Roosters v Sea Eagles
Here we go. After 29 weeks and exactly 200 games between the 16 NRL clubs, it all comes down to this Sunday as the Sydney Roosters look to win their first premiership in 11 years against the might of the Manly Sea Eagles.
By Ben Blaschke
NRL.com 11:15am Wed 02nd October, 2013
In pure footballing terms, it couldn't have been scripted better. Minor premiers the Roosters have been the benchmark for most of the 2013 season - combining their scintillating brand of attack with some of the greatest defensive efforts ever seen in the modern era.
Thriving under the tutelage of rookie coach Trent Robinson - named the Dally M Coach of the Year last Tuesday night - they have benefited enormously from the brilliance of Sonny Bill Williams and fellow newcomers Michael Jennings, James Maloney and Luke O'Donnell.
But if there is one side that can throw a cat amongst the pigeons it is this experienced Manly outfit. The road to the decider certainly hasn't been so smooth for the Sea Eagles. In fact, up until Round 25 when they sent a message of intent by belting Melbourne 28-8, Manly hadn't beaten a fellow top-four side in 2013.
Their draw hasn't been simple either. These two sides met just three weeks ago in the first week of the finals and played out a bruising encounter which saw the Roosters escape with a thrilling 4-0 win. But while the Roosters were rewarded with a week off (followed by a grand final qualifier against an over-matched Newcastle side), Manly had to back up against Cronulla, then face off against South Sydney for their spot in the decider.
Each week they've been widely written off with the sheer number of players carrying well-publicised injuries seemingly one bridge too many. Yet each week they've defied the critics. And the manner of their stunning victory over the Rabbitohs last week when they trailed 14-0 before fighting back to prevail 30-20, won't have been lost on the minor premiers.
Clearly no amount of hurdles is going to stop this Sea Eagles outfit from doing what they do best.
Despite the lack of scoring in that Week 1 meeting earlier this month, there was no lack of excitement with breaks, half chances and desperately close calls the order of the day and if that's what we can expect again this Sunday we could well be in for one of the great grand finals.
It's hard to imagine a more acutely matched contest than this one. The battle of the forward packs promises to be brutal with SBW, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and the returning Boyd Cordner lining up against Sea Eagles veterans Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Brent Kite.
In the halves it is the NSW pairing of Mitchell Pearce and Maloney against Kiwi Test five-eighth Kieran Foran and Queensland Origin star Daly Cherry-Evans - arguably the form player of the finals so far.
And what about the strike out wide? Jennings, Tuivasa-Sheck, Kenny-Dowall and Minichiello v Lyon, Matai, Williams and Stewart.
It's a contest worthy of a grand final and whichever side emerges victorious will certainly have earned the spoils.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson has named the same 17 that belted Newcastle last weekend with both Boyd Cordner and Luke O'Donnell overlooked.
The Sea Eagles have named David Gower as the man to replace Richie Fa'aoso in the decider with the unlucky Fa'aoso having broken a vertebrae in his neck against Souths last week.
For the first time in Sea Eagles history, six players will have represented the club in four separate grand finals - Brent Kite, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai, Anthony Watmough and the Stewart brothers.
Manly have won 19 of 23 Sunday games in the past three years and nine of 12 games at ANZ in the past five. Geoff Toovey is poised to become just the second man after Bob Fulton to both captain and coach the club to premiership glory.
The Roosters will be looking to win the premiership double for the first time since 1975 although only once before have they defeated the same opponent twice in the same finals campaign - against Glebe way back in 2011!
Watch Out Roosters: There was a time not so long ago when every side in the NRL knew the greatest threat would always come from Manly's right edge combination of Daly Cherry-Evans, Glenn Stewart, Jamie Lyon and David Williams. Not so in 2013 with the Sea Eagles' left edge proving almost as lethal.
The left-side combo of Kieran Foran, Justin Horo, Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua have helped Manly to 42 tries on that side of the field - not too far off the 49 they have produced on the right. This means the Roosters won't have it easy when trying to predict which way the Sea Eagles might swoop when an opportunity presents itself.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: How do you break down this incredible Roosters defence? That's the big question for Manly coach Geoff Toovey who saw his side kept to nil three weeks ago when these two sides last met. In fact, in their three meetings so far in 2013 Manly have scored a total of just 16 points. It's not a problem restricted only to the Sea Eagles, however - the Roosters have kept sides to zero on six separate occasions this season in what must surely be one of the greatest defensive performances of all time. Manly will either need their rivals to have an off day or figure out a new way to break down the wall if they are to prevail on Sunday.
Plays To Watch: SBW's passing game. One of the game's top offloaders, Williams is always a handful to wrap up and will look to create some second-phase play at every opportunity. However, he can also pass before the line and has shown a love of the cut-out pass to winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the right edge.
Watch too for the Pearce-Maloney &ldquo;one-two&rdquo;. On multiple occasions this year Maloney has broken through after receiving a second-man ball from Pearce and accelerating onto the pass rather than promoting it to his wide runners.
Manly's left edge plays a more structured game than the right with Kieran Foran running a series of plays utilising Justin Horo and Brett Stewart. The common theme is for Stewart to wrap around the back and receive the ball as the second man however when the opportunity presents Foran will throw a short ball to Horo as the lead runner instead. On the right, the running games of Daly Cherry-Evans and Jamie Lyon are the danger. Watch for Manly to get some early ball to Lyon who can leave his opposite number stranded if given room to move.
Key Match-Up: Mitchell Pearce v Daly Cherry-Evans. The individual battle that could make or break the grand final. These two met on the State of Origin stage this season and it proved an unhappy outing for Pearce, however it has been a very different story at club level where he has enjoyed his finest year to date. He was exceptional in the Roosters' 40-14 win over Newcastle last week and will be looking to control the game again this weekend.
On the other side of the field, Cherry-Evans has been in sublime form over the past two months and is arguable the No.1 reason they have managed to make it through to a fourth grand final in seven seasons. With so much on the line it will be interesting to see who best handles the pressure of rugby league's biggest day.
Where It Will Be Won: The big men will have the greatest say here with two of the most battle-hardened packs in the NRL going toe to toe. There will be plenty of big hits and watch for offloads galore - particularly on the edge of the ruck where the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Glenn Stewart will look to get over the top of one another. Which side will get on top?
The History: Played 123; Sea Eagles 79, Roosters 42, drawn 2. The Roosters have never defeated the same opponent four times in a single season before. Manly have won five of seven finals games against the Roosters.
Match Officials: Referees - Ben Cummins & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials - Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Referees - Ashley Klein & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it's being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Roosters v Sea Eagles NRL decider. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 - Live 7:15pm.
The Way We See It: This looms as one of the great grand finals with barely a struck match between the sides. Although the Roosters deserve their favouritism, Manly have proved that they can never be written off and they have the great advantage of having won two premierships and played in three grand finals in the previous six seasons. That experience could prove invaluable, but given the Roosters are not only minor premiers but have also beaten Manly three times this season, it would be folly to tip against them. Roosters by two points!
* Statistics: NRL Stats