The 2014 NRL finals series gets underway on Friday night with a Qualifying Final between Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs. The winner will advance straight to the Preliminary Finals in two weeks’ time, while the loser faces a tricky game next week against one of the survivors from the Elimination Finals.
Despite this being a home game for Manly the atmosphere on match night could be like an away game. Sea Eagles fans are well known for their dislike of travelling into the city for games, and Allianz Stadium is just a few kilometres from Redfern and traditional Rabbitohs territory.
In the final weeks of the regular season Manly have looked a shadow of the side that were so dominant just after the State of Origin period that some bookmakers paid out early on the Minor Premiership. Their current form could also make fools of those who are saying that the Sea Eagles become a changed side in finals football. That may well usually be the case, but a squad ravaged by injuries does not currently look like a match for the likes of the Roosters and South Sydney.
Manly will welcome Brett Stewart and Brenton Lawrence back into their side, however the list of players who are unavailable speaks for itself. Glenn Stewart, Jamie Buhrer and Matt Ballin are all experienced campaigners with Premierships to their name.
Adam Reynolds will return from suspension for Souths giving coach Michael Maguire a selection headache. He has long planned for a switch to the back row for captain John Sutton, with Luke Keary paired with Reynolds in the halves. Injuries to Keary and Sutton have not made it possible for the plan to be implemented, and it would be a brave call for Maguire to use a final to put it to the test. On the other hand, it is equally hard to leave one of Reynolds, Keary or Sutton on the bench.
As things stand Sutton has been named in the back row, with Reynolds and Keary the starting halves combination. However, there is speculation that a late change will be made, and that Sutton will indeed play from the interchange bench.
This is a huge opportunity for the Rabbitohs to avenge their defeat in last season’s Preliminary Final against the Sea Eagles, having established a big lead at half time. It is not often that a Manly side comes into a finals series having been so widely written off, but then that is also when they are at their most dangerous.
Friday 12th September, Allianz Stadium Moore Park 19:55
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