Sea Eagles v Cowboys preview

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Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v North Queensland Cowboys Thursday 7:50pm at Lottoland

Let the silly season begin.

And so this endlessly frustrating annual period of the NRL season is just about underway. The first of eight NRL games directly impacted by Origin this season kicks off on Thursday night. While the governing body can claim a little credit for reducing the number of rounds affected by the monolith that State of Origin has become, we still end up with a six-week distraction from the season proper.

Up first are Manly and the Cowboys. Both sides are impacted here - the hosts will be without the Trbojevic brothers (both NSW), while the Cowboys will be missing Michael Morgan, Coen Hess and Gavin Cooper (all Queensland).

Strangely enough, one of the Maroons' recent halves pairings will line up opposite one another on Thursday night. Manly's Daly Cherry-Evans has been off the selection radar of Mal Meninga and Kevin Walters for a few years now, last appearing in a Queensland jumper in 2015. In that contest, 'DCE' was alongside Johnathan Thurston, the illustrious North Queensland halfback who last season announced his retirement from representative football.

If anything - this is a boost for a Cowboys side who otherwise at this time of year would be suffering from the absence of their mercurial skipper. On the downside, they will be missing co-captain Matt Scott after he was suspended by the NRL judiciary on Tuesday night.

Form-wise there are issues on both sides - the Cowboys have been patchy and arguably poor all year, albeit quite competitive (having lost by just one point in each of their last two games), while Manly have shown flashes of brilliance most of the season but just can't get their campaign off the ground. It was no more evident than in their one-point loss to Canberra last Friday night where they gave up a comfortable lead to be pipped by one point inside the final minute.

Last meeting: Round 3 2017 - Cowboys 8 Sea Eagles 30

From 28 meetings since the Cowboys' inaugural 1995 season, Manly hold a slim 16-12 win advantage. It's even more narrow at Brookvale, with five wins to four in the home team's favour.

Who to watch: Recalled after the omission of Michael Morgan to Origin duty, fullback Lachlan Coote has a job on his hands convincing coach Paul Green he's the man for the custodian role at the club. Both Morgan and Te Maire Martin have been deputising for Coote while he's battled form issues, turning out for feeder club Mackay several times. If he doesn't perform this week he may well be spending the remainder of 2018 at BB Print Stadium instead of 1300SMILES.

Manly hooker Api Koroisau returns from suspension this week and it's good timing with another member of the Manly spine in Tom Trbojevic missing through Origin. While Lewis Brown was a capable replacement last Friday, he looked to be lacking in imagination, particularly late in the game. With Hodkinson now holding down the number six jumper, and Trbojevic unlikely to miss many more games, a consistent spine could spark a second-half run for the Eagles into the finals this season - and it all could start with Api taking this game by the scruff of the neck.

The favourite: At home and in marginally better form, the Sea Eagles have the better backing.

My tip: The class of JT should shine through in this one. Is this the game where the real Cowboys stand up? I hope so. Cowboys by 6.

1. Matthew Wright 2. Jorge Taufua 3. Moses Suli 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Trent Hodkinson 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Addin Fonua-blake 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Joel Thompson 15. Jack Gosiewski 13. Shaun Lane 12. Frank Winterstein 14. Brad Parker 16. Lloyd Perrett 17. Toafofoa Sipley

1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Justin O'Neill 4. Enari Tuala 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Johnathan Thurston 15. Sam Hoare 9. Jake Granville 16. Corey Jensen 11. Shaun Fensom 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Ben Hampton 17. Francis Molo 18. Kane Linnett 20. Mitchell Dunn

Referees: Ben Cummins, Peter Gough; Sideline Officials: Alan Shortall, Michael Wise; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Luke Patten;

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