Cowboys wary of familiar face
Possible season-ending injuries to hooker Matt Ballin and back-rower Jamie Buhrer could not have come at a worse time of year as Manly find themselves on the doorstep of another premiership push.
In some circles Ballin is regarded as the glue that has kept together one of the best teams of this era, and after fracturing his fibula against the Panthers last week will end his run of 182-straight NRL appearances.
If there could possibly be a consolation for the Sea Eagles after both first and second-choice hookers went down last week, it is that 20 year-old prospect and former Cowboy Jayden Hodges gets the shot of a lifetime to prove his worth at the top grade.
While Manly's Round 17 clash against the Bulldogs was the only action Hodges has seen this year having made his NRL debut in Round 25 last season, North Queensland veteran Kane Linnett has argued the Cairns Kangaroos junior offers more in attack than their regular rake.
"Jayden Hodges coming in, he’ll probably add a bit more spark in attack, so we will have to watch that. Saying that, I'd definitely say [Ballin] is one of the best defensive hookers in the league, probably a very underrated player," Linnett told NRL.com.
"You don't hear too much about him but he's a crucial part of their team and he's played a lot of football for them and I’m not sure how long he’s going to be out for but he will probably be a big loss.
"I just think [Hodges] is really quick out of dummy-half. He's still really young and I think he's going to get out of dummy-half and try and cause us a little bit of problems up the middle."
Combinations may be hard to come by on Saturday as both Manly halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans have never played with another hooker in their club careers.
Cowboys hooker Rory Kostjasyn knows first-hand the importance of the No.9 jersey and the stability required from that position, and says that Ballin’s experience and poise will be sorely missed.
"[Ballin] is obviously super consistent for them, not sure if they’re going to play 'Hodgey' for 80 minutes or what they’ll do there, but obviously he’s someone that's been there for a long time. He's made 150-plus games back-to-back so they miss all of that experience," he said.
"As a young bloke coming in and getting an opportunity obviously he will be quite enthusiastic and have a lot of energy so that's one thing he will bring.
"He had a good show and go out of dummy-half [when he was at the Cowboys] and he's pretty clever so we're on the look-out that's for sure."
With defensive stats reading 42 tackles per game at 94 per cent efficiency and 11 penalties conceded (third-best by a 20-plus game hooker), Ballin also has his hands on the second-most ball in the competition, behind Bulldog Michael Ennis.
And while thrown into the fire against the Cowboys this Saturday, Linnett expects Hodges to get a sufficient helping hand from his fellow men in the middle.
"They have so many good players across the park to back 'Hodgo' up. Their middle, Anthony Watmough and players like that, they’re all workers so it's going to be a tough battle whichever way you look at it. But Hodgo will be up here for a big game," he said.
There is no better initiation for a young player at his new club than the opportunity to tear his old mates a new one; especially in front of more than 20,000 hostile fans.
While not known as the gregarious type off the field, Hodges is a different beast once on it. He is quick, creative and crafty, and with the table set for a career few weeks the Cairns product may just turn a few heads.