Gold Coast Titans v Manly Sea Eagles
They may be all but out of the finals race but the Titans know they have a chance of exiting 2012 on a high with a victory over Manly that could possibly see the defending premiers lose their grip on a spot in the all-important top four.
A win by the Gold Coast and victory by the Cowboys over the Sharks on Sunday would see Manly need to do things the hard way to reclaim their premiership crown (providing Souths are not catastrophic losers to the Knights) – a factor that is certain to drive John Cartwright’s charges who have shown plenty of fight since a disjointed and disappointing first half of the season that saw them lose seven of their opening nine outings.
Three losses from their past four games – including last week’s 36-22 defeat to Penrith – have left them with only a mathematical chance of figuring in the playoffs. To progress they need both Brisbane and the Wests Tigers to lose their games against the Panthers and Storm respectively, plus they need to rack up a convincing win over the Sea Eagles to overcome the current 47-points differential between themselves and the Broncos.
They’ll be channeling their huge effort back in Round 7 when they upset Manly 26-14 at Brookvale Oval (see below).
However, they face a tough assignment on Saturday with injuries decimating their ranks: hooker Matt Srama (shoulder) and Ashley Harrison (ribs) are already out, while five-eighth Aidan Sezer (knee) is one of a handful of other players who are battling to take to Skilled Park.
Beau Falloon will start at hooker this week, with Ben Ridge locking their scrum. Boom youngster Ryan James will play just his fourth game off the bench, with Brenton Lawrence and Dominique Peyroux new faces on the interchange.
Meanwhile Manly have their fingers crossed co-captain Jason King will be fit to return to the fold after being off the scene since their Round 21 win over the Warriors, the first win in their current five-game streak that has seen them also topple the Cowboys, Rabbitohs, Knights and Broncos to dramatically firm in premiership calculations.
King has been named to start at prop but will need to pass a fitness test to take his place; his recall sees Darcy Lussick hit the extended interchange with one player to be cut.
It’s a milestone week for the Stewart brothers: Brett needs just one try to hit 500 points in his career, while Glenn requires 35 tackles for 5000 in his career.
Watch Out Titans: Brett Stewart is coming to get you! The Manly No.1 has an imposing record against the Gold Coast, crossing for six tries from just four appearances. His try double last week took him to 11 for the year, the seventh time he’s managed at least that many in a season (only Steve Menzies has rivaled that achievement). Of particular concern to the Titans this week is that Stewart and Kieran Foran seem to have psychically reconnected – it was a speculative Foran kick into vacant space that saw the fullback race through to score his first try against the Broncos last week.
Danger Sign: If Manly make inroads on the right side of the field early on it could be a long evening for the home team. Daly Cherry-Evans, Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart have been spoon-feeding their right-side winger in recent weeks (David Williams mostly prior to his Round 24 injury, with Dean Whare now filling the role). Manly have crossed for 37 tries on their right edge, the third most behind the Storm and Cowboys.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: William Zillman has been one of the Titans’ success stories in 2012, with his speedy counter-attack and ubiquitous support play providing them with plenty of thrust from the back. His 16 line-breaks are the fourth most by any fullback – Cherry-Evans and Foran will need to be careful when directing their clearing kicks and the centre-field defence needs to be alert to his presence when he goes looking for the ball near the ruck.
Scott Prince may not get the write-ups he once did but he’s still one of the best playmakers in the game – as evidenced by his 21 try assists in 2012. Manly can’t afford any complacency when attempting to round up Prince or they’ll get burned.
Danger Sign: Any time Prince boots it high. Manly have had difficulty with attacking kicks all year – they have conceded 27 tries to kicks (the most by any team) and are particularly vulnerable to cross-field bombs which they are defusing at just a 42 per cent success rate (second worst in the comp).
Greg Bird v Anthony Watmough: You can bet these hard-edged NSW Origin team-mates will relish rolling up their sleeves and adding mongrel to their side’s go-forward. Bird was relentless the last time these sides met, making 16 carts of the footy for 163 metres, while Watmough has returned to his bouncing best in recent weeks – with a game-high 19 runs and six offloads a highlight of the team’s win over the Broncos last week.
Where It Will Be Won: Teamwork over individual flair. These teams are at their best when the key cogs are functioning smoothly and when their execution is precise. Both sides score a high proportion of their tries from team-mates’ assists – the Titans have scored 61 of their 75 tries from assists, Manly 75 of 85.
The History: Played 9; Sea Eagles 5, Titans 4. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes. The ledger is 2-all at Skilled Park – although the Titans secured their biggest ever win over Manly at the venue with a 28-14 thumping in Round 14, 2010.
The Last Time They Met: Manly slumped to their fourth loss in five games when defeated 26-14 by a buoyant Titans unit in a sometimes heated clash at Brookvale Oval in Round 7.
The shock win by the visitors ended their own five-game losing streak.
In an explosive first half Titans Jamal Idris and Ashley Harrison were placed on report for high tackles on Jamie Lyon and Vic Mauro respectively, while Darcy Lussick received the crossed-arms gesture from the refs after upending David Mead in a dangerous tackle. In between these clumsy challenges the Titans ran in two tries to one to lead 12-8 at the break.
The visitors skipped further ahead when Scott Prince delivered a perfect cross-field bomb for Mead to score 11 minutes into the second half before Kevin Gordon outleapt the Manly right edge defenders to snaffle a Prince bomb and grab a 22-8 lead with just 16 minutes remaining.
The Sea Eagles’ woes intensified when two Prince penalty goals extended the margin to three converted tries before Lyon added some respectability to the scoreline with a try three minutes from fulltime.
Prince had a field day with the ball in hand, adding three try assists, while forwards Greg Bird (163 metres) and Nate Myles (132 metres) relished the tough stuff up front.
Jamie Buhrer tried hard with 16 hit-ups in the back row for the out-of sorts Sea Eagles who made an uncharacteristic 14 errors and tallied almost double the Titans’ missed tackles (39-22).
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Brenden Woos; Video Referee – Russell Smith.
The Way We See It: Although the under-strength Titans will be competitive we can’t see them pulling off an upset. Manly are too professional to enter this arena with anything less than 100 per cent focus, especially given they need to win to secure a spot in the top four and dodge a possible first-week finals exit. Manly by eight points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats