Friday Night Lights

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It's hard to believe that we're already a quarter of the way through the season. Some of the teams that I had big wraps on at the start of the year have stumbled (Canberra, Parramatta, I'm looking at you), while other teams like the Cowboys have hit the ground running. It's only early days - and past seasons have proven that awful openings don't always mean a team is out of finals contention - but form is starting to be displayed, momentum is beginning to be gathered, and patterns are developing.

Two of the most solid teams running around this year have been the Manly Sea Eagles and the Brisbane Broncos, who both feature on Friday night when they come up against the Penrith Panthers and the Wests Tigers respectively.

Both Manly and Brisbane have come into season 2011 with a clear focus on their defence, and only once has either of these teams let more than 20 points be scored against them. They've ground out wins, come from behind to claim victories and tackled their way to another two points on the table. These two teams have hardly let their intensity drop since the start of the season.

Manly's opponents on Friday are the Panthers, one of the most talked about teams in the competition for all the wrong reasons. Penrith have been erratic and inconsistent, and while the last three rounds have seen them lift in focus and attitude and really challenge teams, it's this inconsistency that has seen them remain glued towards the bottom of the ladder.

Gone are Manly's second half capitulations from last year. If Penrith are to win at Brookvale Oval they will need to come out firing from the opening whistle, get ahead, and then tighten the screws. What Manly showed against Souths and Cronulla is that they are capable of clawing back big leads, and when they are ahead they're able to maintain it. This will be a big test for Penrith.

On the other side of things, the Broncos versus Tigers game will be a big test for the Tigers' Benji Marshall. The undisputed king of attacking football up against one of the most miserly defensive lines in the comp: who else is looking forward to this mouth-watering contest?

The Tigers blew a 14 point lead last week against the Titans, and Brisbane have shown that even though their attack has yet to click they're still capable of wearing teams and their leads down. If the Broncos perform like they have in the last two weeks, expect to see a grinding contest where their defence tries to strangle the life out of their opponents.

But having a player like Marshall in the Tigers team means that at any moment that they have the ball, something can happen. Marshall's like a pit viper: if you don't contain him properly, he'll strike with devastating speed; and once he's found an opening, he'll strike again and again.

For the Panthers and the Tigers, Friday is an opportunity to inject some consistency back into their seasons.

For the Sea Eagles and the Broncos, it is another chance to develop momentum against teams that are low on form. While both of these sides sit high in the top eight, they are yet to beat a team that sits higher than sixth on the ladder. This means that while both teams have been two of the most impressive performers of the season so far, they haven't been tested yet like the Panthers and Tigers are going to be on Friday night.

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