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Sea Eagles v Sharks
Allianz Stadium
Friday 7.45pm

So, for the fourth-placed Sea Eagles and the fifth-placed Sharks, it all comes down to this. A do-or-die finals battle awaits these two sides on Friday night – and what an epic encounter it should prove to be!

The combatants share one of the strongest and fiercest rivalries in the history of rugby league. The animosity dates back to the 1970s, when the Sea Eagles and Sharks played out the hard-fought “bar-room brawl” that was the 1973 grand final, as well as the 1978 decider which was ultimately decided in a replay. Since then, however, there have been other bitter and dramatic battles, too: the 1996 Elimination Semi-Final, dominated by Manly, where John Hopoate demonstrated unsportsmanlike ways in condescendingly patting David Peachey on the head following a series of blunders at the back; then in 2005 the controversial winger pole-axed Sharks forward Keith Galloway, was sent off and suspended for a total of 17 matches. There’s certainly no love lost between these two fierce rivals in the Battle of the Beaches, a war in which the Sea Eagles hold the upper hand with 56 victories from 81 matches.

This season Manly have somehow flown under the radar of their NRL opponents – the tried-and-tested team, the 2011 premiers, have won 15 of their 25 matches all season on the back of a hard-working and committed forward pack and the effectiveness and excellence of one of the best backlines of the modern era.

Last week in one of the most physical finals matches in NRL history, the Roosters beat Manly 4-0. Yup, just four-nil – the lowest-scoring final since St George beat Illawarra 21 years ago! It’s a clash that will no doubt still have plenty of the Sea Eagles squad nursing bumps and bruises.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have done anything but fly under the radar in 2013 – on the back of the much-publicised ASADA investigation, they’ve found themselves in the headlines (on the front and back pages) more weeks than any other side in the NRL. The Sharks have won 15 of 25 matches just like the Sea Eagles, and have recorded a four-match winning streak as well as four bunches of back-to-back victories.

Cronulla were also involved in an epic finals battle last week at Allianz Stadium. Facing the Cowboys in the First Elimination Final, Cronulla overcame controversy – and injury – to beat North Queensland in the most nail-biting of finishes.

In team changes this week, Manly have named star fullback Brett Stewart, who missed the match against the Roosters with a troublesome hamstring injury. His fitness, however, will be tested later in the week. Last week’s replacement Peta Hiku remains on standby in jumper No.19. James Hasson and David Gower have been named on an extended seven-man bench, as has Richie Fa’aoso, despite being hauled from the field on a medi-cab last Saturday night.

Cronulla’s hopes have taken a huge blow with five-eighth Todd Carney not named after suffering a re-occurrence of his hamstring injury against the Cowboys. Carney struggled through the later stages of that win and, while Sharks medical staff will continue to work on the injury, he is not expected to be fit in time for this match.
Luke Lewis has been named at No.6, with Jayson Bukuya added to the run-on 13 and Bryce Gibbs coming into the 17 to fill the vacant bench position.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: If Manly are to manhandle the Sharks here and progress to the Preliminary Final against South Sydney, they’re going to shift the ball wide and early – but they’re going to have to win the battle up front, too.

The Sharks will fancy their chances in the forwards – four of their players average more than 100 metres (Paul Gallen 182, Andrew Fifita 146.5, Luke Lewis 103 and Chris Heighington 100), compared with just two of the Sea Eagles’ forwards (Anthony Watmough 127.9 and Brenton Lawrence (106.4).

Watch Out Sharks: The Sea Eagles make 5.2 line-breaks per game (second in the NRL) – and their backline potency could rip the Sharks to shreds. Theirs is a backline bristling with brilliance, from halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran through to centres Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai and the back three of Jorge Taufua, David Williams and Brett Stewart. The star centre and captain, in particular, is a massive creative threat Cronulla needs to neutralise – Lyon leads the league in line-break assists for a centre with 16 (and he requires just two more for 100 in his entire career). The Sea Eagles’ flankmen, too, will need to be watched closely – Taufua leads the entire league for line-breaks with 30, while Williams is fourth with 24.

Plays To Watch: The two plays that’ll make or break this game centre around Manly No.3 Jamie Lyon and Cronulla fullback Michael Gordon. Lyon’s in, away and release for David Williams worked a treat last week, even though they never capitalised on their opportunities – and Jonathan Wright and Sosaia Feki will have their hands full dealing with the dynamic duo in this clash.

For the Sharks, Gordon will bob up in backline manoeuvres and on the end of forward charges (look for offloads from Gallen, Lewis and Anthony Tupou, who requires two more popped passes for 500 in his career). Gordon’s high-octane bursts have the potential to rip through the Sea Eagles’ defensive structures, like they did against the Cowboys, resulting in crucial tries to Cronulla forward Sam Tagataese as well as centre Ben Pomeroy.

Key Match-Up: Fullback Brett Stewart up against his opposite Michael Gordon. Both equally athletic and exciting, it should prove a show-stopping, match-defining running battle.

Where It Will Be Won: The two inspirations that are Anthony Watmough and Paul Gallen. The workaholic evergreen back-rowers motivate and energise their team – and when the going gets tough, they get going. Who’s going to step up and lead their side to a famous victory – and take their team to just one step short of the grand final?

The History: Played 81 – Sea Eagles 56, Sharks 23, drawn 2. Recent form is in Manly’s favour too – they’ve won seven of their past eight games against Cronulla.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Sea Eagles v Sharks finals clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm.

The Way We See It: This should be a bruising battle – and one that really tests the skill and knowledge of coaches Toovey and Flanagan, too. Both sides have their strengths (Manly’s backline and Cronulla’s forward pack), and how they go about both utilising and nullifying these will prove pivotal. We’ll side with the Sea Eagles – they’ve lost just one finals game against Cronulla… and that was in 1978! Manly by four points in yet another classic.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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