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Under-siege Sea Eagles eye off upset over ‘away' Broncos
It seems like an eternity ago considering all that has transpired on the Northern Beaches over the past two months, yet at their best, the Sea Eagles managed to record a 54-0 scoreline at one point this season.
Suffering a plethora of injuries, off-field dramas and winless since March, the challenges confronting Trent Barrett have tested the young mentor, but with much-improved showings over the past fortnight there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel for Manly.
Arguably the better side against the Roosters, the consistency of losing ultimately tolled upon the Sea Eagles despite starting with the vigour of the side that destroyed Parramatta in Round 2.
While the early missed conversion from Daly Cherry-Evans has been cited as a crucial moment in last week's loss, the inconvenient reality for those eager to criticse the maligned halfback is that with 75 minutes left on the clock after the unfortunate gaffe, the fourteenth-placed side were unable to get the job done despite being superior in a number of game statistics.
Holding a narrow minority against Brisbane with 7 wins from 15 matches contested since being re-admitted as a single entity in 2003, the Sea Eagles have struggled in the Queensland capital in recent years with DCE being the only current player to win at the venue while representing the Maroon and White.
Limited by the squad available due to injuries, self-inflicted salary cap penalties and the nearing resolution surrounding Jackson Hastings, the Sea Eagles will field the same 17 players that went down 22-20 last Sunday.
For all the criticisms the Broncos have endured so far this season, the irrefutable reality is they have managed to accrue competition points despite playing below expectations.
Considered overwhelming favourites to blow Canterbury off the park last week, the 80 minute grind worked to the side's favour in the end courtesy of a last-gasp penalty, but given the reputation the club has developed over the past three decades, there is a genuinely held view from many that Brisbane lack the class required to win a competition.
Lacking the dominance in the halves displayed by Ben Hunt and Benji Marshall at their respective clubs so far this year, the long-standing structures that have been ingrained into the club's DNA will ensure whichever assembly of players fielded performs reasonably well. However, with the side yet to produce an undeniably brilliant showing during the opening third of 2018, the imminent toll of the Origin period casts significant doubt over their ability to achieve success when it matters.
Sitting just outside the top eight as a result of for-and-against, coach Wayne Bennett has taken a largely pragmatic assessment of his team with the disastrous showing against the Titans baring little resemblance to current performances. In spite of the improvements made since adjusting to various personnel changes, the Broncos have enjoyed a fair amount of luck in a number of their wins, with contentious penalties and fortuitous goal posts ensuring the side isn't consigned among the cellar dwellers.
Shifting Jack Bird back into the centres after a mixed showing at halfback over the past month, Kodi Nikorima will return to the starting side, while despite being named on the bench, it is highly unlikely that boom rookie Payne Haas will take the field.
Designated as the ‘away' side for Saturday's match, the Broncos will be optimistic about their chances having claimed victory over Manly at Suncorp in the previous four encounters.
Last meeting: Round 10 2017 - Sea Eagles 14 Broncos 24
Who to watch: While his front row partner has been described as ‘more man than machine' following a herculean showing last week, Addin Fonua-Blake has been a willing competitor for the under-siege Sea Eagles in 2018.
Predominantly used as an interchange player during the infancy of his career in the NRL, the 22-year-old has proven to be one of the rare success stories from the disastrous New Zealand World Cup campaign, with the experienced gained inspiring the hulking prop to elevate his performance.
Starting in every match this season as a result of player departures and the heavily occupied casualty ward, Fonua-Blake has taken the adversity of Manly's circumstances in his stride to increase his impact for the team through increased quantity, while retaining quality.
Facing off against a Brisbane outfit brimming with some of the highest-rated young forwards in the league, the personal challenge of outplaying his rivals should provide plenty of incentive for Fonua-Blake to deliver a performance capable of arresting the Sea Eagles dire run of losses.
As one of just five players signed until the end of 2020 at Manly, the second chance afforded to the troubled former Dragons junior has paid off on the field with the front rower repaying the faith shown in him to become a pillar of consistency during increasingly uncertain times on the Northern Beaches.
With three players seemingly assured of selection in the Queensland backline for the opening State of Origin fixture in just under a month, the chance to cement a case for a representative recall with be at the forefront of Corey Oates' game day mentality.
With the fullback role guaranteed to Billy Slater and the right side duo of Will Chambers and Dane Gagai experiencing stellar representative campaigns with the Maroons and Kangaroos last year, the 23-year-old appears to be in a showdown with Greg Inglis, Darius Boyd and prolific try scorer Valentine Holmes for one of two vacant backline positions.
Noted for his ability to carry the ball back and break tackles with complete disregard for opposition defences, Oates may find himself back in Kevin Walter's calculations in an unexpected capacity.
With the Maroons second row stocks limited given the absences of Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire, the decision to use the winger as an interchange forward could prove to be a masterstroke if executed effectively.
While the track record of Queensland gambling with such a major positional switch went out of vogue following Karmichael Hunt's sole appearance at five-eighth a decade ago, Oates' past history in the forwards during his NRL infancy could see the unlikely become reality should his form at Brisbane warrant undeniable selection.
The favourite: With Manly enduring their worst losing run since the injury-riddled end to Trent Barrett's rookie season at the helm, the lack of internal and external pressures sees the Broncos head into Saturday's fixture with an expectation of collecting two competition points.
My tip: Luck plays a huge factor in the outcome of rugby league matches. For teams that have it, passes stick and calls go their way, while when the footy gods aren't smiling upon a side, it can seem that the harder a team tries the result stays the same. With Saturday's opponents enjoying a contrasting run of luck in recent weeks, expect a change to occur to the delight of Manly. Sea Eagles by 7.
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Matthew Wright 3. Moses Suli 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Dylan Walker 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Addin Fonua-blake 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Joel Thompson 12. Shaun Lane 13. Jake Trbojevic 15. Frank Winterstein 16. Lloyd Perrett 17. Taniela Paseka 18. Tom Wright
1. Darius Boyd 2. Corey Oates 3. James Roberts 4. Jack Bird 5. Jamayne Isaako 6. Anthony Milford 7. Kodi Nikorima 8. Matthew Lodge 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Sam Thaiday 11. Alex Glenn 12. Jaydn Su'a 13. Tevita Pangai Junior 14. Payne Haas 15. Joe Ofahengaue 16. Korbin Sims 17. Tom Opacic
Referees: Grant Atkins, Chris Butler; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Luke Patten;