Manly Sea Eagles v Canterbury Bulldogs
Friday 7:35pm (AEDT)
Plenty has happened at Manly since their 2014 Telstra Premiership campaign ended last September.
But no matter how much controversy, rumour and innuendo has conspired to sidetrack the club since then, you'd be wrong to think they've forgotten what the Bulldogs did to them in finals footy last year.
It was a match for the ages that could only be separated in the 85th minute when Trent Hodkinson slotted a field goal from 35 out – his second one-pointer of the match.
That momentous kick marked the end of an era for Manly. They've since entered a period of turmoil and instability with the departure of Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Jason King and constant speculation over the future of their star halves.
Now, with all the rumour put to bed and both Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran confirming they will be departing the club at the end of the year, the Sea Eagles can at least put all their focus back on the 2015 season. That begins against the powerful Bulldogs on Friday.
Some will think that Manly's Round 2 victory over the Storm was a rebirth of sorts, especially judging from the player's euphoric reactions post-game. But with their backs against the wall, it was never going to be difficult for the boys from the beaches to motivate themselves against their rivals last weekend. This Friday's match is a different story.
All the hysteria is behind them. Now it's just the Sea Eagles and the Bulldogs, and it's going to be a cracker. Will Manly make amends for last year's finals exit? Or will the Bulldogs confirm their advantage over the Sea Eagles with another thrilling triumph?
Both teams have named line-ups that are unchanged from their winning outfits in Round 2. Manly have added Justin Horo to an extended bench after his pleasing performances in NSW Cup. Feleti Mateo is named at six, where he unofficially played and starred last week against the Storm in the absence of the injured Foran.
Meanwhile for the Bulldogs last year's hero Hodkinson will play his 100th NRL match on Friday, against his old team.
"It's always pleasing to reach milestones in the game," Hodkinson told Bulldogs media.
"It'll be good to do it against my former club as well. It's where I got my first chance so that will add a bit to the occasion."
Watch out Sea Eagles: The Bulldogs forwards are huge and they are starting to find their rhythm. Last week against the Eels they dominated up front, with starting props and lookalikes Aidan Tolman and James Graham churning up the metres through the middle. With 23 runs each Tolman made 166 metres, while Graham had 158. They will be a massive test for a Manly pack that has some question marks over it after losing a heap of muscle recently. They were shown up in Round 1 against the powerful Eels and if they don't lift it could be a similar story against the Bulldogs.
Watch out Bulldogs: Superstar halfback Daly Cherry-Evans showed everyone what all the fuss was about against the Storm last week. He was in unstoppable form over a 10-minute period against a disciplined and (usually) effective Storm defensive line. The halfback finished the match with two line breaks, 100 running metres and three try assists. With Foran sidelined through injury Cherry-Evans will again be Manly's main man in attack, and someone the Bulldogs will need to shut down whenever possible.
Key Match-Up: Daly Cherry-Evans v Trent Hodkinson. Two brilliant halfbacks at the peak of their powers, and both have extra motivation to dig deep in this one. Cherry-Evans would be enjoying the respectful (awe-inspired) silence from his choir of critics this week after his amazing performance against the Storm, and what better way to really zip their lips for good than to come out and do it all again against Hodkinson. DCE will also be looking to pay back the public support he has received from his teammates since signing with the Titans.
Meanwhile Hodkinson had two try assists in a classy display against the wounded Eels last round. He is a clutch performer who thrives in the big matches and this one just might become one of those, in which case you can count on Hodkinson to raise his game to a new level.
The History: Played 121; Sea Eagles 63, Bulldogs 53, drawn 5. The previous 10 encounters are split six-four to the Dogs. The last time these sides met was in last year's epic semi-final where Trent Hodkinson stole the show with two late field goals.
What are the Odds: Sea Eagles ($1.98) v Bulldogs ($1.83)
Money with Sportsbet is running 12:1 in favour of the Bulldogs despite Manly's return to form last weekend. Not surprisingly, Brett Morris has been the best backed in the first tryscorer market at $11. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant referee: Henry Perenara. Touch judges: Jeff Younis & Nick Beashel. Video referees: Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Manly have gained a lot of confidence from their spirited victory over the Storm last week. It wasn't quite the whole team performance that they were looking for but they still managed to do enough against a strong Storm outfit - with thanks to some contentious refereeing decisions. They will like their chances against the Dogs in front of a rowdy home crowd who found a reason to cheer again last week. However the Bulldogs will travel to Brookie with a monster pack ready to rip and tear into an undersized Manly outfit. Once they do so they have the strike power out wide to convert their chances with both wingers and fullback Brett Morris all bagging doubles last week. Manly will fight hard but there is only so much DCE can do. Bulldogs by 14.
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