warriors making 19 errors and Manly 15, while missed tackles were also a concern for the respective coaches (Warriors 44, Sea Eagles 37).

However, there were encouraging signs from Shaun Johnson, who contributed three try assists for the beaten side. 

Manly were best served by second-rower Tony Williams and co-captain Jamie Lyon, who gave the final pass for David Williams to score his first try, as well as adding 139 metres and a line-break. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Allan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Henry Perenara; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds. 

The Way We See It: Manly showed enough fight last week to suggest they have more purpose and resolve than the Warriors whose capitulation against the Knights has some serious alarm bells ringing across the ditch. Still, the Warriors won’t be pushovers here, with the squad likely to lift for popular team-mate Vatuvei. Plus their past five defeats have been by 10 points or less. However, Simon Mannering’s absence is a major blow to a side that struggles to defend consistently. Sea Eagles by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm. 

Statistics: NRL Stats

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