Round 14: Manly v North Qld preview
2021's most-improved lock horns at Lottoland
After the opening month of football the Manly Sea Eagles and the North Queensland Cowboys appeared to be closer to the wooden spoon than the finals.
Fast-forward to the midway point of the season and the two teams have risen to become genuine top eight contenders.
Undergoing a radical transformation from the side that sat winless at the bottom of the ladder after four rounds, the Manly Sea Eagles can thank a fully fit and firing Tom Trbojevic for their resurgence.
Winning six of their past eight matches to sit in sixth position with a +1 points differential, the margin of the wins has been particularly impressive given the side's -122 for-and-against differential after four rounds.
Coming into the contest well-rested after a bye last weekend, coach Des Hasler will be determined for his side to continue a solid record against the Cowboys following three wins from their past four meetings.
In a boost to the side's chances, Tom Trbojevic, Jake Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans are set to back up less than 48 hours after the opening State of Origin fixture, while Kieran Foran, Haumole Olakau'atu and Dylan Walker have been named to return after recovering from injury.
Growing in confidence after a rocky start to life under coach Todd Payten, the North Queensland Cowboys will be hoping a key change at halfback doesn't halt their momentum.
Naming Tom Dearden for his club debut after Jake Clifford was granted an early release to join the Knights, the one-time Brisbane wunderkind will be hoping a change in scenery helps to unearth the talent that saw the Broncos tout him as their long-term playmaker only two years ago.
Holding an eerily similar form line to their opponents with six wins from their past eight matches, the Cowboys will be out to extend a surprisingly strong record of five wins from their past six visits to Lottoland.
Banking on Valentine Holmes and Kyle Feldt making it through Wednesday night's Origin opener unscathed, forward trio Jason Taumalolo, Lachlan Burr and Francis Molo are set to return after missing the last-gasp win over the Warriors a fortnight ago.
Who to watch: The term ‘revelation' is often overused to describe improving players, but in the case of Jason Saab the description is aptly fitting. Managing seven matches in two seasons with the Dragons before struggling to make an impact during the side's sluggish start to 2021, the 20-year-old has emerged as one of the game's genuine speedsters with 11 tries in his past eight matches. Forming a potent combination alongside Morgan Harper on the right edge, look for Saab to relish his personal battle opposite Murray Taulagi as the Sea Eagles look to consolidate a place in the top eight.
Earmarked as the man to return Brisbane to former glory as a teenager, Tom Dearden will be hoping for more measured expectations in his second coming as a first-grader. Managing 22 appearances for the Broncos having debuted just weeks after legally becoming an adult in 2019, the 20-year-old Mackay junior will be looking to regain his footing in the top grade after spending the past six weeks plying his trade in reserve grade. Possessing an underutilised running game and the ability to force repeat sets with the boot, expect Dearden to grow in confidence as spends more time with his new teammates.
The favourite: With the side primed to bounce back following a missed opportunity a fortnight ago, the Sea Eagles will be hoping to record only their third win at Lottoland since the start of last season.
My tip: While much will depend on the side's Origin contingent getting through Wednesday night unscathed, the Sea Eagles should have the strike power to get the job done on home soil. Manly by 7.