Sea Eagles v Sharks preview

Sea Eagles v Sharks
Brookvale Oval
Sunday 2pm

Is there a fiercer rivalry in Men of League Heritage Round than that shared between Manly and Cronulla? The bristling passions associated with these two clubs extend back to the 1973 Grand Final – labelled the most violent of all deciders – and the fuse has been lit for another willing encounter on Sunday.

In the lead-up to the latest ‘battle of the beaches’, several Manly stars have admitted they feel pity for the Sharks’ plight in 2013 – and that sympathy stance, although well-intended, is sure to add fuel to Cronulla’s fire come kick-off.

The Sea Eagles are perched high on the premiership ladder in third place following a promising start to the season that’s included victories over the Broncos, Knights, Wests Tigers and Bulldogs. They’ve only lost one match – to the Titans on the Gold Coast.

The Sharks, meanwhile, began 2013 in courageous fashion with wins against the Titans and Warriors, despite the massive off-field distraction that the ASADA drugs investigation has brought. Recent losses to the Dragons and Eels have resulted in coach Shane Flanagan admitting his team has been unravelling under the weight of the investigations. 

Cronulla currently sit in eighth place on the NRL table, but a loss in this match and unfavourable results in other Round 6 clashes could see them drop to as low as 14th.

The Sea Eagles are unchanged after their dominant 20-6 win over the Bulldogs last Friday, while the Sharks have added two players to the squad that lost 13-6 to the Eels last Saturday. Forwards Mark Taufua and Sam Tagataese join a six-man bench that’ll be culled before kick-off.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Emotion has ebbed and flowed in the Cronulla camp in recent weeks – but it could well be on hand again in this traditionally intense battle. Form, outside influences and other distractions go out the window when the Sharks meet the Sea Eagles, and that’s perhaps Manly’s biggest danger come Sunday. 

Cronulla’s form has been poor, too – and some of their biggest stars understandably distracted – in recent weeks, but that should not be considered any sort of gauge approaching in this clash.  

Watch Out Sharks: If Manly absorb the expected early challenge and come through an opening-minutes assault unscathed, it could be a long afternoon for the folks from the Shire. 

Manly are nearing top form, as their recent results indicate. They lead or are near the top of a lot of key statistics categories – points (22.8 per game – fourth), tries scored (4.2 per game – equal third), metres gained (1451.4 per game – first) and metres conceded (1206.8 per game – first) – for a simple reason: they’re one of the best teams in the competition. And they’ll go a long way in 2013. The Sharkies could be swallowed whole.

Plays To Watch: Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran’s show-and-go magic tricks at the defensive line; Anthony Tupou’s athletic efforts to promote the football – with his enthusiastic support players one step behind; scheming centre Jamie Lyon running rings around his centre opponents – again. (Why can’t he do it in a Blues jumper? Please?)

Key Match-Up: Brett Stewart v Michael Gordon. Brilliant, ballsy and bustling – there’s no better one-on-one battle this Sunday at Brookvale than that of the No.1s. 

Sea Eagles fullback Stewart and Sharks custodian Gordon are two players in red-hot form, and their duel will be worth the price of admission alone. Their styles aren’t too dissimilar, either – both are helter-skelter, probing, inspirational and reliable fullbacks who understandably play key roles in their team’s victories. 

‘Snake’ mightn’t have crossed for many four-pointers this season – he’s only scored one – but he’s recorded four try assists, three line-break assists and two line-breaks. It was his dash from long range, shrugging under would-be Bulldogs tacklers, that set up Jamie Lyon for a crucial try last week. 
Gordon, meanwhile, has been a bright light in Cronulla’s at-times-dark 2013 campaign. One of Cronulla’s few true attacking threats, Gordon has already scored three tries, made four line-breaks and broken 24 tackles. 

Both No.1s deserve to be considered for higher honours – and this duel could be a barometer for selectors to determine exactly where they’re both at physically and mentally before the State of Origin series begins.

Where It Will Be Won: Up the guts – who’s going to lay the winning platform? 

In recent weeks Cronulla have looked decidedly weak in the centre of the park – expect Geoff Toovey to have taken note of the fact Parramatta ran for 1427 metres last week. If the flimsy centre-field ‘D’ isn’t remedied by coach Flanagan and his troops, it could be a long afternoon for Cronulla’s travelling fans. 

Cronulla concede the third-most metres in the competition – more needs to be done by their big men Gallen, Ross, Fifita, Lewis and Graham if they’re any chance of making an impact on the competition in 2013. And if they’re any chance of beating a very professional, focussed and committed Manly side on Sunday.

The History: Played 80; Sea Eagles 55, Sharks 23, drawn 2. The Brookvale ledger, though, is squarely in the Sea Eagles’ favour – the Sharks have won only five of the 35 matches played on the northern beaches. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Dave Munro; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Justin Morgan.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm.

The Way We See It: Is this the match Cronulla turn up and announce to the rugby league world they’re solely focussed on just one thing – winning football games? Or will the Sea Eagles continue their dominance at Brookvale? Time will tell, but we can’t go past Manly. We predict they’ll win by 10 points – but it’ll be an absorbing battle, especially early in the match.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.