Sea Eagles v Titans
After enduring a brief mid-season flail – largely on the back of an injury toll that was bordering on crippling – Manly have resumed normal service with two consecutive wins shoring up their place in the top four and setting them on track for a big finish to the regular season.
With that in mind, the Sea Eagles will recognise what a huge opportunity presents itself this weekend when they host the Gold Coast at their Brookvale fortress in their favourite Sunday afternoon timeslot. But they will also be well aware that the Titans promise to provide a much sterner test than their past two opponents.
A 50-10 win over struggling Parramatta was a confidence boost if nothing else as they piled on some easy points and they produced some quality football in the second half last week against a North Queensland side down on troops.
Although Manly will know not to read too much into those results, there were a number of positive signs. One was the return from injury of fullback Brett Stewart, who has not only loomed large in many of their attacking raids but also produced a number of significant defensive plays in the 34-14 win over the Cowboys.
Another was the fact that they have scored 84 points in their past two outings while conceding just 24. And with halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and back-rower Anthony Watmough returning they will be looking forward to getting back out there and continuing their run.
For the Titans, the pressure is starting to mount. Three losses from their past four games has seen them fall out of the top eight for the first time this year and with injuries and Origin still playing their part, season 2013 is very much on the line.
At their best, the Gold Coast has been scintillating this year – driven by a monstrous forward pack and the youthful exuberance of exciting young halves duo Albert Kelly and Aidan Sezer. But they have looked tired of late and the absence of a number of their biggest names has seen a dramatic slump in form.
The good news is that they welcome back three players from injury this week in Dave Taylor, Brad Taikarangi and Beau Falloon. And although John Cartwright hasn’t named Origin stars Greg Bird or Nate Myles, he will be sweating on them being available for this one.
The Titans are still without fullback William Zillman through a groin injury while centre Jamal Idris is unlikely to return this season after breaking his ankle in the Round 16 loss to Newcastle.
The return of Cherry-Evans for Manly sees Jamie Lyon return to right centre with Peta Hiku dropping out of the squad while James Hasson drops back to the bench to make way for Watmough with Ligi Sao the other casualty.
The Gold Coast have the chance to make it three consecutive away wins for the first time in their history while Sea Eagles fullback Brett Stewart is in a race with Nathan Merritt to become just the sixth player in history to score 70 tries at a single venue. Both sit on 68.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly will need to stay awake to the dangers that Gold Coast halfback Albert Kelly presents this week. The speedster has been in fine form in 2013 – leading the club for tries (11), line-breaks (9) and try assists (8) as well as averaging 100 metres per game. His ability to break the line is particularly notable. Last week North Queensland fullback Matt Bowen scored an easy try through the middle when he dummied past two defenders so they will need to be aware of Kelly when he has the ball in hand.
Watch Out Titans: Just how much work have the Titans done on their right-side defence over the past few weeks? They were embarrassed in the first half against Newcastle three weeks ago when they trailed 36-0 at the break and James McManus finished the day with four tries. All eight tries were scored against the Gold Coast’s right-edge defence while Penrith’s James Roberts also scored a hat-trick on that side last start.
Plays To Watch: Keep an eye on Albert Kelly when he receives the ball at pace on the right edge. The young half loves to drift across field then clamp on the afterburners and race through a gap if he spots a chink in the defensive line. Justin Horo is a key man in Manly’s left-side attack and his partnership with Kieran Foran has proved hugely successful.
A well-known play for the Sea Eagles is for Brett Stewart to swoop around the back where Foran will pass behind Horo to Stewart and create the overlap. However, with this in mind, Foran also loves hitting Horo, who runs a great ‘unders’ line, with a short ball to hopefully send him through a gap.
Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. With Daly Cherry-Evans back on the right and Kieran Foran on the left, Manly have all of their attacking options available and will throw plenty at the Gold Coast defence. Likewise, the Titans’ resurgence in 2013 has come largely on the back of the brilliance of Albert Kelly and Aidan Sezer. Their best chance of an upset is to pile on the points and in Kelly and Sezer the ability is there to do so.
The History: Played 11; Sea Eagles 6, Titans 5. Manly have won 33 of their past 40 Sunday afternoon games at Brookvale and remain undefeated since 2010 in this timeslot.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: Manly at home on a Sunday afternoon is a recipe for disaster for travelling sides and recent evidence suggests the Titans face a tough task again this weekend. Still below strength, they face a Sea Eagles side rediscovering their best form and with plenty to play for as they look to ensure a top-four finish as we near the business end of the season. Sea Eagles by 12 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.