Ironically Newcastle’s late bid for the semi-finals began a month ago when they walloped the seasiders 32-6 at Hunter Stadium in Round 19. The thrashing triggered a purple patch of form and commitment that’s seen them tally four wins and just the one loss since (and that was to competition heavyweights Canterbury). Their other scalps in that time frame have been the Warriors (24-19), Raiders (36-6) and Sharks, who they monstered 26-4 at home last Monday night. Their win over Cronulla was comprehensive: they dominated field position, gaining almost 300 metres more than their opponents, and missed just 25 tackles.
Consequently they sit tantalisingly close to forcing their way into the playoffs, sitting just one win adrift of the eighth-placed Wests Tigers (who play Canterbury this week) – but with a two-points-better differential than the gold and black.
Meanwhile Manly drew an abrupt line through South Sydney’s six-game winning streak with a tradesman-like 23-6 victory in Gosford last Friday night. The victory was achieved on the back of a massive improvement in their tackling: given Manly have had more than a few red flags in defence this year – their 31 misses per game are the fourth-most in the competition – coach Geoff Toovey would have been ecstatic with just 16 misses against the bunnies.
Manly kicked off their current three-win streak with a come-from-behind 24-22 victory over the Warriors (at the time finals candidates) then scraped home against the Cowboys 8-6 in a clinical display in Townsville. They sit in outright fourth spot on the ladder, just one win ahead of the Cowboys who would leapfrog them should they defeat the Dragons on Monday and Manly lose here. (The best scenario for the defending premiers would see them jump to third place should they rack up a decent winning margin against the Knights and Souths fall heavily to Cronulla on Saturday night.)
Manly have received a double boost this week with co-captain Jason King and centre Steve Matai both passed fit to return from injury. King’s inclusion pushes Joe Galuvao to the extended interchange, with Dean Whare joining him.
It will be a nervous drive down the F3 for the Newcastle boys with their season on the line – they’ve won just two of 12 games at ‘Fortress Brookvale’ and have not saluted there since 2006.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Jarrod Mullen’s energetic 80 minutes against the Sharks when he took on the line with purpose would have brought a huge smile to the face of Wayne Bennett. Mullen scored the opening try of the night, made a long break to set up right centre Dane Gagai, offered a kick try assist for Darius Boyd and the final pass for Akuila Uate’s second try. A one-game Origin player, Mullen has promised much in his nine-season career to date but it’s not harsh to suggest he’s fallen short of expectation. Recently though he’s shown a willingness to get involved and dominate games; he’ll be their guiding force if the Knights are to push through to the semi-finals. Watch for him to kick a little more than usual this week too, given the Sea Eagles have surrendered the most tries off the boot (26).
Akuila Uate exploded back to life with two tries the last time these teams met and he will relish another opportunity to assert superiority over emerging talent Jorge Taufua. Uate has crossed for 11 tries in his past eight games, including a double back in Round 19, and now boasts 17 four-pointers for the year, just two off leading try-scorer Ben Barba. The Fijian has crunched out an NRL-high 23 line-breaks as well. If Manly give him an inch, he’ll take a mile.
Tyrone Roberts should not be taken for granted – his explosive speed off the mark to score last meeting left the Manly defenders clutching at air. His cut-out passing game on the left edge will test out David Williams’ defensive reads too.
Danger Sign: Fullback Darius Boyd made his intentions clear against the Sharks with plenty of involvement from the opening whistle. It was a lovely Boyd pass to Tyrone Roberts that resulted in Jarrod Mullen crossing for the opening try of the night and he finished with a try and a line-break plus 167 metres in a scintillating 80 minutes. He will look to inject himself early again here so Manly will need to be alert from the get-go.
Watch Out Knights: Manly will pose a much bigger threat to the Knights this time around given Brett Stewart and Steve Matai missed the Round 19 clash. While Stewart’s try-scoring strike rate is a little down on previous years, with just seven tries in 15 games, he has been a solid provider for his backline with 11 try assists and 10 line-break assists. Meanwhile Matai will be keen to test out opposite Dane Gaia with his killer left-foot sidestep.
Kieran Foran will be dangerous on the left edge in particular after rocketing back to form over the past fortnight. The No.6 took on the line to score from a scrum against the Cowboys before dazzling the bunnies with a sublime try assist for Jorge Taufua last week, showing the ball inside and out before offloading. It’s clear he’s got his confidence back and is moving a lot more freely than he has in what’s been an injury-stunted season so far.
Daly Cherry-Evans will look to expose any half-hearted tackling attempts – he leads all No.7s for tackle busts with 81. He’ll be especially dangerous late in each half when the big Newcastle defenders tire.
Danger Sign: If Manly start to throw the ball around like a hot potato. Much of the Sea Eagles’ attack is based around second-phase play – they rank fourth in the comp for offloads. Meanwhile Newcastle are having massive problems shutting down second phase in 2012, leaking an NRL-high 13 offloads every game.
Jamie Lyon v Timana Tahu: A mouth-watering head-to-head clash between two players who boast among the best footwork and out-the-back attacking passes in rugby league. Lyon (with 15 try assists in 2012, the most by any centre) gave experienced opposite Matt King a bath when setting up his winger David Williams with a stuttering run and inside ball last week, while a trimmed-down Tahu has shown enough in his 19 games in the top grade this year (eight line-break assists, seven line-breaks and five tries) to confirm he still has what it takes to bamboozle under-committed fringe defences. Their ability to draw defenders to them and free up supports will be a highlight.
Where It Will Be Won: Making the tackles that count. Both sides have been patchy in defence in 2012; Manly rank fourth worst for missed tackles and even when the Knights defeated Sea Eagles five weeks ago they still missed 47 tackles! A fortnight ago Manly beat the Cowboys despite missing 57 tackles, but pulled that back to just 16 misses against Souths last week. Newcastle have stiffened recently too, averaging just 25 misses in their past three matches. Whichever side gets the job done defensively in the opening 30 minutes will hand their attacking stars a huge canvas to sprinkle their colour over.
The History: Played 41; Sea Eagles 24, Knights 17. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight clashes and boast a commanding 10-2 advantage in matches on the northern beaches.
The Last Time They Met: The Knights were shock 32-6 winners over the sluggish Sea Eagles at Hunter Stadium in Round 19.
Newcastle raced to a 10-nil lead at halftime courtesy of tries to Akuila Uate (6th minute) and Tyrone Roberts (37th minute) and returned with even more venom after the break, with James McManus and Dane Gagai crossing to propel the side to a blistering 22-nil advantage with 22 minutes remaining.
Manly prop Brent Kite prevented an embarrassing whitewash when he supported a Jamie Lyon bust to cross for a 22-6 scoreline in the 58th minute.
However, wingers McManus and Uate bagged their second tries of the night in rapid succession in the 72nd and 75th minutes to round out the misery of Sea Eagles fans.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Jason Walsh; Video Referee – Steve Clark.
The Way We See It: If this game were being played in Newcastle the Knights would have been an even money chance of taking down the Sea Eagles for the second time this year. However, at Brookvale Oval with a parochial crowd in full voice, and given the team’s focus of the past fortnight, it’s hard to go past Manly. We tip the Sea Eagles by 10 points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.