FINALS PREVIEW, WEEK 1: Sydney Roosters vs Manly Sea Eagles.

We’ve had a week of talking about the poor decisions from the NRL scheduling team and the judiciary. It’s time to get back to talking footy, and what better way to do that than pitting the two most penalised teams in the NRL premiership against each other? This is going to end famously well!

The Roosters are down two of their best forwards but are coming off their most spirited win of the season with four players out, while James Maloney has recovered following emergency eye surgery and will suit up for his 102nd game and his first playoff game since the grand final in 2011.

Meanwhile, Manly have assured the NRL that they won’t get lost on the way over the Spit but they cannot say the same of their fans, who could be offered a bribe of free transport, free entry and a lapdance yet would still rather wear fluro singlets and hang out at the Steyne than make the mammoth 45 minute trek over that newfangled “Harbour Bridge” or whatever it’s called.

Anthony Watmough will return in this one from a two-game layoff from what doctors are calling a knee injury but was actually carpal tunnel syndrome suffered from carrying around two invisible surfboards wherever he goes, while Tommy Symonds returns to the ground where he once reigned as alpha ranga to potentially face the new bluey in town.

The Manly boys will leave the confines of Brookie and be buoyed by the promise of hot water, decent facilities and a changeroom that doesn’t remind people of the old Waverley Oval as they look to start their run for a third premiership in six years.

Do the Roosters have it in them to buck the trend of minor premiers not winning the big one? We’ll know more after this game.

Sydney Roosters

Roosters team for Finals, Week 1: Anthony Minichiello, Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, TBA , Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Mitchell Aubusson, Sonny Bill Wiliams, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala. Interchange: Daniel Mortimer, Aidan Guerra, Isaac Liu, Dylan Napa, Marty Kennedy, Luke O’Donnell.

Team Analysis

Credit: Zimbio.

Credit: Zimbio.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Mitch Aubusson return from injury which kept them out of the Roosters’ win over Souths on Friday, while Luke O’Donnell returns and has been named on the bench following a three-week lay-off due to suspension.

But Jared-Waerea-Hargreaves was suspended for the match following his raised elbow in the Bunnies clash. Either Marty Kennedy or O’Donnell will be promoted to the starting squad, with O’Donnell the likely candidate after starting much of the year and with Kennedy only just returning from an 11-week layoff.

It would be expected that Dylan Napa or Isaac Liu would drop out of the 17 to 18th man status given this would be quite the introduction to finals footy.

The Roosters won both games against the Sea Eagles this season in two of the toughest games either team has played. In the first game the Roosters won 16-4 despite a mountain of dropped ball, a 53-47 possession against them in the first half, nine penalties and just three offloads at Brookie, and JWH was sent off with eight minutes to go for a high shot on George Rose. They missed just 15 tackles in that one but completed just 24 of 37 sets.

In the second game they were without James Maloney but scored four tries to two despite being down 57-43 in the possession count in the first half against the Sea Eagles — and amazingly, they led 8-0 at the break. They had to defend eight straight sets of six at one point and missed four of five goals, made 12 errors to eight, bombed a try and had Daniel Mortimer and The Sheck taken off with concussion. But again their defence was superb with just 25 missed tackles.

Source: SMH.

Source: SMH.

However, the errors are a concern, and Manly will be at full strength in this one while the Roosters are down two of their best forwards. In the second win JWH was unstoppable after returning from a five-game suspension with 21 runs for 180 metres and 26 tackles without a miss, error or penalty; and as we all know by now, he won’t suit up on Saturday. It would be cool if he sat in the Chook Pen, no?

The Roosters lost two of the five games he was suspended and conceded 99 points in that span at 19.8 a game — well above their league-best defensive average of just 13.5 points conceded a match for the entire year. He leads their defensive effort with his enthusiasm out of marker, and it will be left up to players such as Luke O’Donnell to attempt to replicate it.

This is the clash of the two most penalised squads in the NRL — and in their first two games, the numbers are just awesome; Manly conceded nine penalties in each game, the Roosters conceded nine and eight. Both penalty counts for Manly were above their average of 7.71 penalties conceded, while the Roosters averaged in those two games what they’ve averaged all year: 8.5, or what those in Roosters land have come to know as “the most on average in 18 years”.

How they’ll play

Jenko scored three tries in their two matches this year — although one was a 90-metre effort from a scoop up off an error out wide — and the right-side defence was opened up on three occasions in that game. As good as Jamie Lyon is defensively, David Williams can be exploited outside him with a cutout or draw and pass, especially if the Roosters play flat or employ SBW with a roaming role as a second five-eighth.

Source: Zimbio

Source: Zimbio

Jake Friend also scored a try in each match and found some easy ground in both games with some sub-standard marker play from the Manly squad: he made 57 metres off six runs in the second match with a line break and five tackle busts. Further, Manly typically can be broken from behind half-way through some lazy work from their forwards behind the ruck, as RTS, SBW and MP7 all made breaks off quick hands at the line from the 40-metre line and back.

The absence of Brenton Lawrence and Anthony Watmough last week notwithstanding, Manly conceded four tries in the middle third of the field, and those two can be caught out now that they are back in.

But the loss of JWH and Cordner and is huge: JWH’s offload enables the great running game of Friendy to florish, while the quick play-the-ball of Cordner is just as important against the huge Manly pack — the Roosters scored nine tries from the next play following a run of his this year, and he had scored nine himself. Their replacements — Aubusson and likely O’Donnell — don’t offer those same strengths.

The most important players here are SBW and Friendy, who will need to provide the attacking impetus. Maloney and Mitch’s responsibilities therefore are to find the grass every time off kicks as Stewart is not a metre-eating fullback and the Roosters have every opportunity to camp them down that end, provided the the defence can keep its discipline in check on the ensuing set. Which is not a given.

Manly Sea Eagles

Sea Eagles team for Finals, Week 1: Brett Stewart, Jorge Taufua, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai, David Williams, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans, Brenton Lawrence, Matt Ballin, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough , Justin Horo, Glenn Stewart. Interchange: Richie Fa’aoso, Tom Symonds, David Gower, George Rose, James Hasson.

Team Analysis

Source: Zimbio.

Source: Zimbio.

Brett Stewart and Brenton Lawrence have been named to start for Manly after both missing their 12-point loss to Penrith last week through injury — although Brett Stewart reportedly remains in doubt to line up for Saturday’s match — while  Anthony Watmough returns after missing the past two games with a knee injury.

If Stewart does make it to the field, this is pretty much a full strength squad as Jorge Taufua returns to the wing following a two-game suspension for an off-field incident to start the year.

This is not the same team that the Roosters played in their first two matches this year — they’ve flogged the Storm since then and they have one of the most experienced backlines in the game. They really hit form post-Origin, winning six of seven before the meaningless loss last week.

How they’ll play

Source: SMH.

Source: SMH.

I’ve grown to love watching Kieran Foran play. Peter Sterling called him “the best young player in the game” a few years back and he’s started to more than live up to that praise. He used to be more of a ball-runner who thrived on his competitive nature but now his skill has caught up to that effort. He has a varied short kicking game with a mix of crosses, bananas and deft grubbers. He also has a smart football brain and a good passing game short and long. The Aussies have a task on their hands containing him in the World Cup.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, because the Roosters have just as big a task this week. He dominates the left side attack with Matai and Taufua and has 20 try assists and 11 line-break assists this year, which suggests they score tries off his short kicking — and Minichiello needs to be on his game at the back to cover that aspect.

But Mini is going to have his hands full running sideline to sideline and shepherding the ball, because while he needs to watch Foran like a hawk, he also needs to cover the other side of the field where Cherry-Evans, Lyon and Williams call home. Between them they have 43 of the Sea Eagles’ 108 tries this year, and form the best right side attack in the competition, without question.

Glenn Stewart is also out there and can ball play, run it or even kick it if need be, while Watmough calls the other edge home and has been among the best second rowers in the competition this year.

They’re obviously going to the fringes when within 20 metres of the tryline, and while the Roosters did well to hold them to a total of three tries in their two games, many forget that in the second game Brett Stewart spilled a richocet from Tupou with the line wide open while Jamie Buhrer was forced into an error over the line thanks to a trysaver from Aidan Guerra.

True, they’ve had a season of saving tries, but if their errors are up and they gift Manly six or eight straight sets in a row — as they have done already this season against this squad — they may be hard-pressed to keep them out to the same effect again considering Manly’s big game experience.

Prediction

Take the Roosters’ win over Souths out of the equation and remember their form previously. They were easily niggled by the Titans and Sharks and they leaked points like Parramatta leaks news about their board. They recovered well against the Rabbitohs, but if Walker scores that try in the second half we may be talking about the Roosters versus Storm right now.

They are also without JWH and Boyd, who were both excellent in their first two wins against the Manly club (JWH’s send-off notwithstanding) and they play their first finals game in three years. For many players in this team — RTS, Toops, Liu, Napa and Moa — it will be their first foray into NRL finals footy, while for two key players — SBW and LOD — it will be their first game of NRL finals brutality in some time.

Is it like riding a bike, playing finals footy? To be honest, SBW makes everything look like he’s riding a bike, it comes so easy to him. But i digress.

Despite all that, I still think the Roosters will win. Manly have been in great form but the Roosters match up with Manly extremely well. The excellent defence of Toops and Jenko can nullify Lyon and the Manly right-side attack, while the Roosters have the game breakers across the park to score their points from anywhere.

They showed last week they don’t need to depend on their left-side play which had become somewhat predictable, and that they can play deep on both edges and keep the defence in two minds.

I think this goes down as one of the great finals games at the end of the 80 — it will be gritty and positively filthy with explosions of exceptional play from either side. But if LOD fires up after three weeks out and can contain his composure somewhat, they have their replacement at least in attack for the Kiwi International.

I’m thinking this is an 18-16 affair either way. Make no mistake, the Roosters are up to their necks in this one, and it could go either way.  But we have Sonny Bill, and they don’t.

Man of the Match though will be Jake Friend. His play this year has been smart, direct and faultless — and he will lead this team to the narrowest of wins.

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