Intrust Super Cup Week One Finals preview
The Easts Tigers will turn towards a couple of old heads in their quest to reach a third consecutive grand final as the Intrust Super Cup finals series commences this weekend.
Two teams will pack their bags come Sunday night as the Wynnum Manly Seagulls face Easts and the Ipswich Jets host defending premiers Northern Pride in Week One elimination finals.
Minor premiers Townsville and the PNG Hunters both have the week off before they meet in the major semi-final in Townsville next weekend.
The Seagulls and Tigers will battle it out again after the 'Gulls defeated Easts 17-10 in a defensive-orientated game last weekend at Langlands Park.
Wynnum Manly's victory earned them the right to host the Tigers at BMD Kougari Oval on Sunday and another classic encounter between these local rivals beckons from 3pm.
There's been very little to split these two sides in recent times with five out of the past six clashes decided by eight points or less, while the overall head-to-head record stands at 20 wins apiece with one draw.
The Seagulls will head into the match as favourites having won both games against the Tigers during the regular season and Easts' coach Craig Ingebrigtsen views the bayside club as the dark horse of the Intrust Super Cup.
"They're the team that worries me the most in this competition," Ingebrigtsen told NRL.com.
"Their forward pack is big and strong. We think we've got them worked out in a couple of areas but it's still a big ask.
"We're looking forward to the challenge."
To help combat the Seagulls, Ingebrigtsen welcomes back veteran Donald Malone, who has been named at fullback to replaced Eddie Tautali in an otherwise unchanged line-up for the Tigers.
The former Ipswich Jets centre has 177 Cup games to his name and made two NRL appearances for the Cowboys in 2009.
The 30-year-old has nine tries from 16 games this season and represents a real threat to the Seagulls who will be without captain Tim Natusch (suspension) and David Stagg (Broncos duties).
Ingebrigtsen also singled out former Canterbury centre Shane Neumann, who has played 138 Cup games to date and made 13 NRL appearances with Manly and the Bulldogs between 2007 and 2010, as another of the Tigers' key players.
Neumann made 109 metres from 11 carries against the Seagulls in Round 25 while chipping in with 19 tackles, one try and a line break.
"Shane Neumann is a footballer with NRL experience and he certainly knows his way around the field," he said.
"A big-game player for us is Donald Malone – he's played 170-odd Cup games and been in a couple of NRL systems.
"Everyone says that 'Duck' is too old but every time we've played a side like the [Townsville] Blackhawks, Ipswich or PNG [Hunters] he's just stood up. He's been amazing for us this year and I'm sure he'll do it again.
"Those two are really vital to our footy team."
While defence is likely to dominate at Kougari Oval, entertainment ensues at North Ipswich Reserve when the third-placed Jets tackle sixth-placed Northern Pride.
The Jets will fancy their chances on home soil; the past 14 games between these two sides have resulted in 13 wins for the home team, with one draw at Ipswich in 2011.
Ipswich coaches Ben and Shane Walker have become synonymous with a free-flowing, entertaining brand of football throughout their five seasons in charge of the club but are yet to reach a preliminary final.
Both sides are in form heading into the second elimination final with the Jets coming off an 18-point win over the Sunshine Coast Falcons while the Pride warmed up for September with a 42-point first-half blitz on route to a 46-18 win against wooden spoon recipients CQ Capras.
Jets winger Marmin Barba requires one more try to bring up 50 for Ipswich in his 42nd game for the club and the younger brother of Ben is also the competition’s leading try-scorer with 27 from just 18 games, including seven doubles and three hat-tricks.
In a blow for the Jets, former Origin star Chris Walker is unavailable due to injury with his place taken by 29-year-old Fijian Nemani Valekapa.
These sides have met on 18 occasions with the Pride winning 10 of those games with one draw and their head-to-head finals record stands at one win apiece.
The winners on Sunday will meet each other in Week Two of the finals, with the victor in that match to face the loser of next weekend's Townsville-PNG match in the preliminary final.
The clash between the Jets and Pride will be televised live on Channel Nine from 1.35pm on Sunday, while the Seagulls-Tigers clash will be live-streamed on each club's respective website.