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South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles
Bluetongue Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Can the red-and-green juggernaut maintain momentum and dent Manly’s hopes of a crucial top-four berth; or will the defending premiers halt the souped-up bunnies’ six-match winning streak and scupper their minor premiership dream?

The permutations for both teams guarantee this second-versus-fourth clash up the F3 in Gosford match-of-the-round status. Victory for Souths would see them remain within two competition points of the Bulldogs in the race for the JJ Giltinan Shield; defeat for Manly could see them drop to seventh depending on other results. On the flipside, victory would see the maroon-and-whites at worst tread water in fourth position on the NRL ladder, while defeat for Souths could bump them to third rung.

Souths entered territory not charted since 1994 when accounting for the Titans 22-18 to make it six wins in a row last Sunday. They received a scare at the back end when conceding two tries in the final eight minutes but coach Michael Maguire would have been pleased indeed with their discipline with the ball in hand (just seven errors) and their application in defence (only 25 missed tackles).

Meanwhile Manly escaped with the verdict against the Cowboys in Townsville last week after an extremely tight tussle that yielded just 14 points overall. The Sea Eagles prevailed despite an 8-4 hammering in the penalty count and the fact team members missed a combined 57 tackles – surely a worry for coach Geoff Toovey the deeper the season goes.

It’s good news for Souths this week with the returns of influential hooker Issac Luke after his three-game suspension and also prop Roy Asotasi who has been off the scene since their Round 6 win over the Bulldogs. (Banned Greg Inglis has just this game to serve on the sidelines before he is back on deck next week.)

Coach Maguire has named both Luke and Asotasi on an extended bench in an otherwise unchanged line-up to the squad that took down the Titans last Sunday.

Meanwhile Manly receive a boost with the return of co-captain Jason King, who will start up front for the suspended Darcy Lussick. Also, centre Steve Matai has been named to take his place although his involvement remains clouded given the ankle ligaments injury he sustained in the win over the Cowboys. (If Matai is ruled out expect Dean Whare to fill in at left centre.)

Playing at Bluetongue Stadium won’t hold any fears for either team – Manly have won seven of nine matches there, while Souths have been victorious in each of their past three games in Gosford.  Also, Souths boast a win in the only clash between the sides at Bluetongue.

Watch Out Rabbitohs: Those Stewart boys sure love to run out against Souths! Fullback Brett will look to devastate a favourite foe yet again – he has scored 17 tries from just 13 appearances against Souths, leaving him the seventh-most-prolific try-scorer in league history against the foundation club. Meanwhile brother Glenn was a headache for the bunnies when they last met (see below) making five offloads, 24 runs and 160 metres on the right edge.

Kieran Foran could be ready to explode after showing signs he’s warming back to his best with a dominant effort last week, including the Sea Eagles’ only try when taking on the line from close range. Foran scored twice against Souths when they last met and coach Toovey will be encouraging more involvement, particularly with halves partner Daly Cherry-Evans, with the semi-finals just around the corner.

Left-side winger Jorge Taufua has been a revelation this year – the rookie has punched out 12 line-breaks in just 16 appearances and leads his team-mates for the most territory in the squad (135 metres per game). He will prove a handful for opposite number Andrew Everingham.  

Danger Sign: If Anthony Watmough runs onto the field with energy and aggression you’ll know he’s switched on and that Souths’ forwards are in for a mighty battle up front. Watmough bounced around like a pinball the last time they met, making eight tackle busts and powering through 168 metres up the centre of the field.  

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly must try to limit the amount of time Souths have in the red zone (10 metres out) – that’s because the bunnies lead the league for tries from dummy-half (12) and also in tries scored from offloads (10).

Sam Burgess is a powder keg ready to explode this weekend – with the Sea Eagles one of the more aggressive packs in the NRL big Sam will no doubt see it as his duty to ‘soften up’ the maroon-and-whites in the centre of the field. He’ll do this with a mixture of forceful hits and massive shoulder charges. He’ll be a threat with the ball in hand too – he ranks second for offloads in the Souths jersey (26).

No question Souths’ halves will look to create some opportunities for Andrew Everingham out wide to the right. The rookie nabbed a crucial intercept try last Sunday to take his season tally to 14 and he is now on the verge of joining a select band of Rabbitohs (Len Brennan, Terry Fahey and Arthur McCabe) who scored at least 15 tries in their debut seasons.

Either Steve Matai or his replacement Dean Whare will have their hands full trying to contain Dave Taylor on Souths’ right edge. The ‘Coal Train’ is in scintillating form both as a ball-runner (14 line-breaks, 121 metres per game) and provider (eight line-break assists, 26 offloads).

Danger Sign: You can excuse Adam Reynolds and John Sutton if they resort to the boot a little more often than usual this week – that’s because they’ll be looking to test out the Sea Eagles’ shaky confidence negating attacking kicks. Manly have surrendered more tries to kicks than any side this year (25… and rising). Cross-field bombs are their weakness – they defuse them with just a 43 per cent success rate, the second worst return in the NRL.      

Adam Reynolds v Daly-Cherry-Evans: The king is dead… long live the king! This clash between last year’s rookie of the year Cherry-Evans and his heir apparent Reynolds is bound to get the fans on their feet. Reynolds is most dangerous when Souths get within striking distance of the opposition try-line – he has 12 try assists but curiously has not contributed a single line-break assist, suggesting he is content to spread the ball wide and bide his time until the side manoeuvres into close range. Meanwhile terrier-like Cherry-Evans is a sublime ball runner – he leads all halfbacks for tackle busts (with 79) while his skilful belated offloads can hurt any defence that fails to wrap him up in numbers.

Where It Will Be Won: Both sides’ backlines should deliver a feast of attacking football – their last meeting yielded 12 line-breaks, all coming from backs with Kieran Foran and Greg Inglis each bagging two. The key will be limiting the inroads made by the opposition and if the stats are any barometer the Rabbitohs have the advantage. Manly rank fourth best at restricting opposition line-breaks (3.8 per game) with the Rabbitohs close behind with four conceded per game – however Manly rank third worst for missed tackles (36) while Souths are third best (27.9). That’s quite a gulf.

The History: Played 127; Sea Eagles 70, Rabbitohs 57. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides; however the Rabbitohs grabbed the competition points in the only clash played at Bluetongue Stadium, winning 32-20 in the first of two meetings last year.

The Last Time They Met: Manly defeated South Sydney 36-22 in a thrilling encounter before a packed house at Brookvale Oval in Round 18 last year.

The home team outscored the visitors three tries to two in the first 40 minutes to take a 16-8 lead to the break before Souths stunned the Brookvale faithful into silence with two converted tries and a penalty goal inside the opening nine minutes of the second half for a 22-16 advantage.

Kieran Foran swung the game for the Sea Eagles when he crashed over for identical tries from close range on the left edge in the 58th and 62nd minutes to snatch back a 24-22 lead, before Michael Robertson made it a converted try the difference, crossing in the 71st minute after a break down the left edge from centre Michael Oldfield.

Jamie Lyon booted a penalty goal for an eight-point buffer with three minutes remaining before David Williams scored on the stroke of fulltime following through speculative grubber kicks from first Brett Stewart and then Daly Cherry-Evans.

It was a polished display from the Sea Eagles who kept the pressure up to their opponents with 32 of 37 sets completed and a low seven errors on the afternoon.

Both sides displayed skilful offloads (Manly 15, Souths 12) which contributed to the 12 line-breaks made (Manly eight, Souths four).

Manly second-rower Anthony Watmough and lock Glenn Stewart were damaging contributors, making a combined 44 runs and 328 metres as well as 12 tackle-breaks and 59 tackles.

Souths were best served by hooker Issac Luke who ran 17 times and made nine tackle-breaks.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Steve Carrall; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: This has all the makings of the clash of the season. The quality and volume of the head-to-head match-ups is astounding: Sutton v Foran… Taylor v Tony Williams… Crocker v  Glenn Stewart… Merritt v Brett Stewart… and of course Reynolds v Cherry-Evans. It’s impossible to predict with certainty who will come out on top but we have a gut feeling the Sea Eagles are ready to make their run. Manly by eight points in a high-scoring affair.  

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

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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