Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
The beaten 2013 Grand Finalists will suit up against the beaten 2012 Grand Finalists on Saturday night for a chance to play the Panthers for a spot in the 2014 decider.
The embattled Sea Eagles are headed for their first do-or-die clash of the year against the suddenly back-in-form Bulldogs, whose coach – former Manly premiership-winning clipboard-holder Des Hasler – has a funny knack of orchestrating big wins.
Hasler's former charges, now under the guidance of Hasler's former offsider Geoff Toovey, were simply blown away by a cardinal and myrtle onslaught last week, the rampaging Rabbitohs running through and around the maroon and whites at will as they raced out to a 40-0 lead.
Four quick-fire late tries closed the final margin to a more respectable 16 but that came with the result well beyond doubt and Dally M contender Sam Burgess already having been rewarded with an early shower, so it's hard to know how much to read into that late run.
The Sea Eagles not only copped a knock to their confidence out of the flogging, they also suffered further blows to a rapidly deteriorating roster.
Third-string hooker Jayden Hodges left the field at half time in a neck brace, while Origin back-rower Anthony Watmough was cited for a dangerous throw on Greg Inglis that has rubbed him out for one week. His skipper Jamie Lyon received an identical charge for his part in the tackle but his clean record sees him escape a ban.
The club will give both Ballin and Hodges every chance to prove their fitness ahead of Saturday’s game, and in the meantime have named a line-up that is unchanged with the exception of Watmough, whose spot in the second row is taken by Tom Symonds, with Dunamis Lui starting at lock and James Hasson joining the bench.
Meanwhile over at Belmore things are suddenly looking a lot brighter than they were a week earlier, when a Josh Reynolds half-time brain snap precipitated an 18-point capitulation against the lowly Titans, and further meant they headed into the 2014 finals with just two wins from their final eight regular season games.
That game and the losses before it now seem a distant memory following a rampant 28-4 shellacking of the side that bested them in the 2012 decider – and it was down in Melbourne's home patch at AAMI Park.
It looked like the Bulldogs of old – the big men stepping and ball-playing at the line, wildcard pivot Reynolds throwing himself into his work and running the ball at and through the line with gusto, steady halfback Trent Hodkinson controlling proceedings without raising a sweat and the outside backs (actually, pretty much just Tim Lafai) running amok. And let's not forget departing skipper Michael Ennis, the original 'grub' and the man who infamously got legendary good guy Nathan Hindmarsh to once throw the first punch, getting under the skin of one of the most unflappable blokes to ever play the game with his head rub of Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith.
The wash-up, though, is that the Bulldogs are fitter than their opponents; there was an awful leg break for Pat O'Hanlon last week and ongoing absences for Sam Kasiano, Lloyd Perrett and Tim Browne, but all their key personnel and playmakers are on deck.
They have named Reni Maitua to replace O'Hanlon on the bench, with Moses Mbye and Harlan Alaalatoa on an extended bench. Winger Corey Thompson, who left the field early with an abdominal cork last week, is expected to play.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: In-form centre Tim Lafai may have got most of the plaudits for his hat-trick last week but relentless prop James Graham was man of the match for a reason. The big Brit was in absolutely everything and his length of the field run to deny Storm centre Mahe Fonua a try – his second length of the field chase on an outside back in as many weeks – shows his unwavering commitment to the cause. His 143 metres from 13 charges and 34 tackles are huge but tell barely half the story. He also ran bags of decoys, contested bombs, threw a deft pass to put Hodkinson over for the side's second try, and did plenty of clean-up work around the ruck. When you have the likes of Greg Eastwood (opening try, intercept line-break and even a kick into the in-goal) and Tony Williams (151 metres, five tackle breaks) winding back the clock, and Aidan Tolman, Josh Jackson and Dale Finucane (over 100 metres each and around 30 tackles apiece last week) all rolling the sleeves up, it makes for a formidable forward pack.
Watch Out Bulldogs: The Sea Eagles are a team you write off at your peril. People did last year and they made the grand final. People also did so at the start of this year and they finished top-two after leading most of the way. Now everyone are doing it again, and they won't mind it one bit. Even with the injury woes at hooker and widely-reported behind-the-scenes issues, this is a team packed with stars who know how to win big footy games. They have the best halves combination in the NRL and arguably the best centre pairing to go with it. Their fullback isn't bad either: Brett Stewart's 22 try assists is the most by a fullback this year and the 'Snake' will no doubt be primed for a big one in his 200th NRL game. Manly love having their backs to the wall (and said as much during the week) and will be more than happy to be written off by all and sundry ahead of kick-off – it usually brings out the best in them.
Plays To Watch: The big Dogs were playing ball last week; it wasn't just Graham, who has beautiful hands for a big man – his short passing at the line is what makes him so dangerous. Throw in T-Rex and his offloading capacity at the end of a big charge, Josh Jackson's angled runs and a bit of all of the above from Greg Eastwood who started last week so explosively – not to mention co-skipper Frank Pritchard back on the park – and you have a real mixed bag of threats close to the line to keep opponents guessing.
For Manly, we're expecting a ‘back to basics’ approach, and back to what they know best. They'll be aiming for simple mistake-free footy through the middle of the park. Then when they get in range, that lethal left side shift from Foran to Matai, with either Tom Symonds or Justin Horo running decoys and Brett Stewart slotting in with either a quick pass or grubber, will come into play. Bulldogs centre Tim Lafai had a fine game last week on the Dogs' right edge but also missed three tackles and will certainly have his work cut out here.
Where It Will Be Won: More so than usual, this will be decided in the forwards. Manly have arguably the best attacking back seven in the NRL but it doesn't make a lick of difference if you never get the ball in your opponents' 20, which is what happened last week when the Rabbitohs' kick-returns blew Manly away. Meanwhile, Canterbury's entire back seven is probably best described as "workmanlike" and has, on paper, the least amount of strike power of any side left in the finals. But when your forwards help you spend most of the game in your opposition's half... well, you saw what happened. Manly average just 50.78 metres gained per five-tackle set in 2014 – the lowest of any top eight side – while at 52.73 the Bulldogs are third best. A two-metres-per-set advantage across the course of a game makes a huge difference to your attacking opportunities, which in the context of finals football could be a game breaker.
History: Played 120; Sea Eagles 63, Bulldogs 52, drawn 5. A slight historical advantage for Manly but the previous 10 are split five apiece. The last time these sides met in a finals match, the Bulldogs edged Manly 16-10 at ANZ Stadium in the first week of the 2012 finals, with minor premiers Canterbury going on to the Grand Final and Manly losing their preliminary final to eventual premiers Melbourne.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Ben Cummins; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: On paper all signs point to the Bulldogs after a crushing win over the Storm last week while Manly themselves got battered by Souths and lost yet another key player in Watmough. But rugby league, particularly around finals time, is rarely so simple. Writing Manly off is seldom a ticket to tipping success although they do look to have just that extra bit of fragility about them at the moment. Either side really could win this and who ends up at hooker for Manly could be a big factor. If Ballin is included and close to 100 per cent fit this is too tough to call but either way we'll take the Bulldogs in a close one – Canterbury by two points.