Schick Hydro Preview: Manly Sea Eagles v Parramatta Eels
There's nothing like a good old-fashioned grudge match to kick off a season. The final match of Telstra Premiership Round 1 pits cross town rivals Manly against Parramatta at Lottoland, with the drastically overhauled Sea Eagles desperate to shrug off a disastrous 2016 campaign with a bright start.
The Eels had an equally if not more problematic year but unlike Manly their on-field form was actually pretty good, winning enough games to have played in September but for a salary cap penalty.
Manly's 17 is near unrecognisable from the one that started Round 26 last year. The key recruit is five-eighth Blake Green from the Storm who should prove the perfect foil for new club captain Daly Cherry-Evans, who struggled through last year with a rotating roster of halves partners.
Knights winger Akuila Uate, Wests Tigers back-rower Curtis Sironen and Canterbury prop Lloyd Perrett are the other recruits making their club debuts. The retirements of Steve Matai, Jamie Lyon and Brett Stewart usher in a new era in the Manly backline with Dylan Walker primed for a big season in his preferred position of right centre and ditto for Tom Trbojevic as fulltime fullback. Coach Trent Barrett has handed Titans junior Brian Kelly an NRL debut at left centre and he is certainly one to watch this year.
It's a bit more steady-as-she-goes for Eels coach Brad Arthur; former Titan and Bronco Josh Hoffman joins the club on the right wing and journeyman prop Suaia Matagi starts in the front row after a stellar pre-season. Former Bunnies hard-man Nathan Brown joins the front row rotation and former Bulldogs and Kiwis forward Frank Pritchard gets a start on the bench. His younger brother Kaysa starts at hooker with Isaac De Gois sitting out due to a concussion.
Why Sea Eagles can win: Barrett will be hoping Green can add something similar to what premiership-winning five-eighth Kieran Foran used to: marshal the left edge and provide an adept foil to Cherry-Evans, along with a deft kicking game. Green took half as many kicks as Cooper Cronk last year (but about the same as Cameron Smith) but should share the duties more evenly with Cherry-Evans given reduced kicking options elsewhere in the team compared to the Storm. Trial form suggested Green would play on the left (as Foran used to) and launch plenty of attacking bombs and cross-field kicks with Cherry-Evans to take the bulk of grubbers and clearing kicks while playing on the right.
Why Eels can win: Bear in mind Parramatta remained very competitive despite a massive injury and suspension toll last year amid countless off-field ructions. Inject a few power-packed recruits like Matagi and Brown and the recipe is there for a big year. Halfback Corey Norman was close to the best playmaker in the competition at times last year, though he has been hampered by a hamstring strain picked up at the Nines. The question mark is the inexperience in the spine between young fullback Bevan French, fullback-turned-five-eighth Clint Gutherson and the oft-injured Pritchard standing in for De Gois. If those three can aim up – and each is easily talented and competitive enough to do so – the Eels could well be a force not just on Sunday but in 2017.
The history: Played 136; Sea Eagles 82; Eels 50; Draw 4. The Eels are on a five-match winning run against Manly but have a poor record at Lottoland, winning just under a third of their matches their overall. They've won their past two visits but were successful just once in the eight before that.
What are the odds: The money is running 8:1 in favour of Parramatta in Sportsbet's head-to-head market, but punters are tipping a 1-12 win for the Eels rather than a 13+ result. The gap in odds between the two sides has been closing by the day. No surprise to see a stack of money on Bevan French and Semi Radradra to open the scoring. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee: Chris Butler; Touch judges: Russell Turner and Rickey McFarlane; Review Official: Luke Patten; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 4pm. Fox Sports – Live from 4pm.
How we see it: A tough one to call and plenty hinges on how the revamped Manly playmaking combinations can gel. There are question marks over the Eels too but we'll lean towards the blue and golds to sneak home by six points.