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Bulldogs v Sea Eagles
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

In what is unquestionably the match of the round, Des Hasler’s Bulldogs enter dangerous waters against the high-flying Sea Eagles on Friday night, with the coach hopeful the prospect of a confrontation with the team he used to guide will give his players the lift they desperately require after Canterbury’s committed but largely unproductive 1-3 start to the 2013 NRL season.  

Despite the returns of Ben Barba and Frank Pritchard the Bulldogs were unable to generate enough spark to dominate the Rabbitohs last week, Souths having the game in hand 20 minutes before fulltime before Barba’s last-minute try for a somewhat flattering 17-12 scoreline. 

The defeat, following a 22-18 loss to the Storm, leaves the blue and white precariously positioned in 10th place on the ladder. Worse, their continuity will be further tested over the coming month, with strike centre Krisnan Inu suspended for five matches for his dangerous spear tackle on Greg Inglis.

Meanwhile Manly thumped the Wests Tigers in Gosford last Thursday night – although it took them a while to click before they ran away with the contest in the second half. Up 4-nil at the break following an abject first 40 minutes riddled by 11 team errors and a miserable 42 per cent completion rate the Sea Eagles showed a clean pair of heels in the second stanza to score 22 unanswered points. 

It was an excellent rebound from the Sea Eagles who fell 16-14 to the Titans in Round 3. Coach Geoff Toovey will be urging his charges to maintain their steel-like defence which yielded them a second season whitewash after their 36-nil route of the Knights in Round 2. To date Manly have tallied fewer missed tackles than any other team, with just 16 each week; up against the NRL’s biggest x-factor individual this week, Toovey knows they’ll need to be at their best to repel the Barba challenge.   

In team changes, Canterbury coach Hasler has selected Tim Lafai to replace Inu at right centre, with either Josh Reynolds, Michael Ennis or Kris Keating to assume the goal-kicking duties. Tim Browne has been selected in No.16, with Davis Klemmer in jersey No.20 on a five-man bench.

Meanwhile Manly have just the one team sheet change, with Richie Fa’aoso returning after sitting out a week on the sidelines for his shoulder charge hit on the Gold Coast’s Ashley Harrison in Round 3. 

Watch Out Bulldogs: Against the Tigers, Manly showed they’re not just a one-dimensional side in attack. Through their first three games of 2013 their left-side strike weapons Jorge Taufua and Steve Matai combined for seven four-pointers, while right-side players Jamie Lyon and David Williams crossed for just two tries. But with Taufua largely contained they spun the Steeden to the right side of the field where ‘The Wolfman’ bagged a double. 

However, the Manly left-side attack remains the most potent in the competition, with Taufua and Matai combining for 11 line-breaks to date (ranked No.1 and No.3 in the league respectively). Canterbury will need to be alert for quick switches to either side of the field. 

Tellingly, the Bulldogs have to find a way to inject potency into their backline or they’ll struggle to keep the scoreboard ticking over against an opposition that has scored the second-most tries to date (Manly averaging 4.5 a game). 

Last season Canterbury were near the top of the pile for line-breaks (4.6) but to date are managing just 2.8 each game – with just three teams ranked worse than them. Clearly a lot of the responsibility will fall to Barba who led all-comers for line-breaks last season with 27 – although they also need to ramp up their second-phase play. In 2012 they led all teams for offloads with 12.7 a game but now languish mid order with just eight every 80 minutes. They’ll need to bring something special – Manly are conceding the fewest line busts (just 1.5 per game).    

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The aforementioned offloading slump from the Bulldogs can be arrested quickly if Barba and Frank Pritchard get into the match. Barba made 35 offloads and Pritchard 33 in 2012, behind teammates Josh Reynolds (43) and the still-injured Sam Kasiano (37). Barba failed to get the ball away against the Rabbitohs and Pritchard managed just one offload. There will be plenty of opportunities if they can conjure some magic.

The Manly players will be hoping new Bulldog Tony Williams doesn’t do to them what he did to the Bulldogs the last time they met. In the first week of the 2012 finals Williams steamrolled over the top of the Bulldogs’ right-edge defence, galloping on a 30-metre sprint before firing a pass to fullback Brett Stewart who scored. You can bet T-Rex is focussed on a huge game against his former side and will be looking to boost his tackle-breaks average in particular – he has managed just three in four games after averaging nearly seven for Manly last year. 

Plays To Watch: Canterbury’s big forwards playing before the line; Daly Cherry-Evans running to the line – the Manly playmaker ranks second to Shaun Johnson for tackle-breaks by a No.7 with 12; Josh Morris’ bursts of speed down the left edge – he created two tries for team-mates the last time the sides met; Tom Symonds’ support play in centre-field close to the Bulldogs’ try line – the new recruit has scored in each of his past two games this way.

Key Match-Up: Tony Williams v Anthony Watmough. The last time they took the field together – as teammates – they combined for 35 hit-ups and a whopping 277 metres of territory: it’s safe to assume neither will leave anything in the tank in an effort to provide their teams with the edge out wide. 

For the Bulldogs that means the left fringe, where Williams will wind up and test out Daly Cherry-Evans and Jamie Lyon. Meanwhile Watmough will look to punch through on Manly’s right edge, targeting Josh Morris and Kris Keating. Watmough’s six offloads and 122 metres a match are the third most by a second-rower. 

Where It Will Be Won: Limiting mistakes. These sides like to play it fast and furious but if they get drawn into a ‘dogfight’ it might cost one team dearly. 

The last time they met in Week One of the 2012 finals series the combatants made a whopping 28 errors between them, with the losing Manly side stumbling to 18. Although they sit in 3rd position on the ladder Manly can’t be counted on to respect the footy – they are making the third-most errors each week (12). In particular Jamie Lyon needs to take more care (eight mistakes so far – second most by any player) as well as winger Jorge Taufua (six errors) and Steve Matai (five errors). 

Meanwhile Canterbury have registered the second fewest mistakes to date (averaging nine per match).  
The History: Played 116; Sea Eagles 61, Bulldogs 50, drawn 5. Canterbury have won five of the past nine games, although Manly have won three of the past five. Manly have the edge in head-to-head clashes at ANZ Stadium, winning five of nine. 

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Paul Holland; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm. 

The Way We See It: Canterbury haven’t been playing all that badly and don’t appear to have any worrying traits to their game – they completed a whopping 87 per cent of their sets against the Rabbitohs but simply came up against a better unit. They should be primed this week, with both Barba and Pritchard better for the run last week. 

It could all boil down to the attitude of the Sea Eagles from kick-off; they averaged 78 per cent completions over the opening fortnight but just 66 per cent over the past two games. If that dip continues the Bulldogs are right in this. 

We sense Canterbury have more upside so it’s the ’Dogs by seven points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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