Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
The beaten 2013 Grand Finalists will suit up against the beaten 2012 Grand Finalists on Saturday night for a chance to play the Panthers for a spot in the 2014 decider.
The embattled Sea Eagles are headed for their first do-or-die clash of the year against the suddenly back-in-form Bulldogs, whose coach – former Manly premiership-winning clipboard-holder Des Hasler – has a funny knack of orchestrating big wins.
Hasler's former charges, now under the guidance of Hasler's former offsider Geoff Toovey, were simply blown away by a cardinal and myrtle onslaught last week, the rampaging Rabbitohs running through and around the maroon and whites at will as they raced out to a 40-0 lead.
Four quick-fire late tries closed the final margin to a more respectable 16 but that came with the result well beyond doubt and Dally M contender Sam Burgess already having been rewarded with an early shower, so it's hard to know how much to read into that late run.
The Sea Eagles not only copped a knock to their confidence out of the flogging, they also suffered further blows to a rapidly deteriorating roster.
Third-string hooker Jayden Hodges left the field at half time in a neck brace, while Origin back-rower Anthony Watmough was cited for a dangerous throw on Greg Inglis that has rubbed him out for one week. His skipper Jamie Lyon received an identical charge for his part in the tackle but his clean record sees him escape a ban.
The club will give both Ballin and Hodges every chance to prove their fitness ahead of Saturday’s game, and in the meantime have named a line-up that is unchanged with the exception of Watmough, whose spot in the second row is taken by Tom Symonds, with Dunamis Lui starting at lock and James Hasson joining the bench.
Meanwhile over at Belmore things are suddenly looking a lot brighter than they were a week earlier, when a Josh Reynolds half-time brain snap precipitated an 18-point capitulation against the lowly Titans, and further meant they headed into the 2014 finals with just two wins from their final eight regular season games.
That game and the losses before it now seem a distant memory following a rampant 28-4 shellacking of the side that bested them in the 2012 decider – and it was down in Melbourne's home patch at AAMI Park.
It looked like the Bulldogs of old – the big men stepping and ball-playing at the line, wildcard pivot Reynolds throwing himself into his work and running the ball at and through the line with gusto, steady halfback Trent Hodkinson controlling proceedings without raising a sweat and the outside backs (actually, pretty much just Tim Lafai) running amok. And let's not forget departing skipper Michael Ennis, the original 'grub' and the man who infamously got legendary good guy Nathan Hindmarsh to once throw the first punch, getting under the skin of one of the most unflappable blokes to ever play the game with his head rub of Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith.
The wash-up, though, is that the Bulldogs are fitter than their opponents; there was an awful leg break for Pat O'Hanlon last week and ongoing absences for Sam Kasiano, Lloyd Perrett and Tim Browne, but all their key personnel and playmakers are on deck.
They have named Reni Maitua to replace O'Hanlon on the bench, with Moses Mbye and Harlan Alaalatoa on an extended bench. Winger Corey Thompson, who left the field early with an abdominal cork last week, is expected to play.