THE mind games have started ahead of Friday night's grudge match between the Sea Eagles and the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium.
Bulldogs skipper Michael Ennis tossed the first verbal hand grenade on Monday when he claimed his side were "underdogs" despite the fact that they finished as minor premiers and at one stage won 12 games on the trot.
"I think Manly deserve to be favourites," Ennis said with a straight face during the captain's call at Allianz Stadium.
"We finished where we did and that is a wonderful achievement as a club.
"But Manly have certainly got a wealth of experience across the board throughout their roster."
Ennis said the Sea Eagles had responded to everything thrown at them to claim a top-four berth.
Besides being minor premiers Ennis said Manly are pretty much at full strength apart from injured winger David Williams.
"But we have given ourselves an opportunity to put ourselves in a position to challenge them," he said.
But Sea Eagles co-captain Jason King said being labelled premiership favourites is not something that concerns his playing group.
"We focus on those things we need to do well on the football field and that is where our preparation and thoughts will be this week," he said.
"We certainly have been playing better football in the latter stage of the year, started to string some wins together."
Ennis said the spotlight on rival coaches Geoff Toovey and Des Hasler had worked in favour of the players.
"The media distractions will allow us just to focus in on our preparation," he said.
King said all the talk about the Eagles coming up against Des Hasler makes a great story, but it doesn't help the team win games.