Sea Eagles v Broncos
Preparing your defensive line for a night against the Sea Eagles is like discovering you have been isolated in the centre of a skirmish shootout in some remote farmland eight kilometres out of town: You just never know where the next stinging shot is going to come from.
While the Broncos are still tinkering with their halves combination six weeks out from finals footy, the Sea Eagles have rolled through yet another season of success with predominantly the same backline that has carried them to a premiership and grand final appearance in two of the past three years. (So well oiled do they appear that bookmaker Sportsbet on Wednesday announced they were paying out on the maroon and white to win the minor premiership!)
Daly Cherry-Evans has come out the other side of the critical self-analysis of his involvement in Queensland's Origin campaign while Kieran Foran's injury interruptions of earlier in the season have been well and truly forgotten given the punishment he subjected himself to against the Warriors on Sunday.
Centres Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai should have their blood tested for tannins given how well they are aging and Jorge Taufua (who returns after missing the Warriors game) and Peta Hiku are two of the most exciting finishers in the game with nine and 14 tries respectively.
And then there's Brett Stewart.
The scintillating No.1 will be paying around $1.10 to add to his extraordinary try tally at his beloved 'Brookie' but the odds should be even shorter on him acting as provider as well.
In 15 games this year Stewart has contributed 19 try assists for his teammates, second only to Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston who has 20 from 16 games.
And no matter what off-field distractions are thrust into the players' faces in the form of microphones and tape recorders, their bond seems to only become more resolute. And if their position four points clear on the top of the table wasn't daunting enough, Sea Eagles players will be channelling the ferocity of Wolverine as part of the cross-promotion between Marvel and apparel company ISC.
The Broncos didn't appear to handle the disruption of their coach being given the sack last Monday given their performance against the Storm in Round 20 with their opening to the game again costly against a side that likes to play from in front.
If the Broncos give Manly similar latitude in the opening exchanges at Brookvale on Friday night they could very well find themselves on the outside of the top eight moments after the full-time whistle is blown.
Winger Daniel Vidot has been recalled after missing the past two games due to a disciplinary breach with Jack Reed named on the right wing having come off the bench last week.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: The move of Ben Barba from fullback into the Broncos' frontline at five-eighth was one made by coach Anthony Griffin two weeks ago but only after Barba suggested the switch himself. Although a limited preparation prior to the Warriors game in Round 19 hindered Barba's effectiveness, with two line-break assists, a try assist and a line break of his own last week against the Storm the 2012 Dally M player of the year proved that the more involved he is, the more effective he can be. With the offloading capabilities of Corey Parker, the Broncos need Barba with his head in the game as much as possible to keep their finals hopes alive.
Watch Out Broncos: He may be still a way from the number of carries he took earlier in the season but in the past two weeks Kieran Foran has run the ball on more occasions than he has since his first game back from a knee injury suffered in Round 7. When he made his return against the Broncos in Round 12 after missing three games, he showed up some of his much bigger forwards with his tenaciousness and he was at it again last week in New Zealand, his seven runs the most since that comeback. He has scored three tries from his past three games and with Foran calling the ball more often, Manly are a much more potent outfit.
Plays To Watch: The beauty of Manly's attack is that they surge forward in numbers and with so many effective playmakers the decisions made by the defensive team largely determine how they play their hand. They have unveiled some nice trick shots around the ruck with the likes of Brett Stewart and Kieran Foran coming back hard on the angle and aren't afraid to stretch the defence to its widest points; or in the case of Peta Hiku, even beyond the boundaries of the playing field. Much of the creativity for the Broncos stems from either second-phase play generated by Corey Parker or at the hands of Ben Hunt, who will be eager to atone for a poor showing against the Storm last week.
Where It Will Be Won: When two of the top six defensive sides in the competition go head-to-head the result will largely hinge on who can take their opportunities when they arise. Brisbane's 58 try saves are the most by any team in the competition but their opposition boasts 64 try assists in 2014, also the best in the NRL. While Brisbane may rely on individual brilliance from the likes of Hunt, Barba and Copley for their points, Manly's high-performing backline gives them a much more threatening look.
The History: Played 38; Sea Eagles 19; Broncos 18; Drawn 1. Round 12's 36-10 thumping by the Broncos recalled memories of the very first encounter between these two clubs when Brisbane announced themselves in 1988 by dishing out a 44-10 hiding to the defending premiers in their first premiership game. Although they enjoyed an early dominance, the Broncos have won just three of their past 12 clashes with Manly and have won only twice at Brookvale over the past 20 years. Since losing their Round 1 clash with Melbourne 23-22, Manly have won their past seven games at Brookvale by a combined score of 211-88.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet is reporting close to a 50-50 split in this one with punters seeing the Broncos ($3.35) as good value. However in line betting, nearly all of the money is for Manly giving away 8.5 points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee – Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh and Russell Turner; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 7.30pm (Qld); delayed, 9.30pm (NSW).
How We See It: In this topsy-turvy world of tipping at present perhaps the smart money should be on Brisbane because only the most ardent of Broncos fans could build a case that their team deserves to start favourites. Manly's win at Mt Smart on Sunday was of the highest order and the only thing that could possibly stand in the way is an onset of jet lag from the short three-hour flight back from New Zealand and a five-day turnaround. Manly are a club currently under siege from the outside world, and that's exactly how they like it. Sea Eagles by 10 points.