Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v North Queensland Cowboys
Not often does a team sitting 13th make so many headlines at this point of the season.
When sides find themselves four points out of the top eight with a ghastly for-and-against of -50 and less than a third of the season to run, their year is usually doomed for failure.
But such is the aurora around the Manly club and the confidence and fight in its players, they're still very much a chance at playing finals football despite the immensely difficult road ahead, featuring the Cowboys, Warriors, Broncos, Rabbitohs and Roosters.
Their finals endeavours are hanging by a thread but one thing is certain: the Silvertails are more than ready to cause a few silver hairs in the opposition coaching ranks.
Cowboys mentor Paul Green is first cab off the rank in this post-Origin sprint to the finish line, and he has a job to do in getting his players back in tune following a five-day holiday during their bye last week. Monday night will mark 16 days since their last game – a successful trip to Wollongong.
With four competition points over the Roosters and a relatively easy run home, North Queensland should ride their typical late-season form spike into a top-two finish, while pushing Queensland counterparts Brisbane all the way for the J.J. Giltinan Shield.
Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Michael Morgan return from Origin duty, while James Tamou gets another week's rest with a one-game suspension for a high shot in Origin. Robert Lui, Ray Thompson and Glenn Hall have been forced out of the side and Patrick Kaufusi finds himself at 18th man.
There aren't too many changes for Manly with Dunamis Lui returning from a week-long absence at lock, while Ligi Sao drops back to the bench for Jayden Hodges, who is 18th man.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Threats come thick and fast from the Cowboys. Pocket rockets Jake Granville and Lachlan Coote showed what they can do when called upon in the absence of their Origin stars. But the main man will be Jason Taumalolo. The blockbusting back-rower lamented his form earlier this week, attributing it to working his way back from the four-week knee injury sustained at Newcastle in Round 8. According to the man himself, 178 metres per game since his return is not enough. Look for 'JT3' to step up further in the absence of Tamou.
Watch Out Cowboys: Manly is the fourth-worst attacking side in the competition... who knew? While they struggle at times to win the positional battle, they are as dangerous as any team in the red zone. Stats show a glimpse of their goal-line trickery – running the second-highest number of decoys per game (50) – but it's the simple eye test that sees just how threatening they can be with swift backline movements generated by superstar halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran. The Sea Eagles have averaged 26 points over their last four games.
Key Match-Up: Daly Cherry-Evans v Johnathan Thurston. The $10 million man v genius playmaking you just can't put a price tag on. Two of the game's pre-eminent talents, both men sport supercomputers atop their shoulders, capable of processing incredible amounts of data in quick time. At 32, Thurston's hardware is a bit knocked about but the software is as sharp as ever. In fact it's arguably mutating. At 26, Cherry-Evans is approaching his physical peak while making better reads on pass/run options. There's no doubting Cherry-Evans is an elite talent, but Thurston – in two less games than DCE – has managed six more try assists and six more line-break assists. Cherry-Evans pips Thurston in line breaks (25 to 22) and in average kick metres (334 metres to 310), but JT has his hands on a lot more ball, averaging 64 to Cherry-Evans' 46.
The History: Played 24; Sea Eagles 15, Cowboys 9. It's always a tense encounter between these two and after six-straight Manly wins dating back to 2011, the Cowboys have put two consecutive victories on the board for the first time since 2006-07.
What Are The Odds: The Sea Eagles have firmed significantly since they opened at $2.08 but there’s still 50 per cent more investment on the Cowboys with Sportsbet. Both sides have been backed to win by 1-12 so we could be in for a close one if the markets are a guide. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall; Touch Judges: David Ryan & Kasey Badger; Video Referees: Shayne Hayne & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm AEDT.
The Way We See It: The Sea Eagles are gearing up but, with this week being Round 19, they have missed the mark by a number of months. Much like the bookies, we find it hard to split these teams. After being spurned by both the public following the infamous contractual backflip, and Queensland Maroons selectors for Origin Game III, Cherry-Evans will be playing with a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the year and that could be enough to get the job done here. Manly by six.