Manly Sea Eagles v Sydney Roosters
A real grudge match looms out at Brookvale Oval this Friday between two sides who suffered serious and unexpected setbacks last weekend. For the home side it was the likely ending of their season in a surprise upset in the wet against a spirited Eels side coupled with the loss of inspirational hooker Matt Ballin. They can still make the finals but need to win their last two straight and hope the Dragons fall over.
The Roosters, while surging to the top of the ladder with an incredibly gutsy win at home over Brisbane, lost in-form prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for the season and gun half Mitch Pearce for at least a couple of weeks, if not the season. Strike centre Michael Jennings also picked up a one-week suspension.
It is arguably Manly who suffered the bigger blows; their 2015 campaign now hangs by a thread. If they cannot overcome a Roosters side they've shared some epic battles with in recent times then it will be formally finished. They'll need to do it without a recognised No.9, overlooking youngster Jayden Hodges in favour of back-rower Blake Leary to fill the rather large hole left by Ballin's ACL injury.
Willie Mason's return from suspension pushing Ligi Sao to lock in place of Leary.
The Roosters at least have impressive depth to cover for two significant outs. Kiwi prop Sam Moa returns from a dislocated wrist to replaced Waerea-Hargreaves, while up and coming star Jackson Hastings takes Pearce's No.7 jersey. The reshuffle sees hooker Matt McIlwrick recalled on the bench, utility Mitch Aubusson move from the pine to the centres for Jennings, and Suaia Matagi and Willie Manu added to an extended bench,
Watch out Sea Eagles: The fact the Roosters lost two of their best players in the opening quarter last week and still ground out a win against the then-competition leaders should tell you something, but if not we'll spell it out: they have incredible depth, a fantastic roster, they're well coached, have contingency plans for just about every scenario and just keep finding ways to win. The forward pack even without Waerea-Hargreaves is potent, as attested by their post-contact metres (i.e. how much ground their runners make after meeting the defence): 578.5 post-contact metres per game is the second-best in the NRL and plenty of those come from impact forwards like Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Kane Evans, Dylan Napa and Isaac Liu.
Watch out Roosters: Manly will be stinging to hit back and they've got the playmaking quality to do it. Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans is third in the league for try assists with 17 while captain Jamie Lyon has hit form of late; his eight try assists are among the best for centres this year and he set up four tries in a fortnight against Brisbane and Souths. His two-try 200-metre effort was the difference in a narrow and fortuitous win over Canberra and fullback Brett Stewart has quietly crept up to fourth on the season try-scoring list with 16 four-pointers in 20 games. Five-eighth Kieran Foran looked the most dangerous player from either side against Parramatta last week, highlighting the fact that any of their big names could win it for them on the day.
Key Match-Up: Brett Stewart v Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. These two enigmatic and dangerous fullbacks may be at opposite ends of the experience scale and play in contrasting styles but each poses a major threat for their team. For 'RTS' it is the fast feet, crazy sidestep and ridiculous running metres (5,270 at 240 per game this year, if you can believe that). And he takes the tough runs too – you're just as likely to see him smashing into the defence as his team works it off their line as stepping through space and streaking downfield. For Stewart it's the unparalleled match awareness and support play with polished ball-playing skills. He may be miles behind the Roosters custodian when it comes to metres (just 71 per week) but that's not what his team needs him for. Mind you his nine try assists only beats Tuivasa-Sheck's 2015 tally by one, though he does have a 16-11 advantage in actually scoring the tries.
The History: Played 126; Sea Eagles 81, Roosters 43, Drawn 2.
Manly have enjoyed a remarkable dominance over the Bondi boys right from the time they entered the competition, winning two thirds of all games. There was a breakout year in 2013, when eventual premiers the Roosters downed the Sea Eagles no fewer than four times in one season. Outside of that they've beaten Manly just twice in 16 games from 2005 onwards. Brookie has also been something of a graveyard for the Tricolours, who've won just 12 of 54 matches there. Their 2013 win was their only successful trip to the venue in their past eight.
What Are The Odds: The money has been virtualy split between these two teams and both have been backed strongly to win 1-12. Sportsbet punters believe it will be a tight affair, with the majority of the money on there being less than 38.5 points in the match. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; touch judges: Russell Turner & Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: It's easy to get distracted by the losses of Pearce, Waerea-Hargreaves and Jennings and say the Roosters look vulnerable, but the Sea Eagles' loss of Ballin – one of the hardest working and most underrated players in the competition – cannot be overstated. Will Manly be deflated after their loss last week or will they hit back? Will the Roosters be drained from the massive effort last week or rejuvenated by a bit of new blood in the form of Moa and Matagi? Can they keep the run going after 10 straight wins? There's barely a struck match in this one and it could come down to a single play or defensive set. Roosters by 2.