Eels v Sea Eagles
There was more than a touch of controversy about Manly's last-gasp 22-18 win over the Eels at Brookvale back in Round 3, and if you think the Eels have forgotten about it... well, you didn't see Brad Arthur's post-match press conference last week.
The former Manly deputy is still furious over some contentious rulings in that game that cost his side dearly and he made mention of it last week in the wake of "ball boy-gate" and a hotly-debated 40/20 restart that could have helped his team snatch victory over the Bulldogs.
Back in Round 3 it was a penalty against Semi Radradra for a high shot in the act of trapping Daly-Cherry-Evans in-goal three minutes from time – deemed OK on field but overturned by the video referee after the Manly half stayed down – that gave the Sea Eagles a chance to steal a win. Like a thief in the night, they grabbed victory in the final minute just two plays after a sideways play-the-ball from James Hasson in a game where Eels (and former Manly) prop David Gower had himself earlier been penalised for an almost identical act.
Those two points could well prove crucial to the Eels' finals hopes – as will the two points on offer this weekend, with the side on equal seventh with 26 competition points but in ninth due to their woeful for-and-against.
While we're at it – we've already mentioned Arthur and Gower, each of whom was part of the Manly set-up at Grand Final time last year but the crossover doesn't end there. Eels forward Darcy Lussick and centre Will Hopoate were also part of the Manly club in recent years, while the Parramatta connections at Manly are so strong it would almost be quicker to name the Manly players with no links to the Eels.
Skipper Jamie Lyon obviously cut his teeth in blue and gold, Cheyse Blair and Justin Horo are also former Eels while Jorge Taufua played NYC for Parramatta.
Any player will tell you it's a little bit extra special getting a win over your former club and there will be plenty of players on both sides looking to do that this week.
With the Eels much improved compared to previous years, this grudge match is no gimme for Manly and should make for gripping viewing. As mentioned the Eels are still desperately clinging on to the finals zone – their three straight wins kept them right in the mix but last week's narrow loss to Canterbury made the equation tougher.
For Manly, their Round 22 loss to Souths blew the race for the minor premiership wide open – a win here would keep them two points clear at the top as well as all but seal a top-two finish.
The Eels have Junior Paulo returning from suspension at prop, pushing Fuifui Moimoi to NSW Cup, and Peni Terepo back from a knee injury in place of Pauli Pauli. David Gower has also been named despite picking up a knee injury last week.
The Sea Eagles have named left centre Steve Matai to return from a shoulder injury sustained in a George Burgess chicken wing tackle a fortnight ago, in place of Cheyse Blair. Matai was originally slated to return in Round 25 so may yet be a late withdrawal on Friday.
Watch Out Eels: Clutch players stand up in big games and while the Sea Eagles were unconvincing in edging out the Titans 15-12 last week, the try that Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans combined for, and the latter's field goal in the dying stages – off his left foot, no less – show why Manly will always be a tough team to beat. Throw in the sublime form of fullback Brett Stewart (eight tries, 20 try assists in 2014) and Manly have surely the most dangerous 1-6-7 combination in the competition right now.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Speaking of form fullbacks: somehow Jarryd Hayne just keeps churning out the monster efforts every week. In his past four games – three wins for the Eels and last week's narrow loss to the Dogs – Hayne has seven tries, 40 tackle breaks and 1,040 metres at 260 per game. His stunning tap-on for Semi Radradra's first try last week (the pair each have 18 now to be co-competition leaders) show that when he is in this sort of form he just makes things happen. He's been heavily marked and still found a way to excel and you can bet he'll be heavily marked again.
Plays To Watch: Will Steve Matai take the field, and if so, will it mark a return of Manly's lethal left-edge attack? Their biggest strength became a weakness when Matai went off against Souths, and they were lacklustre without him on the Gold Coast. If it is Blair again will they still channel traffic through Parramatta's somewhat suspect edge defence?
For the Eels, keep an eye on Sandow's 40/20 attempts. He's had the radar working in 2014 – the controversy over the restart last week took the gloss over what was a stunning, precision kick under huge pressure when his team desperately needed it. It was his fifth of the year, which is easily the most by any player (several players are next on three), and he's had plenty of near-misses as well that have put opposition wingers and fullbacks under immense pressure. A couple have sailed out on the full but it hasn't deterred him – if his side is under pressure look for him to have another crack.
Where It Will Be Won: Sliding defence. The Eels have improved drastically under Arthur – who would've taken plenty of notes during his time at Melbourne and Manly – and they'll need to slide perfectly to deal with Manly's lethal edge-raids. The Eels themselves have become pretty good at hammering the fringes, as Hayne and Radradra's 18 tries apiece will testify, but Manly's defence (322 points conceded – second fewest in NRL) is usually up to the task. The Eels’ forwards showed last week they are capable of matching it with the big boys but it won't help if they can't finish the job in their opponent’s red-zone.
History: Played 142; Sea Eagles 89, Eels 49, drawn 4. Manly are on a four game winning run against the Eels, who have beaten the northern beaches boys just once in their past seven meetings and just three times in their past 14. The Eels though have won four of their past six against Manly in games played at Parramatta. The Eels' last win over this Friday's opponents came in March 2012 – a game in which current Eels forward Darcy Lussick was a visitor and current Manly centre Cheyse Blair lined up for the home side. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jarryd Hayne was the match-winner in that one with a two-try effort.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet opened the Eels ($2.25) at $2.75 but that price didn’t last long. Still, it’s a fairly even betting match, with the Sea Eagles at $1.50. All the first try-scoring money has gone on leading try-scorers Jarryd Hayne and Semi Radradra. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Nick Beashel & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: We're not expecting Manly to replicate the 40-6 margin they conjured against the soon-to-be wooden spooners on their previous visit here in August last year, but it is still a very tall order for Parramatta against the competition leaders. It's not a done deal by any stretch and a little Hayne magic could go a long way but we'll have to tip last years' grand finalists to get the job done. Manly by 10.