Round 24: Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles preview
Last chance saloon for Wests Tigers as Manly wind down a season to forget.
Four points behind their nearest opponent and only really a mathematical chance of a top eight berth, the Wests Tigers will come into this game disappointed they dropped last week's very winnable game against the Dragons, wondering 'what-if' and keeping one eye on 2019. Manly meanwhile have been switched off for a while - a win over an under-strength Bulldogs a fortnight ago and a golden-point win over Cronulla prior to that the only bright spots in the back end of a season that's seen plenty of off-field disruption, particularly around coach Trent Barrett.
All told, this means Thursday's Round 24 NRL opener completely unpredictable. Will the home side come into the match still in full finals mode, clinging to hope wherever there is mathematics available? Or will they accept their likely fate and that 2018 is a write-off? Will Manly come in and throw caution to the wind, or put in a performance more like last week's second half capitulation to Gold Coast?
The Tigers' hopes of any late surge to 8th place have taken a hit in the casualty ward, with lock-forward Elijah Taylor withdrawn due to a corked thigh. The reshuffle sees Chris Lawrence back in the starting side in the second row, with Matt Eisenhuth moving to lock. Jacob Liddle drops out of the side with Alex Twal and Josh Aloiai recalled on the bench. Manly have made just one change from last Friday's debacle at Brookvale, Frank Winterstein dropped to the reserves with Jack Gosiewski joining the bench.
Last meeting: Round 6 2018 - Sea Eagles 12 Wests Tigers 38
Since the Magpies and Tigers merged ahead in 2000, these sides have met on 26 occasions with Manly winning 15 to the Wests Tigers' 11. Earlier in the season the Sea Eagles were victims of the Tigers' great early-season form, copping a hiding 38-12 at Brookvale in Round 6.
Who to watch: Benji Marshall's career is entering it's twilight but he's shown on countless occasions the flashes of brilliance which have made him so good for so long. Some 15 years after making his debut in the black, orange and white, the number six will be key to any sort of miracle late charge the Wests Tigers can make to push for eighth place. He'll have especially been relishing the recent reunion with hooker Robbie Farah, having last played with the number nine in 2013.
In a dark season for Manly, the Trbojevic brothers have been a shining light for fans on the Northern Beaches, scoring and setting up tries at will. Filling the void left by a similar brotherly pairing that dominated the Sea Eagles side for nearly a decade, Jake and Tom seem to be doing to emulate the prolific nature of Brett and Glenn Stewart in the maroon-and-white and will be ever-present if their side is to pour cold water on the Tigers' finals aspirations.
The favourite: Wests Tigers hold comfortable favouritism here as Manly's season goes from bad to worse, both on and off the field.
My tip: While they won't be playing in September, the Tigers will still give it a red-hot go, that is not in doubt. Manly just don't have the juice to win this contest. Wests Tigers by 12.