AT THIS stage of the season, every team is looking for an advantage, however slight. And both Manly and South Sydney, who play tomorrow night, have potentially grand final-winning ones.
Not only have Manly used fewer players this season than any other club - a good guide to success for many judges - they could have their best possible squad on the field for the finals. The Rabbitohs have only used three more players this season, and are also set to unleash their best possible line-up in the remaining rounds before the finals.
Historically, teams that use more players through a season than their opponents are less likely to be fighting for the premiership at the end of it. A squad using a minimal number of players paints a picture of a side that is not only in form, but also fit. The table ranking teams based on how few players they have used in part reflects the NRL ladder.
The Sea Eagles, the Rabbitohs and Melbourne are arguably the best-placed teams in the premiership in that regard. The high-flying Bulldogs have suffered key injuries.
Last Saturday night, the Sea Eagles had their best possible squad on the field for the first time since round one. They will face the Rabbitohs with only bench forward Darcy Lussick (suspended) out of that squad, although Steve Matai is in some doubt due to an ankle injury.
''We're not over-confident at the moment,'' back-rower Glenn Stewart said. ''Two weeks in a row is the amount of games we've had with everyone back. So we'd like to have a little more than that to get the combinations back. We're not there yet. If everyone stays healthy, it'll be about three weeks or something like that before we hit our straps.''
Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans agreed: ''Once everyone is fit and healthy, and we're pretty close, we'll be ready to build and getting those combinations again. We've obviously had improvement over the last few weeks but it's still not where we feel we need to be to be competitive in this competition.''
Souths will not only get their key hooker, Issac Luke, back from suspension tomorrow night in Gosford, but co-captain Roy Asotasi has been named on an extended bench after spending the majority of the season sidelined with a pectoral injury.
Coach Michael Maguire said his luxury of using 26 players this season, on par with fellow contenders Canterbury, Cronulla and North Queensland, was the result of having luck with injuries but also the form of players who might not have been expected to excel.
''It's definitely important,'' Maguire said. ''The best thing for us is the fact that we've had the likes of 'Evro' [winger Andrew Everingham], Justin Hunt and Nathan Peats, Jason Clark come in, and they're all doing their job … when they get their opportunities, they've taken their chances.''
Maguire was undecided about the extent of Asotasi's involvement in the game. ''Roy's pulled up really well [from his return match in NSW Cup],'' Maguire said.
''He's a big addition to our squad. Having 'GI' [Greg Inglis] coming back next week will be another one. Each week, we're just taking steps forward. This [tomorrow night's clash] is a great game for us moving into the business end of the season. They're a dangerous team.''