Fans may have expected the Manly Sea Eagles to be playing a semi-final, but the result of last week’s elimination final was a surprise to most. They will now need to bounce back against a Sydney Roosters outfit who managed to keep themselves from being eliminated by the skin of their teeth.
The Sea Eagles' qualifying final against minor premiers the Melbourne Storm was always going to be an uphill battle. Of that there can be no doubt.
But going down 40 points to 12 wasn't in the script. At all. They were belted off the park by the purple horde, who now must be raging premierships for the premiership if they weren't already.
Manly have shown an ability to turn things around in a hurry at times this season though, and they will now be expecting a bounce-back led by Tom Trbojevic, who was ridiculously quiet against the Storm.
On the other foot, the Roosters were hardly at their best, but still managed to survive and scrape through to Week 2 of the finals with a one-point win over the Gold Coast Titans.
It was scrappy and not all that attractive, but if nothing else, it summed up the Roosters season. This is a team who have been decimated by injuries all season, but still managed to battle for a spot in the top four.
Trent Robinson's side have to do it the hard way, but this isn't an unwinnable game for the tri-colours, although it hasn't been made any easier with yet another key name being out.
The curse has struck the Roosters again. Sam Verrills is out for the next two games, either being this and the preliminary final, or the opening round of next year, following his failure to score a downgrade at the NRL judiciary for a high shot on Brian Kelly last weekend.
That means it'll either be a straight swap for Ben Marschke, or Lachlan Lam will shift to hooker with Sam Walker to move into the halves. Early indications suggest Marschke will start, but expect Walker to play more of a role this week than he did last week.
On the other side of the coin, the Sea Eagles are set to welcome back Lachlan Croker. They missed his service out of dummy half last weekend badly, while his defence has been outstanding too. For a stop-gap solution who has played in the halves most of his career, Croker has been simply phenomenal this season.
Manly Sea Eagles
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Jason Saab 3. Brad Parker 4. Morgan Harper 5. Reuben Garrick 6. Kieran Foran 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Josh Aloiai 9. Lachlan Croker 10. Martin Taupau 11. Haumole Olakau'atu 12. Josh Schuster 13. Jake Trbojevic
Interchange: 14. Dylan Walker 15. Karl Lawton 16. Sean Keppie 17. Taniela Paseka 18. Toafofoa Sipley 19. Moses Suli
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Josh Morris 4. Adam Keighran 5. Matt Ikuvalu 6. Lachlan Lam 7. Drew Hutchison 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 20. Ben Marschke 10. Isaac Liu 11. Angus Crichton 12. Sitili Tupouniua 13. Victor Radley
Interchange:14. Sam Walker 15. Nat Butcher 16. Egan Butcher 17. Fletcher Baker 18. Dale Copley 21. Naufahu Whyte
The key battles
Before last week, Turbo Tommy had a ridiculous 52 try involvements in 15 games, to go with over 100 tackle busts, almost 30 line breaks and well over 200 metres per contest on the clock.
He has been unbelievably impressive with the ball in all circumstances, and has probably put together a Dally M winning season despite playing just over half the games.
And yet, the man formerly (and arguably still) known as the best player in the world has been on his heels.
He has almost single-handidly dragged the Roosters' team with him from set back to set back.
He himself has 30 try involvements from 21 games, to go with a stunning 141 tackle busts, 16 line breaks and over 80 per cent tackle efficiency which is stunning for a fullback. He also averages 184 metres per game.
The stats don't tell the whole story about just how good these two are, and while it's hard to split them in a lot of ways, the winner of their battle could take their team to victory tonight.
Jake Trbojevic vs Victor Radley
When you look through the forward packs, you could easily settle on the Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Martin Taupau battle, but I'm not so sure. They will play varying levels of minutes and have extremely different ways they impact their teams.
The battle at lock though is an intriguing one.
Radley is undeniably one of the most elusive players in the competition, and the Roosters were much poorer for his absence during a recent suspension.
He hits hard, runs hard, and has fantastic ball and footwork. He is the sort of player even neutral fans want to watch on the field, and while the numbers don't stack up, it's hard to argue he doesn't provide to his team in other ways.
Trbojevic, on the other hand, is such a solid option for the Sea Eagles. Arguably the best tackler in the game, he plays big minutes, hits hard and has incredibly underrated work on the ball.
His combination with brother Tom is, at times, electric, and while it was a different level of competition, you only need to go back to Round 25 to remember what the brothers did to the Cowboys.
He doesn't get the same wraps as other forwards, but every premiership team needs a player like Jake Trbojevic.
It was something of a shambolic display on the edge last week from Manly. While Morgan Harper has generally been a fairly solid defensive centre, he and Jason Saab had an absolute mare last week, and defending on the right edge (left edge attack), they will now have to deal with James Tedesco setting things up.
That is hard work at the best of times, and anything like last week, with errors and missed tackles, will pull Manly to shreds.
Harper's work wit the football is also questionable, and while Saab is an unbelievably gifted winger, most of his tries and attacking plays have been set up by Trbojevic without direct involvement from Harper.
Harper has become a crucial cog for the Sea Eagles, and if he doesn't play well, it could spell disaster.
The stats you need to know
The biggest problem facing the Roosters is this: They make the fourth-most missed tackle in the competition, to go with the most errors in the competition, and give away the second-most penalties.
The only way the Sea Eagles' dangerous attack was shut down last week was by extreme discipline of the Storm, and those stats suggest the Roosters simply won't be able to do anything about it.
In saying that, it could be a sloppy encounter, given the Sea Eagles sit second for errors. That has been better in the second half of the season though, and it could be argued they are well on top statistically. All of that combined with the Sea Eagles laying on the third most line breaks in the competition suggests big problems for the tri-colours.
What the Roosters do have to their advantage though is some of the best power-runners in the competition. They sit fourth for post-contact yardage out of all teams, and not all that far behind Manly in the tackle busts and line breaks statistics.
Victor Radley's return only helps them in those fields, but it's down to Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to lead the charge, while they'll need James Tedesco and Daniel Tupou, who have made 199 tackle busts between them this season to go excellently to win.
Where it’ll be won
When you weigh everything up, it's hard not to go past the battle of the fullbacks, and more widely, the battle of the back three.
These teams are very evenly matched, even if for different reasons across the park.
There isn't much between them, despite what the scoreline will say from their Round 1 meeting. It, almost six months ago and with Tom Trbojevic watching on from the sidelines, ultimately means zero to this contest.
But with two raging packs of forwards, strong kicking games and ability to score points, it's going to come down to who has more possession and territory, and so often that is decided from the back.
Not only from an attacking point of view, but from a defensive point of view. Who can organise the line better, and who can be safe under the high ball against, as mentioned, two exceptional kicking games.
It's just too difficult to look past the errors, penalties and missed tackles of the Roosters.
The Storm only slowed the Sea Eagles down because they were patient and managed to put the blueprint in place to stop Tom Trbojevic.
The Roosters simply don't have the power, strategy or tactics to do the same thing.
Don't expect a blowout though.
Sea Eagles by 10..
What else you need to know
Kick-off: 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: BB Print Stadium, Mackay
Broadcast: Live, Channel 9, Fox Sports 502, Kayo Sports, 9Now
Betting odds: Sea Eagles $1.28, Roosters $3.75
Head-to-head record: Played 135, Sea Eagles 85, Roosters 48, drawn 2
Record in finals: Played 8, Sea Eagles 5, Roosters 3
Match officials: Referee - Gerard Sutton, Touch judges - Dave Munro and Todd Smith, Bunker: Ashley Klein