North Queensland Cowboys v Manly Sea Eagles
If Manly wanted a measuring stick, they have got it this week.
Spirits are a little higher at the northern beaches over the past three weeks after a torrid first two months of the season, but Manly on Saturday run into a juggernaut the likes of which they haven't seen this year.
Despite having used seven different halves already in 2015 – Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran, Feleti Mateo, Jamie Buhrer, David Williams, Tom Symonds and Jamie Lyon – the Sea Eagles are slowly starting to piece things together, and it has started with their defence.
Giving up more than 24 points per game over the first seven weeks, Manly has let through just 31 in total over the past three games.
They face the league's second-most dangerous attacking team (21.2 points per game) this week. The Cowboys are playing the best they have in the club's 20-year history and look to make it nine in a row after achieving their biggest ever winning streak with their lowest ever winning score against Wests last Saturday.
Cowboys mentor Paul Green welcomes back Origin stars Johnathan Thurston, James Tamou and Michael Morgan, but he may be without prop Matt Scott who is in doubt after being spotted limping out of the Maroons’ hotel on Thursday morning with a cork along with a cut to his knee.
Manly are sticking solid with last week's team, with the only change being Kieran Foran into Cherry-Evans' No.7 jersey while Symonds mans the six.
Watch Out Cowboys: Manly's fabled left edge has not had much of a crack this year due to the constant changing of halves pairings, but look for Foran to chip away at the Cowboys' right edge defence. The Sea Eagles welcomed back stalwart centre Steve Matai last week, who will provide more shape on the left. Boasting a weaker forward pack than the hosts, Manly will likely throw the ball around and move the ball up the outer thirds, which has served them well recently.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Michael Morgan will be itching to get back onto the park after his first taste of Origin on Wednesday. Former Cowboys five-eighth Robert Lui's passing game tore Manly's right side to shreds in their Round 26 encounter last year, but Morgan has proven to be more effective at the six this year with sheer gut-busting, sinew-stretching runs at the goal line that have regularly resulted in points. Morgan has upped his level over the last two games in particular with five tries, 42 tackles, five line breaks and a try assist.
Key Match-Up: Matt Scott and James Tamou v Jake Trbojevic and Luke Burgess. Manly's front line, averaging just 187 metres per game, has been much maligned this season. Lately Geoff Toovey's men have been more liberal with their ball use, working on the outers, but there is no denying they are outmatched in the middle. But Manly's pair has stuck solid in defence this year, conceding just the one miss between them per game. There is the possibility for Scott and Tamou coming out flat after Wednesday's Origin, but if last year is anything to go by there will be a lot left in the tank. Tamou averaged 144 metres in his two follow-up Origin games and Scott managed 175 metres against the Storm in Round 12.
The History: Played 23; Sea Eagles 15, Cowboys 8.The history between these two sides is not without its drama. Prior to Round 26 last year Manly had won the past six games between the two, including a couple of contentious finals games that North Queenslanders still haven't forgotten about.
What Are The Odds: Cowboys ($1.28) v Sea Eagles ($3.72). Sportsbet punters can smell an upset with the Sea Eagles the best backed side in head-to-head betting. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee – Henry Perenara; Touch Judges – Michael Wise & Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Manly will want to throw it around on the fringes, but if there is one facet of North Queensland's game that has improved over the course of the season it is their ability to stop teams two or three passes either side of the ruck. Manly's attacking flair will no doubt take a hit with likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo grinding them into submission with hard running, as the Cowboys pull away late. North Queensland by 12.