Manly: 'All right' on the night
Manly have the advantage of fielding arguably the most dynamic centre-winger combination in the competition as they try to find the big play that could make all the difference against Cronulla at Allianz Stadium on Friday night.
Centre Jamie Lyon and winger David Williams have been in devastating form on the right-hand side for the Sea Eagles this season. They are each scoring tries at a rate exceeding their career average before this season and from a team point of view they are combining brilliantly.
One of them is capable of breaking open a potentially very tough, physical game by doing something special to come up with a four-pointer – or it could be the pair of them, working off each other to beat a defence that looked to have them covered.
Lyon, 31, and Williams, 27, who first began playing alongside each other when Williams made his first-grade debut in the ultimately premiership-winning 2008 season for the Sea Eagles, may have never been better together than in the Round 25 game this season against the Storm.
The pair butchered the Storm's left-side defence. Lyon ran for 167 metres and made one line-break, Williams made three line-breaks and scored three tries. Lyon instinctively knew where Williams was and found him with perfect passes. Williams instinctively knew what Lyon was going to do.
The Sharks haven't got recent experience of dealing with Lyon and Williams together, either. The two teams have only met once this season, when the Sea Eagles won 25-18 in Round 6, but while Lyon played it was the only game Williams has missed this season.
Before this year, Lyon had played 208 games and scored 91 tries. This season, he has played 25 games and scored 14 tries. He has also made 20 line-breaks and 20 offloads.
Williams, who has had several major injury concerns over the years, had scored 45 tries in his 66 games before this season. In 2013, he has scored 19 tries in 24 games and also made 24 line-breaks and six offloads.
The Sea Eagles have lost their past two games – 38-26 against the Panthers in the final round and 4-0 against the Roosters in the first week of the finals – but Lyon and Williams were still major forces in both of those encounters.
Lyon had two offloads against both the Panthers and Roosters. Williams ran for 209 metres against the Panthers and made three line-breaks and scored two tries. Against the Roosters, he ran for 163 metres and made three line-breaks.
The Sea Eagles did everything they physically could to get over the line against the Roosters without actually scoring in a match where the quality of the defence from both sides was extraordinary.
It will be rugged again when the Sea Eagles meet the Sharks, but there is likely to be more of a way through for the Sea Eagles than there was against the Roosters.
The Roosters were the number one-ranked defensive team in the competition during the regular season, and the Sea Eagles were ranked second. The Sharks were ranked seventh in defence, so there is a significant challenge facing them going into this game.
Sea Eagles coach Geoff Toovey, like most coaches, isn't into lavishly praising his players ahead of games. They've got a job to do, and he wants them to concentrate on that. But he couldn't help but admit he liked what he had seen from Lyon and Williams this season.
"They're having a really good year," Lyon said. "Jamie's in really good form. I thought last year was probably his best year for Manly, and this year he has backed that up with consistently good football again. He's a vital part of our team.
"Williams has been really good, too, particularly the last six weeks or so. He started off a bit sluggish this season, coming back from some injuries, but he's built into the year really well."
And on their combination?
"Well, they've been together for a little while now, and that always helps," Toovey said. "Hopefully, they can put a few points on when we play the Sharks."
Toovey said the Sea Eagles had come up well after the bruising encounter with the Roosters.
"We obviously have to adjust for how the players are feeling after a tough game," he said. "And with the short turnaround this week there isn't too much you can do physically with them. We've prepared well to play the Sharks. If we win, we'll be fine."
Toovey said he wouldn't be sure whether fullback Brett Stewart, who has missed the Sea Eagles' past two games with a hamstring injury, would be playing until sometime on Friday.
"I'm waiting on 'Snake' to see how he pulls up from our training run on Thursday," Toovey said. "We won't make up our minds until Friday on him. We won't risk him if he's not right. You can't do much with those hamstring injuries – you're either alright or you're not."