Sea Eagles v Panthers
There's only one game this weekend that features two top four sides going at it, and this right here is it.
There is no shortage of incentives for these two sides heading into Sunday's Brookvale clash, not least of all that both are last-start losers and will be desperate not to drop any further momentum just a fortnight out from the finals.
Manly were fairly clinical in going into the sheds at halftime up 12-0 at Parramatta last week, but were swamped by a blue-and-gold tidal wave in the second half to go down 22-12. Coming off an unconvincing 15-12 win at the Gold Coast a week earlier, and a very disappointing loss to Souths before that, they desperately need to find some form or risk relinquishing their narrow advantage atop the competition ladder.
Although strike centre Steve Matai - who plays his 200th NRL game on Sunday - missed the fortnight before there were no excuses for Manly last week with their best 17 (minus long-term absentee Glenn Stewart) on the park and while South Sydney's surprise loss to the impressive Cowboys kept Manly two clear of the chasing pack they could finish Round 25 in third – or mathematically as low as fourth, although that would require a rather unlikely loss by 26 or more points on Sunday.
Either way a top-two finish is far from assured and they'll be desperate to regain some form ahead of a tough final round road trip to Townsville.
Penrith's highly impressive three-game winning run came to a shuddering halt on Monday night against the Storm in a match that neither side's coach would have been overly enamoured by. There were no major alarm bells though for Ivan Cleary, and with a home game against the Jekyll-and-Hyde Warriors to round out the regular season, one win from their last two should be enough to ensure a top-four finish.
His one immediate concern – leaving aside the massive injury toll of previous weeks – is the two-game ban for underrated prop Jeremy Latimore, who was slapped with a Grade 2 charge for his crusher tackle on Bryan Norrie on Monday. The club rejected the potential one-game ban for an early plea by challenging the grading in a bid to have him available for Sunday but was unsuccessful, meaning he is out until the first week of the finals. A replacement will be named on Sunday.
With a short turnaround between Monday night's game and team naming on Tuesday, the Panthers have just lodged the same 17 that took the field on Monday – meaning it is unclear whether hooker James Segeyaro will return from Papua New Guinea following the passing of his father to take Kevin Kingston's place in the side.
Manly, like Penrith, were also in danger of being minus one prop due to the judiciary, with Jason King facing a game on the sidelines for a swinging arm on Tepai Moeroa last week resulting in a Grade 2 careless high tackle charge. With King facing one game out with or without an early plea, the club opted to challenge the grading. The successful trip to the judiciary means the local junior and club legend will be available to face the Panthers in what is the retiring veteran's last ever game at Brookvale.
His availability means Manly have an unchanged 17.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: One of Penrith's shining lights through their recent injury woes has been the form of 'buy of the year' candidate Jamie Soward. Plenty of column inches of late have been devoted to Soward's 2014 redemption, but in cold, hard footy terms: he's one of the main reasons his side are still in contention for, amazingly, a top-two finish.
Consistent with Penrith's 2014 habit of all-round performers with no individual stars, Soward isn't topping any statistical categories – but he has quietly crept up to eighth on the season try-assist tally, with 17, and equal twelfth for line break assists, with 15. His running game – nonexistent towards the end of his Dragons career – has re-emerged, with better than four runs per game in 2014, and his precision long kicking game has been a huge boost. It will need to be on target against Manly's classy backline.
Watch Out Panthers: Manly, clearly, have threats all over the park but it's their strike out wide that is arguably their biggest. With Kieran Foran feeding Steve Matai to the left and Daly Cherry-Evans feeding Jamie Lyon on the right, and Brett Stewart popping up wherever he sees a gap, Penrith's edge defenders will have a tough ask out at Brookvale this week.
Brett Stewart's 20 try assists (equal fourth in 2014) in 19 games and Peta Hiku's 17 tries (equal fourth) in 22 games should put Penrith's edge men on notice.
Plays To Watch: Hulking Penrith centre Jamal Idris made it a personal mission to give Cooper Cronk a tough night at the office on Monday, repeatedly rushing out of the line and monstering the much smaller halfback in smothering one-on-one tackles. It proved an effective strategy, though the Storm were still good enough to get the win. How will Cherry-Evans deal with the special treatment if Idris goes for a repeat effort?
For Manly, Brett Stewart's try-scoring feats at Brookvale are legendary – his 75 tries in 81 games there highlight the threat he poses on his home patch, and he sits just three tries behind club legend Steve Menzies at the venue – will he get close to overtaking 'Beaver' on Sunday?
Where It Will Be Won: Last play options – which includes getting to their last play options. As good as the Eels were in the second half last week, they were handed a huge leg-up by Manly's second half completion rate, which dropped from around 80 per cent to around 60 per cent, as their errors doubled from three in the first half to six in the second.
Penrith actually improved their second half completions last week but unfortunately for them, so did Melbourne. Holding the ball will be crucial but what happens on that last play is just as vital. Both these sides are mid-table when it comes to forcing their opponents into dropping bombs, but when it comes to catching them – Manly are one of the worst in the comp at spilling high balls, with 15 (fifth-worst, Brisbane and Roosters the most with 18). However Penrith have been rock solid under the high ball – only the Dragons have messed up fewer than the eight bombs Penrith have dropped.
History: Played 78; Sea Eagles 49, Panthers 28, drawn 1. Penrith won the previous meeting between the two sides – 38-26 at Brookvale Oval in Round 26 last year – and the last eight meetings are split four apiece. While Penrith have won two of their past four at the venue, they won just two of the 12 before that.
What Are The Odds:
After opening the Panthers at the juicy odds of $4.25, Sportsbet received plenty of money for the mountain men to win this game. No one seems to be keen on the Sea Eagles ($1.22) giving away a 12 points start despite the match being played at fortress Brookvale. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed, 3pm.
The Way We See It: It's a tough ask for the Panthers – Manly's previous loss at Brookvale was all the way back in Round 1, when the Storm came back to win 23-22 in the wet after Brett Stewart went off injured. Penrith's away form hasn't been at all bad – they've won six of eight away since losing their first three away games of the year – but this is one of the toughest road trips in the NRL. There is no shortage of incentives for either side to lift and both are looking to bounce back after losses but with fewer injury concerns we'll back Manly to get their job done on their home patch. Sea Eagles by 12.