Round 16: Canterbury v Manly preview
Isolation ravaged Bulldogs chase soaring Sea Eagles
Two years may have passed since Trent Barrett's messy departure as Sea Eagles head coach, but for many Manly diehards, the blood still boils.
So if anyone is smiling about Sydney's latest Covid lockdown, it's most likely the Bulldogs coach. Instead of a barrage of advice from disgruntled fans, the former Panthers assistant will go about his business among a more respectful crowd of cardboard cut-outs.
On the downside, last weekend's Bondi biosecurity breach has decimated Canterbury's lineup. Dylan Napa, Brandon Wakeham, Aaron Schoupp, Corey Waddell and Sione Katoa are all unavailable, and will be joined on the sidelines by the injured Adam Elliott and Nick Cotric.
After a long term shoulder injury, star off-season recruit Corey Allan is a welcome addition on the wing. The former Maroons utility joins a foreign looking lineup that includes three debutants. Falakiko Manu is set to start at centre while fellow newbies Bailey Biondi-Odo and Christopher Patolo will get their chance from the interchange.
Amid the fallout, a door has opened for the return of Kyle Flanagan. And with Manly having conceded five tries from kicks in their last start against the Titans, the scrutiny on the No.6's short game is bound to be immense.
Where Canterbury has been swamped by a tidal wave, the water on the northern beaches couldn't be any calmer. Fresh from a 48-point second half blitzkrieg of the Titans, Des Hasler has named the same 17 to face the Bulldogs including Origin stars Tom Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans.
Jake Trbojevic has been given another week to recover from a hip injury and if Turbo is rested, Reuben Garrick is a more than capable replacement having proven himself with a breakout performance in Manly's 50-point rout of North Queensland back in Round 14.
The Bankwest clash represents the second of four Canterbury home games slated for the Parramatta venue. Including last week's 36-10 away loss to Parramatta, the Bulldogs are none from two at the venue this season. Manly on the other hand has enjoyed the additional travel to western Sydney having racked up big scores in comprehensive victories over both the Tigers and Eels.
Who to watch: As the Bulldogs struggle to cement a coherent halves combination, the return of hooker Jeremy Marshall-King in recent weeks has provided additional spark. The 25-year-old's return after a long injury layoff coincided with Canterbury's upset win over the Dragons in round 14, and his 50 tackles last week forced Parramatta's attack to the edges. His ability to break tackles from dummy-half and a clever kicking game ensure his clash with the unfashionable Lachlan Croker should be one to watch.
After exiting the Bulldogs' kennel towards the end of last season, Morgan Harper finished the year in Des Hasler's run-on side with his attacking reputation intact. Fast forward to 2021, and the centre with the eighties curls found himself on the outer before making the most of his recall in round 5. Since then, his attack has been overshadowed by the breathtaking pace of Jason Saab, but his ruthless defence on Manly's right edge has been a rigid constant in the Sea Eagles' revival.
The favourite: The last time Canterbury defeated Manly was in 2017, back when Des Hasler was coach. Now back in the Sea Eagles' nest, his side is heavily favoured to make it five straight wins against the Bulldogs.
My tip: For all the Bulldogs' troubles, what can't be argued is their willingness to have a dig. With some big names signed for next season to replace the likes of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Trent Barrett is already thinking long term. Now stripped to the bone by biosecurity breaches, the Bulldogs have no right to push a Sea Eagles outfit still eyeing a top-four finish. Manly by 26.