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Manly Sea Eagles v North Queensland Cowboys
Allianz Stadium
Friday 7.45pm

There’s no tomorrow for one of these teams as the reigning premiers prepare to stare down the dark-horse Cowboys – with a date with the Melbourne Storm in a grand final qualifier awaiting the winner.

Manly have spent the past week regrouping after their uncharacteristically clumsy and rushed performance against the Bulldogs last week; leading 10-6 at halftime and seemingly in control they crumpled with an error-riddled second 40 that featured nine errors and a woeful 54 per cent completion rate that virtually handed control to the blue and whites.

Compounding matters, they’ve lost strike centre Steve Matai to suspension, while talismanic co-captain Jamie Lyon remains under an injury cloud after lasting just 23 minutes against Canterbury before limping off with a calf complaint.

The defeat, which severed a six-match winning streak, has certainly awoken their critics: they  were Telstra Premiership favourites just a week ago but have now blown out to equal third in betting with bookmakers (alongside this week’s opponent), behind Canterbury and the Storm. And they are underdogs heading into Friday – remarkable, given their proven finals record (Manly have been bundled out in consecutive finals games only four times from 42 appearances) and record against the Cowboys (they average more points against North Queensland – 26 – than any other opponent and the visitors have only gotten the better of the maroon and white in Sydney on two occasions, in 2003 and ’05).

Meanwhile the Cowboys advanced via a dominant 33-16 win that ended the Broncos’ season last Saturday, extending their current victory streak to five. With the forwards laying a platform, fullback Matt Bowen and halves Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston cut loose; they raced across almost 450 metres more than their southern cousins, who conceded a whopping 250 metres more than their season average on the night.

Coach Neil Henry is likely to start James Segeyaro at hooker after Aaron Payne was ruled out with a knee cartilage tear (that not only sidelines him this week but brings down the curtain on his NRL career). Back-up hooker Anthony Mitchell and Joel Riethmuller have been added to the squad, with Riethmuller the man most likely to drop out.

Manly coach Geoff Toovey has given linchpin star Lyon until Thursday afternoon to prove his fitness – although the mentor admits it will be difficult to omit him even should he not be 100 per cent, given the do-or-die status.

Matai’s one-week ban sees Dean Whare shift from wing to centre, with Roosters-bound Michael Oldfield rejoining the main team on the right wing (he’ll be no slouch – he bagged a hat-trick of tries filling in against the Dragons in Round 13).

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly need to find a way to halt North Queensland’s momentum or else they’ll be left choking on the dust kicked up by the heels of the Cowboys’ forwards and backs. Neil Henry’s crew lead the league for territory, averaging nearly 1450 metres every match, and their relentless advance – especially in the second 40 minutes – will put the Sea Eagles under the pump.

In particular props James Tamou and co-captain partner Matt Scott need to be halted before they get over the advantage line – the pair were unstoppable against the Broncos, galloping to a combined 400 metres (Tamou 179 metres, Scott 221 metres). By comparison Manly’s starting props Jason King and Brent Kite made just 136 metres between them against the Bulldogs. Even allowing for Darcy Lussick’s 127 metres off the interchange, that’s a considerable deficit they can’t afford to rack up this week.

Out wide centres Kane Linnett and Brent Tate will take some rounding up – they are the most powerful centre pairing in the comp, combining for 152 tackle busts between them. With question marks over Jamie Lyon’s range of movement and the pressure on Dean Whare, Manly can expect plenty of traffic to be sent their way down both fringes.  

Danger Sign: The scoreline at halftime. Manly have an abysmal record in the second halves of matches over the past month; despite winning three of their past four games they’ve posted just 10 points in the second halves – and were held scoreless on two occasions (last week and against the Broncos in Round 25). The irony is that when Manly eliminated the Cowboys from last year’s premiership race with a 42-8 thrashing they did so after recovering from an 8-nil deficit at halftime, running away with the game in the second 40 and scoring four tries in the last 10 minutes. They won’t want to leave their run that late this time around.

Watch Out Cowboys: Tony Williams is primed for a huge game after being stung by criticism of his ‘butter fingers’ and low impact recently. Williams trampled Josh Reynolds to set up Brett Stewart last week but a brace of dropped balls before that were undeniable blemishes. Williams still ran for 154 metres and made eight tackle busts – he’ll be tough for Brent Tate and Michael Morgan to contain if he’s allowed to get a few strides under his belt before meeting the defensive line.

Jorge Taufua will be fed plenty of ball on the left wing – the rookie continues to impress every week, making three line busts, a staggering 14 tackle-breaks and 245 metres in a beaten side last week.  

Last year’s Churchill Medal winner Glenn Stewart will rise to the sudden death occasion – he’ll be more involved than usual on the right edge. He requires two more offloads for 200 in his career.

Danger Sign: If the Cowboys drop some ball early on. North Queensland average 11 errors a game in 2012, easily the most by any team left in the premiership race. They can’t afford to gift Manly chances given the Sea Eagles’ impressive record in opening 40s.

Brett Stewart v Matt Bowen: It could all come down to which explosive fullback delivers more dynamite moments on the night. In-form Matt Bowen (117 metres with a try, two try assists and two line-breaks last week) is sure to be prominent – Bowen leads all players for support play, so the Sea Eagles’ outside defenders need to shadow him closely. Meanwhile Brett Stewart, who scored two tries against the Cowboys in last year’s finals win and added a try last week, will relish a return to Allianz Stadium – he has bagged 12 tries in 13 games at Moore Park, with six coming in finals games.

Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. Five-eighth Kieran Foran’s astute running game won the competition points for Manly the last time these sides met (see below) while halfback Daly Cherry-Evans laid on two try assists in their finals blitz last year. Shutting down Cherry-Evans – as the Bulldogs did last week – will be the key: he leads all halfbacks for tackle busts in 2012 (with 90 to date) – but failed to manage even one against the Des Hasler-coached Bulldogs. If Cherry Evans is allowed to run, points will flow.

Meanwhile Manly will need to watch Johnathan Thurston’s scheming on both sides of the field (no team keeps hitting the short sides as often as the Cowboys, who lead the NRL with 205 raids down the blind on the left and 155 on the right), and halfback Michael Morgan’s terrier support play (three tries last week). If they are allowed to dictate the Cowboys are capable of not just winning but winning well.

The History: Played 19; Sea Eagles 12, Cowboys 7. The Sea Eagles have the wood over the Cowboys, winning six of the past eight clashes including the past three in a row. Manly boast a 2-zip advantage in clashes between the sides at Allianz Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Sea Eagles emerged 8-6 winners over the Cowboys following a gritty one-try-apiece encounter at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 22.

Despite missing 57 tackles throughout the 80 minutes the visitors proved a shade too good, sealing the win courtesy of a Jamie Lyon penalty goal. Manly were also aided by the Cowboys’ clumsy 15 errors that released the pressure valve on their opponents at key moments.

Five-eighth Kieran Foran was the catalyst for much of Manly’s attack – it was his run from a scrum win 15 metres out from the Cowboys’ line that yielded his team first points in the 25th minute, with Foran sidestepping Dallas Johnson to score adjacent to the goalposts.

That gifted Manly a 6-nil lead they would take to the halftime break; however their advantage was wiped clean 11 minutes into the second stanza when some awful miscommunication between winger David Williams and halfback Daly Cherry-Evans resulted in a Johnathan Thurston bomb being allowed to bounce uncontested, with Cowboys centre Kane Linnett swooping on the dregs to score.

The deadlock was broken 14 minutes from fulltime, with the Cowboys unfortunate to concede an ‘accidental’ penalty whereby Matt Bowen, in attempting to defuse a Cherry-Evans grubber kick from close range, mishandled the ball into second-rower Gavin Cooper who was in front of him in an offside position.

Although Manly missed plenty of tackles they remained in the contest via an excellent 81 per cent completions rate.

It was end-to-end action throughout, with the Cowboys shading their opponents in territory 1576 metres to 1579 metres; however Manly managed three line-breaks to the Cowboys’ two.

Second-rower Anthony Watmough was a powerhouse for Manly, making 20 carries and 177 metres, while Kane Linnett was difficult to contain with 147 metres and 10 tackle busts to go with his try.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Paul Simpkins.

The Way We See It: It all hinges on Jamie Lyon; Manly will be competitive as long as he remains on the field. But if he departs early, or is hindered by his injury, the Cowboys’ stocks will rise. Significantly, Manly have just a 50 per cent success rate without Lyon in their line-up (10 wins, 10 losses). We are loath to jump off the defending premiers after one sub-standard performance. The Cowboys are certainly capable of a commanding win but the head suggests Manly will prove too battle-hardened. Sea Eagles by six points in a wildly entertaining encounter.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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