The Manly Sea Eagles have suffered injuries at the wrong end of the season to be written off far and wide, but they will still have home ground advantage when they take the fight to the Cronulla Sharks, who will be riding high of last weekend’s sudden-death win to simply make the finals.
The main storyline coming into this game has been about the Sea Eagles injury and suspension crisis.
Only two players doesn’t really constitute the need to call it a crisis, but it sure does when it’s probably your two top stars, with Tom Trbojevic on the shelf with injury, and Martin Taupau out after he copped a suspension for a swinging arm on Ray Stone last weekend.
That loss last weekend to the Eels, where they fell by 16 points, cost them fifth spot on the ladder and probably, the easier of the two elimination finals, not that they were to know which way it was going to go at the time.
The Sea Eagles have had something of a dream season though.
They were widely tipped to finish in the bottom four this season, so to get to where they are, in the top eight and only just missing the top four after spending a chunk of the season in there, is an impressive effort.
Last week’s loss really hurts and cuts them down though.
Instead of playing the struggling Broncos, who bring the unappealing form line of a loss to the Bulldogs into knockout action, they will have to take on the Sharks, who have just been finding ways to get the job done without a whole lot of class about their performances.
In typical Sharks style, everything has been a grind, but they have been playing knockout footy for the best part of two months after a horrendous run of losses through the middle third of the season.
From the position they were in, the Sharks have won five of their last seven and will be roaring with confidence heading into the finals on the back of their clutch elimination victory over the Wests Tigers at a raccuous Leichhardt last weekend.
The Sharks didn’t play that well in the first half, but they executed their game plan to wear the Tigers down and shut out the crowd, and with a noticeable advantage in the forwards again, they may look for a fairly similar strategy in trying to deal with Manly.
What the Sea Eagles do have going for them, is one of the most one-sided, lopsided records in the history of Australian rugby league – scratch that – Australian rugby league, where they have had the wood over the Sharks dating all the way back to the inception of the Sutherland club in 1967.
The battle of the beaches has, historically, been anything but a battle, with the Sea Eagles winning a staggering 65 of their 91 clashes against the Sharks, including seven of the nine finals matches they have played.
The record, once you shrink the sample size to Brookvale only, gets even worse for the Sharks, where they have only won five out of 40 games, with their last win coming all the way back in 2008.
Manly Sea Eagles
As mentioned, Martin Taupau will have to sit out Week 1 of the final for the Sea Eagles after he copped a suspension last weekend for his hit on Ray Stone.
While young gun Sean Keppie comes into the front row and the improving Brendan Elliot keeps his spot at fullback, Manly also lose Curtis Sironen and Taniela Paseka, with Corey Waddell and Jack Gosiewski set to start in the second row, meaning Joel Thompson is also yet to return from his arm injury. With their lack of forward depth, the pressure on Addin Fonua-Blake becomes unbearable.
Haumole Olakau’atu and Toafofoa Sipley have joined the bench for Manly, while the wildly left-field selection of Tony Williams has also been included. He has also made the 19-man squad 24 hours out from kick-off, so staggeringly, there is a chance he could play to provide some impact, despite a grand total of zero minutes in the NRL this season.
1. Brendan Elliot, 2. Jorge Taufua, 3. Brad Parker, 4. Moses Suli, 5. Reuben Garrick, 6. Dylan Walker, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans, 8. Addin Fonua-Blake, 9. Apisai Koroisau, 10. Sean Keppie, 11. Corey Waddell, 12. Jack Gosiewski, 13. Jake Trbojevic
Bench: 14. Manase Fainu, 15. Haumole Olakau’atu, 16. Lloyd Perrett, 17. Toafofoa Sipley, 18. Lachlan Croker, 19. Cade Cust, 20. Tevita Funa, 21. Tony Williams
While the Sea Eagles are uttlery unsettled, the same can’t be said for the Sharks. They have only made a single forced change for this clash, with Aaron Gray replacing the suspended Ronaldo Mulitalo on the wing. That, in itself, could be a blow though, given just how good Mulitalo was last week against the Tigers.
Matt Moylan has also been cut from the side. He was named at 21 as a chance to play, but won’t feature.
1. Josh Dugan, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Bronson Xerri, 4. Josh Morris, 5. Aaron Gray, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Jayden Brailey, 10. Matt Prior, 11. Briton Nikora, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Paul Gallen
Bench: 14. Kurt Capewell, 15. Jack Williams, 16. Andrew Fifita, 17. Braden Hamlin-Uele, 18. Billy Magoulias, 19. Blayke Brailey, 20. Kyle Flanagan, 21. Matt Moylan
How do Manly contain Cronulla’s bench?
While the two starting forward packs are still fairly evenly matched, even without the services of Taupau on the Manly side of the coin, the benches are not.
Cronulla’s bench has been super impressive this season, and while Andrew Fifita (or Aaron Woods if they do the switcharoo again), will be the headline attraction, it’s the two young guns on there who should demand most of the attention.
While the game against the Tigers was fairly even last weekend, it was Jack Williams and Braden Hamlin-Uele who came onto the ground and flipped the momentum of the contest at the back end of the first half.
I’d say I’m surprised, but I’m not. It’s happened so many times this season, and you could have a real case that Cronulla have one of the best benches in the competition.
While it’ll be all good and well for Manly to contend with the Sharks for the first 20 or 25 minutes, they can’t afford to get rolled once the influence of Fonua-Blake leaves the field.
It means players like Lloyd Perrett and Toafofa Sipley must stand up and do a huge job, while Jake Trbojevic is going to have to play 80 of the best minutes he has ever put together to keep Cronulla quiet through that middle third of the game and stop the rivals from dominating the middle third in terms of both possession and territory.
If Cronulla get enough chances, they will run up points, and doing it through the middle third of the game against fatiguing defences is a speciality of Shaun Johnson. Williams, Hamlin-Uele and the Cronulla bench rotation could be just about to make his job that much easier.
Daly Cherry-Evans holds the key to the Sea Eagles
If there has ever been a more important game in the career of Daly Cherry-Evans, I’d like to hear about it.
The Manly captain, who has had a phenomenal record, needs to guide his understrength and unbelievably surprising team through an elimination final against a structured Cronulla with home crowd support and expectations, maintaining an incredible head to head record.
Cherry-Evan can do it though, although if his forwards don’t stay in the hunt, he might as well stay in the sheds.
But, in saying that, it’s the record with and without Trbojevic which should care Manly fans the most. Ten out of twelve wins with the custodian, and just four out of twelve without him.
That being said, the forwards have been doing their job, and it’s down to Cherry-Evans to trigger this offence, involve Dylan Walker at the right times and play off his explosive hookers, Apisai Koroisau and Manase Fainu.
Do that, and Manly have a chance of pulling off the upset, but Cherry-Evans can’t afford to be conservative against a Cronulla side who give away few opportunities. He must find a perfect balance in his game.
The game could be in Josh Dugan’s hands
There have been plenty of on and off problem areas at the Sharks throughout the year, and while most of them have come good when it counts, Josh Dugan’s form still continues to be a worry week to week.
One week, he will score a try, run the ball hard, get speedy play the balls and make few errors. The next, he seems to be trying to cost his side the game single-handidly by throwing it away in dumb spots, making poor decisions and staying down injured.
Quick play the balls are going to be a key against a Manly pack who enjoy a breather and playing at a high intensity, so Dugan getting sets off to good starts and then going on with it is important, while Dugan not throwing the ball away and giving up dumb errors is also critical.
This isn’t a knock on Dugan, because he is an incredible ball runner, but he has the potential to do a lot of damage and put his side on the back foot by playing at fullback, and while the Sharks deal with being on the back foot incredibly well, it’s not a place you want to spend too long in a final away from home.
Despite the unbelievably one-sided historical record between these two clubs, there is just too much talent out from the Manly side who would have to grit and grind their way through the performance against a club like the Sharks anyway.
The Sharks win so many of their important games against sides who are roughly the same level, or slightly better than them due to their ability to just grind things out and stay in contests.
They may not go on to win the premiership, the Sharks, but they have a strong enough side to get the job done here against a brave Manly. It’s almost a shame that they won’t be around next week, given the season they have had and the unheralded stars they have managed to unearth.
Sharks by 8.
Date: Saturday, September 14
Kick-off: 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: Lottoland, Brookvale
TV: Live, Fox League 502, Channel 9
Online: Live, Foxtel App, Foxtel Now, Kayo Sports, 9Now, NRL Digital Pass
Overall record: Played 91, Sea Eagles 65, Sharks 24, drawn 2
Last meeting: Round 10, 2019 – Sharks 14 defeated by Sea Eagles 24
Last five: Sea Eagles 4, Sharks 1
Record in finals: Played 9, Sea Eagles 7, Sharks 1, drawn 1
Record at venue: Played 40, Sea Eagles 34, Sharks 5, drawn 1
Referees: Ashley Klein, Chris Sutton
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