Dragons v Sea Eagles
Saturday, 7:30pm (AEDT)
A picturesque backdrop is guaranteed for this Saturday evening's battle of the beaches in what doubles as the first Wollongong fixture for 2015, and the 100th NRL game at the historic venue.
Daylight savings might be ending in NSW next week, but some Dragons critics were of the belief the sun had already set on the joint venture club after opening the season with two uninspiring losses.
However last week's 22-20 comeback victory in Canberra has revived a pulse in the Red V, a gritty breakthrough that has given hierarchy a breath to figure out how they can fix things up.
Part of the solution could lie in re-signed rookie Euan Aitken, whose dynamic performance on debut has given the Dragons faithful some semblance of a bright future.
Coach Paul McGregor has rewarded Aitkan with another berth, as well as giving lock Trent Merrin his first run-on start of the year. Prop George Rose is named on an extended bench after missing last week's clash due to the birth of his first child.
Similarly, Manly's last rites were written when five-eighth Kieran Foran announced his decision to follow Daly Cherry-Evans out the door at season's end a fortnight ago.
Instead, they bounced back with a trademark tough win over rivals Melbourne before going down 16-12 to former coach Des Hasler and his Bulldogs in the Brookvale sandpit last Friday.
Foran has been named to return after missing last week with a hamstring complaint, while skipper Jamie Lyon has recovered from a leg issue that forced him to pull out on game eve.
Feleti Mateo moves back to the second row and Tom Symonds is shuffled back to the bench.
Watch Out Dragons: There numbers aren't quite there yet – he's got seven offloads, one try, one line break assist and four tackle busts in three games – but the reliable eye-test shows savvy veteran Feleti Mateo is slowly rekindling the form that once had him in line for an Origin jumper. The subtle dummy, footwork at the line and one-handed offload have all been sighted over the first three weeks, and signs point to us seeing more of them as his rebirth in Brookvale continues.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Some were quick to ask whether Penrith-bound forward Trent Merrin's heart was in it for the Red V this year, but the evidence should surely put an end to the conjecture. Here's his statline through the first three games: 181 metres and 38 tackles per game, eight tackle busts, three line breaks, a try and – get this – ZERO errors. He's arguably been the Dragons' best thus far this year.
Key Match-Up: Josh Dugan v Brett Stewart. It seems you can't go a weekend anymore without some kind of battle for the NSW No.1 jumper, and Saturday evening will be no different. The Dragons fullback is the favourite, mainly due to his status as the incumbent Blues centre who spent the majority of his career at the back. He'll want to make amends for last week's sin-binning in Canberra against the ultra-experienced Stewart, a cunning custodian who would very much be in NSW coach Laurie Daley's calculations to fill Jarryd Hayne's spot. It's more than likely that one of these two stars will decide this contest.
The History: Played 22; Dragons 14, Manly 8. The northern beaches have proven their superiority in the past three encounters, including a decisive 21-18 victory in July last year. The south coasters ruled the roost in the four before that, as well as leading the tally 3-1 in games played in Wollongong since their merger.
What Are The Odds: Dragons ($2.30) v Sea Eagles ($1.58). Eighty per cent of the hold is on Manly as far as head-to-head betting is concerned. Sea Eagles 13+ is the most popular option in margin betting as well. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee – Chris Sutton; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Lawrence McDonell; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Ben Galea.
Televised: Foxsports 1 – Live 7:30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: The Dragons showed there was life in those Red V jumpers last week, but it's impossible to look past the experience and know-how of a Manly side bolstered by the return of Foran and Lyon. The home ground advantage makes it close, however we're going to stick with a Sea Eagles victory by 10 points.