Wests Tigers will head to Lottoland this afternoon confident of extending their strong start to the season against a Manly side tough to read so far in 2018.
While Ivan Cleary's side have shown tremendous consistency to sit inside the top four after the first five weeks of the year, the same cannot be said for Trent Barrett's men. Two big wins over the Eels and Raiders have been mixed with disappointing losses to the Rabbitohs and Titans, and they'll be hoping that a return to the Northern Beaches this afternoon helps brings out another positive performance.
On their day, the Sea Eagles have shown to be a high-quality side who can break open any defence in the competition — even the one of Wests Tigers, who have statistically been the best defence so far this year.
With Tom Trbojevic returning from injury to Josh Reynolds in for his club debut or David Nofoaluma recalled to the squad, there's certainly no shortage of storylines around this afternoon's game.
We've picked out the five things you'll want to keep an eye on in today's game...
1. What will we see from Josh Reynolds on debut?
It might be coming six weeks later than what they had expected, but Wests Tigers fans will finally get their look at new recruit Josh Reynolds when he runs out for his club debut this afternoon. The prized off-season recruit will come off the bench against the Sea Eagles today, and while it might be a position different to what many expected he would play, it'll be great to see the talented playmaker back from injury first and foremost. We all know what Reynolds provides on field — energy, enthusiasm and a relentless desire to do anything to win — and we'll no doubt see all of those things and more this afternoon, but it'll be fascinating to see what the 29-year-old can produce with the ball in hand. A lot of what he contributes will depend on where he plays (and we'll touch on that in a bit) but it's definitely something that Wests Tigers (and rugby league fans in general) will keep a close eye on whenever he ends up taking to the field.
2. How will Cleary look to use Reynolds in the Wests Tigers spine?
We're not going to pretend to know what Ivan Cleary is thinking for today's game, but there do seem to be a few logical moves that could happen against Manly. The first is Reynolds coming off the bench and replacing Jacob Liddle at hooker; this was something that seemed on the cards before Round 1 with Marshall coming off the bench and Reynolds moving in to hooker, so it makes sense that that could happen this afternoon. The second is Reynolds coming off the bench and moving in to the halves, with Marshall moving to hooker in place of Liddle – after all, Reynolds is a five-eighth more than he is a hooker so we could see that happen. It's also possible that the former Origin five-eighth comes on as a straight swap for Marshall, with Liddle staying at hooker following his impressive performances over the past few weeks. And who knows: Cleary may decide to start the playmaker alongside Brooks (or Marshall), or even at hooker! The options are endless, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on the final team list at 3:00pm!
Match: Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
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3. What impact will Tom Trbojevic returning have?
Switching sides and all attention for Manly fans will be on the return of their gun fullback, Tom Trbojevic. Originally thought to miss an extended period of time with his ankle injury, "Turbo" ended up missing just last week's loss to the Gold Coast Titans — a result that was good for his team in the long run, but not so much in the short term. The Sea Eagles attack looked far from its best without Trbojevic in the side, and his return today will certainly add plenty of punch and danger around the middle. However, just how much impact he will have still remains to be seen. Wests Tigers fans will have fond memories of the last time the side took on Manly, with Trbojevic's two intercept passes to David Nofoaluma allowing Cleary's side to claw their way back in to the match and eventually steal the win in the final minutes. Hopefully no comeback is needed this time around, but similar defensive steel is no doubt required for the visitors later today if they are to keep the Origin hopeful from staking his claim at selection later this afternoon.
4. Who stands up in the absence of Russell Packer?
While Sea Eagles fans will welcome the return of Trbojevic, Wests Tigers will have to deal with the loss of Russell Packer for the first time today with the forward expect to miss close a month of football after picking up a knee injury in the win over Melbourne. Packer's energy and assertion in defence through the opening five weeks has been a hallmark of Wests Tigers new-found defensive resolve, and he'll certainly be missed by Coach Ivan Cleary as he lays the platform in the middle. However, they say adversity breeds opportunity and today's game is just that for a number of players to step up and cover the loss of Packer. Ben Matulino has played over 20 Tests for his country and will certainly be looked upon to handle the Sea Eagles' big men early on, while promising young forward Alex Twal earns his first start at prop — a huge chance for the former Parramatta Eel to show what he can do. Josh Aloiai was enormous off the bench last week against Melbourne and will certainly add punch and aggression later today, while Sauaso Sue could also have a key role if selected. Fans will remember Sue's try against the Sea Eagles (and in particular former teammate Martin Taupau) last time around, and will be hoping for more of the same this afternoon. Which of these four players stands up most in Packer's absence still remains to be seen, but it goes without saying that someone will need to go to another level this afternoon to truly replace the Kiwi international.
5. Can Wests Tigers end their Brookvale hoodoo?
Ivan Cleary's side have shown already this year they can smash a hoodoo or two — beating the Roosters for the first time in 11 games, winning in Melbourne for just the second time ever and defeating the Storm twice in a season for the first time in club history. It's been an impressive haul so far, and they'll need to overcome another record against them this week if they are to get the chocolates later today. Wests Tigers have not won at Brookvale (now Lottoland) since early in the 2003 season — so far back not even club legend Benji Marshall had made his debut for the club. With just one win from 12 outings, the venue is clearly Wests Tigers' worst ground to play at in the NRL, and Cleary's side will be hoping to put that record behind them later today. To do that, however, they'll need to stop the Sea Eagles' remarkable winning run at the venue, with seven wins in a row and an average of 31 points scored in their last few games at home.