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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.45pm

With the minor premiership tucked in their back pocket and a cluster of stars – plus their coach – clasping Dally M trophies, Canterbury face their toughest test yet on Friday night with a third head-to-head clash with defending premiers Manly that will determine which team gets a week off and a guaranteed shot at progressing to this year’s decider.

In a possible grand final preview given the new structure of this year’s finals series, sides 1 v 4 lock horns with the head-to-head ledger standing at one game apiece in 2012: the Sea Eagles winning 12-10 at ANZ Stadium in Round 8 before the Bulldogs returned fire with a 20-12 win at Brookvale Oval in Round 20.

Both teams are in irresistible form. Canterbury have won 13 of their past 14 games, with their loss to the Raiders in Round 25 their only negative since falling to the Titans way back on May 11! They ended a superb regular season with their fourth most wins on record (18). In an ominous sign for Manly, the blue and whites scored an average of almost 28 points in winning their last eight home fixtures.

However, the Sea Eagles have soared recently, stringing together six polished wins in a row and accounting for top-eight teams North Queensland, South Sydney and Brisbane in that time.

The Bulldogs deserve to enter the arena slight favourites – although the striking similarities between the squads, in both personnel and style of play, make tipping the winner near impossible. Both packs mix grinding force and skill, with each boasting a strike weapon on the edges in Frank Pritchard and Tony Williams. Five-eighths Josh Reynolds and Kieran Foran can be devastating when playing off the cuff. Centres Josh Morris and Jamie Lyon are rarely out of print in match reports. And of course, fullbacks Ben Barba and Brett Stewart steal most of the headlines.      

But this is more than just a battle between the ‘grunts’, with the high-profile generals drawing plenty of attention in the lead-up. Geoff Toovey becomes the seventh Manly product to have featured in a finals clash as both player and coach – and joins Frank Stanton as the only two men to do so in their ‘rookie’ seasons on the field and with the clipboard. Meanwhile, memories of 1995 will be firmly etched in Des Hasler’s mind. That was the year Hasler celebrated a minor premiership with the Sea Eagles – only to have the title dream crushed by Canterbury in the grand final. Incredibly, that was the last time these sides faced off in a finals match…

In a boost for Canterbury, hard-working defender Dene Halatau rejoins the squad on the interchange after a short layoff with a knee injury.

Meanwhile Geoff Toovey has added George Rose to the Manly interchange, with one player to be cut before kick-off.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Brett Stewart, sidelined with injury when the ’Dogs won the last time these side met, will make his presence felt – in particular looming in support of kicks from the halves or inside balls from centre Jamie Lyon. ‘Snake’ has crossed for five tries in his past three games, as well as setting up three for team-mates.

Lyon remains the glue in the Sea Eagles’ backline – if the Bulldogs’ edge defenders hang off him they’ll regret it. Lyon leads all centres for try assists (17) and line-break assists (14).  

On the left wing Jorge Taufua will prove a handful for Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett – the rookie has tallied the third most line-breaks among wingers (19 from 22 games).

Expect Tony Williams to be fed more ball early in the clash and target Ben Barba in the defensive line down the left edge. Even if it doesn’t yield points, keeping Barba busy in defence could potentially take the edge off his lightning-strike raids.  

Danger Sign: If the ’Dogs head right often – and especially if they target the space 10 metres in from the sideline. Canterbury have crossed for 27 tries here, with only Melbourne’s attack enjoying more success through the corridor. It’s where Josh Reynolds, Krisnan Inu and Barba weave most of their magic, while impressive youngster Josh Jackson is proving a threat there too – he bagged three tries last week. Manly’s Steve Matai needs to put his body on the line in defence; the Kiwi representative misses 3.4 tackles on average, the second most by any centre.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly need to be mindful of Bulldogs support players as well as the ball carrier given Canterbury’s strength at creating second phase. The ’Dogs lead the NRL for offloads (12.7 a game) with Kris Keating’s try against the Roosters, which came on the back of four popped passes, a stark reminder of the threat their runners pose.  

Dally M Prop of the Year Sam Kasiano needs to be watched not just for the havoc he can wreak up the guts (97 metres per game, 41 tackle-breaks this season) but also his role assisting the halves in centre-field. Kasiano has fooled plenty of defences running to the line before sweeping the ball deep behind decoys to ignite his outside backs.

Dally M Centre of the Year Josh Morris is in scintillating form, having crossed for 17 tries and made 18 line-breaks – the most in each category by a centre. His strength and finishing prowess on the left edge is sure to be a highlight.   

Frank Pritchard will work in tandem with Morris to terrorise Manly down the left edge – it’s likely they’ll target right winger Dean Whare as the possible chink in the defence out wide.

Danger Sign: Whenever Ben Barba gets his hands on the Steeden. The game’s most highly rated player continues to amaze with his ad-lib brilliance. Even when seemingly rounded up near his try-line Barba is capable of turning the tables and unleashing a blistering counter-attack. Manly won’t have forgotten Barba’s match-winning try the last time they met.

Josh Reynolds v Kieran Foran: It’s a given that points will flow from one – or both – of these talented pivots. Reynolds’ ability to beat a man with his jolting sidestep and great acceleration has been a huge bonus for the Bulldogs in 2012. He’s also provided them with a new dimension in the No.6 jersey – last year just 12 offloads stemmed from the five-eighth position but this year Reynolds has churned out a whopping 39. He has chimed in with 19 try assists, too. Meanwhile Kieran Foran has warmed back to top form over the past month, adding a try assist in each of his past three games. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if he cuts loose himself from close range this week, taking on some of the bigger Bulldogs forwards coming off their try-line. His combination with Brett Stewart and Jorge Taufua could be damaging.    

Where It Will Be Won: Attacking kicks. Given that the defences will largely cancel each other out (Canterbury’s average 27 missed tackles are the fewest all year, while Manly have rallied strongly over the past month, missing just 29 on average) we anticipate the team that has the most success off the boot will prevail. We saw it the last time they met, with Sam Perrett dotting down off a cross-field bomb and Ben Barba sealing victory with a solo kick and chase. Manly’s Jamie Lyon stole a try off a kick in that game, too. Canterbury rank second for tries off the boot (with 27), while Manly lurk close behind with 25 – of which Foran or Lyon have created or scored 15. Both teams crossed for two tries from kicks in their Round 26 victories. In particular, watch for both teams to utilise banana kicks towards the goalposts – each came up trumps this way last week.  

Danger Period: The five minutes leading up to halftime – both teams love to up the ante approaching the break, with Canterbury punishing oppositions with late strikes on 10 occasions in 2012 (the most by any team), with Manly close behind with nine tries approaching oranges.  

The History: Played 115; Sea Eagles 61, Bulldogs 49, drawn 5. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight clashes, although Manly have won three of the past four games. Manly have a dominant record in head-to-head clashes at ANZ Stadium, winning five of eight.

The Last Time They Met: A brilliant late try to fullback Ben Barba secured Canterbury a 20-12 win over Manly at Brookvale Oval in Round 20.

As injured Sea Eagles star Brett Stewart watched from the sidelines Barba fashioned an audacious try for himself (his second of the night) with a grubber kick aimed at the goalposts that ensured the visitors would leave with the competition points after the clash hung in the balance with 20 minutes left on the clock.

The opening exchanges were all Canterbury however, with the blue and whites racing to a 12-nil lead through tries to Barba (ninth minute) and winger Sam Perrett (15th minute) that rocked the home side and its fans back on their heels. Perrett’s try in particular seemed to suggest the blue and whites were well in control – it came from a set play from a scrum 20 metres out, with five-eighth Josh Reynolds chipping wide for right winger Perrett who blindsided his surprised opposition with a determined chase, catch and put-down.

The Brookvale faithful’s misery intensified when Krisnan Inu piloted home a penalty goal for a 14-nil advantage in the 46th minute.

However, that seemed to spur the home side, with co-captain Jamie Lyon sneaking under Barba’s guard to score a crucial try after a determined chase of Daly Cherry-Evans’ plugging kick from 25 metres out for a 14-6 score-line after 50 minutes.

And it was game on when fellow co-captain Jason King charged over right of the goalposts to bridge the gap to two points with 20 minutes remaining.

However, Barba’s try two minutes from the fulltime siren ensured a 2012 ledger that read Canterbury/Des Hasler 1, Manly/Geoff Toovey 1.

Frank Pritchard was a standout for the Bulldogs with 127 running metres, while prop Aiden Tolman made a whopping 23 hit-ups for 184 metres.

Stand-in fullback Dean Whare made 177 metres for the beaten side, while winger Jorge Taufua continued his meteoric rookie season with a 185-metre gain.

It was a disappointing result for the premiers given they shaded their opponents 4-1 in line-breaks.  

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Paul Mellor.

The Way We See It: Strap yourselves in because this has all the makings of the clash of the year. We can’t see it ending in a blowout to either team, with just a spark of individual brilliance likely to separate the combatants. However, there’s a big difference between finals footy and regular-season play. The Sea Eagles have soaked it up before, while the Bulldogs are likely to feel more nervous throughout. The opening 20 minutes will paint the picture. Given their previous finals experience we’ll side with Manly… but only just. Sea Eagles by four points, with the verdict sealed inside 15 minutes of the fulltime siren.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.00pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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