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Sea Eagles flying high in return to finals football
Staring down the prospect of missing the playoffs entirely heading into Round 26, the Sea Eagles proved to be the big winners of last round with an emphatic win over their finals opponents. Racing out to a 28-0 lead before conceding two late consolation efforts, coach Trent Barrett will be optimistic about his sides chance of replicating the performance, while being cautious of the uncertain territory the young Manly outfit finds itself in. With eight finals rookies and just two players remaining from the side's last appearance in September three years ago, the heightened pressure may prove telling against a Penrith outfit boasting a roster full of players out to make amends for last season's Semi Final exit. Coming away with a win and a loss against the Panthers this season, the fixture will mark the first time since 1985 that the sides have met at a venue other than Lottoland or Pepper Stadium, while also being the first official finals encounter the pair have contested. Naming an identical squad, enforcer Darcy Lussick will take his place in the side after escaping a ban for tripping, while Addin Fonua-Blake may be a late scratching after being assisted off against the Panthers. In the event the Manly prop is unable to take part on Saturday night, expect Shaun Lane to add to his experience at finals level after featuring in Canterbury's unsuccessful finals charge two years ago.
After establishing a seven-match winning streak leading into the final fortnight of the regular season, the Panthers come into the finals in terrible shape after being embarrassed by the Sea Eagles at Lottoland. Lacking the defensive commitment and attacking flair that has become synonymous with the Panthers in 2017, coach Anthony Griffin will be out to challenge his charges to put last week behind them and rise to the occasion. Fielding ten players from the Panthers 2016 finals campaign, the chance to showcase the development made over the past year will provide huge incentive for the Mountain Men as they strive to face off against the loser of the Roosters v Broncos clash in the Semi Finals. Retaining the same squad that went down 28-12 last Saturday, expect to see several positional changes in the backline with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak moving to fullback, with a new-look right edge combination of Dean Whare and Waqa Blake. With Matt Moylan unlikely to feature for the Panthers again in 2017 after being granted personal leave, Peter Wallace retains the captaincy, while Dylan Edwards could be a late inclusion in what would be a major boon for the sides chances.
Who to watch: With 16 tests for the Kiwis to his name the intensity of high pressure matches shouldn't phase Martin Taupau, but on his finals debut the do-or-die stakes could see the Manly prop explode. Unable to break into the Bulldogs forward pack during their period of dominance, the 27-year-old will relish the opportunity to lead from the front and showcase the blockbusting charges that have become a cornerstone of his game in a match of such high significance. Averaging well over 150 metres per game and leading the competition with 70 offloads this season, Taupau's ability with the ball will cause plenty of headaches for his opponents, while playing a huge role in the Sea Eagles aspirations of progressing into the final six.
Proving to be a revelation in the centres after being initially selected as a stop-gap option last season, Tyrone Peachey shapes as the most influential player in the Panthers pursuit of premiership glory. Capable of filling in a variety of position, the former Shark boasts an attacking threat that is capable of producing moments of brilliance out of seemingly innocuous plays. Switching back to the centres in a move that coincided with the Panthers seven-match winning run, the 26-year-old will relish his personal duel against Dylan Walker which may well determine which side progresses beyond Saturday night. While much of the attention has been focused on the form of Nathan Cleary and Matt Moylan's moments of magic, Peachey possesses a natural ability that makes him invaluable to the Panthers hopes of September redemption.
My tip: A week is a long time in football. In 2009 the Eels reversed a 37-0 loss to the Dragons with a momentous 25-12 win in the first week of the finals. The Panthers are more than capable of doing the same on Saturday nigh, but with the Sea Eagles flexing their muscles to full effect last week it's difficult to say with any certainty which way the result will play out. As with my prediction of this same fixture a week ago, the result will likely come down to a moment of brilliance or madness. Panthers by 2.
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Matthew Wright 3. Dylan Walker 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Blake Green 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Darcy Lussick 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Frank Winterstein 12. Curtis Sironen 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Lewis Brown 15. Lloyd Perrett 16. Brenton Lawrence 17. Addin Fonua-blake
20. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 3. Tyrone Peachey 1. Dean Whare 5. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 6. Tyrone May 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Peter Wallace 10. Regan Campbell-Gillard 11. Corey Harawira 12. Isaah Yeo 13. Trent Merrin 14. Sione Katoa 15. Bryce Cartwright 17. James Fisher-Harris 18. Moses Leota