In an unprecedented move, the NRL has been forced to suspend the season.
Manly have a chance to move into the top four and make 2019 exceedingly difficult for the Wests Tigers when they meet at Brookvale on Thursday night.
Des Hasler’s team blew a great chance for a top-four spot last week with a loss to New Zealand across the ditch. After falling behind 0-18, the Sea Eagles reeled off 16 points in seven minutes and looked like they’d steal the game until conceding a late try to go down 24-16.
The Tigers also had an upset loss, going down 16-18 to supposed easybeats Canterbury. Despite 59 per cent possession and huge outings from Ryan Matterson and Paul Momirovski, Michael Maguire’s men couldn’t shake the persistent Bulldogs and also suffered injuries to captain Moses Mbye and talisman Robbie Farah.
Inaccurate goal kicking also came back to haunt Wests, who were unable to convert two late tries and missed a penalty goal in the first half. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong for the Tigers on the night did go wrong.
That bad luck carried into selection availability, with Mbye ruled out of this contest with a reported hip flexor injury and Farah out possibly for the remainder of 2019 with a fractured tibia. Mbye will be replaced in the centre by 19-year-old first gamer Tommy Talau.
If you think that surname sounds familiar in rugby league you’d be right – Tommy is the son of former Bulldogs centre Willie Talau.
Jacob Liddle will start at hooker in place of Farah. The 22-year-old Liddle is a great talent who hasn’t been able to string consistent games together because of injuries and being second in line behind Farah.
Since his 2016 debut he’s played only 36 games and in nine games off the bench this year he hasn’t played longer than 39 minutes. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly he can settle back into first grade intensity.
Liddle will have first-year players on either side of him, with Thomas Mikaele and Oliver Clark named as the starting front row.
Second rower Luke Garner’s controversial one-week suspension for a ‘late’ shot on the Bulldogs’ Lachlan Lewis sees veteran Chris Lawrence promoted to the run on side and another veteran Chris McQueen named on the bench.
The Tigers sit tenth in the standings with 20 points and a points differential of -44. The equation is simple – if they want to play finals, they must win at least three of their last four and chances are they’ll need to win all four. Their run home is not easy with Newcastle, St George Illawarra and Cronulla to come after the Sea Eagles.
Manly are fifth on 26 points and a +72 differential, two points behind Canberra and South Sydney. They’re still a great chance to secure a double chance but there’s no room for error with Parramatta (26 points +27 differential) right with them. The Sea Eagles have a brutal finish to the year with games against Canberra, Melbourne and Parramatta to round out 2019. Two points in the bank from a Thursday night win is absolutely essential before they hit that horror stretch.
They’ve made two changes forced by injury as Brendan Elliot comes into the centres for Brad Parker who misses with a knee issue and Curtis Sironen did a hamstring against the Warriors and will be replaced in the second row by Jack Gosiewski.
There was talk of an injury to star halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, but he’s been named and is apparently good to go.
These teams met in Round 1 and the Tigers took a convincing 20-6 win in torrential rain. It was the Tigers’ fourth straight win over the Sea Eagles and they have the edge six wins to four in the last ten match-ups.
It’ll be a big ask for the Tigers to contain the Sea Eagles this time round. Manly are first in the NRL for offloads (256, Tigers 190), fifth in the NRL for line breaks (82, Tigers 63) and second for tackle breaks (698, Tigers 620). Wests usually make a lot of runs from dummy half (274, third in the NRL) and Liddle will be expected to keep that gameplan rolling.
These teams have the two lowest missed tackles averages in the NRL, Manly missing 25.2 per game and Wests 24.8 per game. Manly have conceded more penalties (144 to 118) and there’s not a huge difference in the number of errors they’ve made (235 to 205).
When I’m putting these Thursday night previews together I usually start with an idea of who I think will win. As I dig through the research, look at the teams’ current form and look at the line-ups, a lot of the time I’ll often end up second guessing myself or even flipping on my original prediction.
Not this week though. The Tigers are missing key players and Manly are burning after last week’s slow start let two points slip. Wests will give a good account of themselves, but Manly has too much firepower.
Sea Eagles by double figures.
1. Tom Trbojevic, 2. Jorge Taufua, 3. Brendan Elliot, 4. Moses Suli, 5. Reuben Garrick, 6. Dylan Walker, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans, 8. Addin Fonua-Blake, 9. Apisai Koroisau, 10. Martin Taupau, 11. Joel Thompson, 12. Jack Gosiewski, 13. Jake Trbojevic
Bench/Reserves: 14. Manase Fainu, 15. Corey Waddell, 16. Morgan Boyle, 17. Taniela Paseka, 18. Lachlan Croker, 19. Tevita Funa 20.
1. Corey Thompson, 2. Paul Momirovski, 3. Tommy Talau, 4. Esan Marsters, 5. David Nofoaluma, 6. Benji Marshall, 7. Luke Brooks, 8. Thomas Mikaele, 9. Jacob Liddle, 10. Oliver Clark, 17. Chris Lawrence, 12. Michael Chee-Kam, 13. Ryan Matterson
Bench/Reserves: 14. Matthew Eisenhuth, 15. Elijah Taylor, 16. Alex Twal, 18. Josh Reynolds, 20. Chris McQueen, 21. Sam McIntyre
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