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Finals arrive a week early as both sides fight for September security
For two sides currently in the top eight the path to ensuring a place in the finals is remarkably simple - win or hope for the best.
Having pulled off the great escape against the Warriors last Sunday, the Sea Eagles will be buoyed by the grit shown to come away with two points, while being fully aware that unless they improve drastically they will be simply making up the numbers come next week. Currently sitting in eight position with an inferior for-and-against to the ninth-placed Dragons, the Sea Eagles will have the benefit of watching the Cowboys face off against Brisbane on Thursday night; should the Cowboys suffer a heavy loss, the Sea Eagles could still qualify for the play-offs with a narrow loss and the Dragons proving too strong for Canterbury. Regardless of the theoretical possibilities capable of playing out, coach Trent Barrett will be stressing the importance of standing up and providing club legends Brett Stewart, Steve Matai and Matt Ballin with a send off befitting the contributions made over the past decade. Boosted by the return of backrower Curtis Sironen from a pectoral injury, the former Tigers utility will be eager to make up for loss time in place of Shaun Lane who moves to the extended bench.
Having let slip a chance to finish in the top four, the Panthers now face the prospect of missing the finals entirely after their seven-match winning run came to an end against the Dragons. Seemingly headed for a fait accompli following the controversial omission of Josh Dugan, the Panthers were unable to conjure a decisive score despite opportunities late in the clash. Sitting in the best position of the four sides vying for the final three positions in the top eight, only a worse case scenario of North Queensland, St. George Illawarra and Manly all winning would see Penrith miss the play-offs. With Dylan Edwards unlikely to play again this season with a knee injury, former Manly outside back Dean Whare has been named at fullback, however a reshuffle could see captain Matt Moylan drafted into the final 17 after being included as part of the extended squad. Coming into the match with a record of five wins from as many starts against Manly, coach Anthony Griffin will be hoping the occasion of Josh Mansour's 100th game for the club provides the motivation to upset the Sea Eagles club legends farewell.
Who to watch: For the Sea Eagles to qualify for the finals there are multiple variables to influence the final standings, but in the simplest outcome Daly Cherry-Evans needs to produce a Man of the Match performance. At times throughout 2017 the Manly halfback has been the most dominant playmaker in the league, yet all the adulation afforded towards him will count for little if he fails to lead the side to the finals. Stepping up to produce two clutch field-goals in New Zealand last Sunday, the 28-year-old has come under fire in recent years for failing to maintain the standards that saw him deliver the Sea Eagles a premiership in his rookie season, but having displayed the poise to defy early season pessimism, Cherry-Evans will be more than capable of rising to the occasion on Saturday night.
While no one can question the talent he possesses, Bryce Cartwright's performances in 2017 haven't quite hit the heights befitting a player of his reputation. Sidelined through injury for extended periods of the season, the 22-year-old utility forward will be hoping for a strong finish heading into the finals, where his skills could prove lethal given the sudden death stakes facing the Panthers over the next month. Set to fill a similar role to that of Feleti Mateo during the Eels 2009 dream run, Cartwright's ability to deviate between the forwards and halves should ensure the side is capable of injecting a player with the capacity to change the dynamic of a match. Touted as a representative star of the future, the latest generation of the Cartwright name at Penrith will be out to replicate the feats of those who came before him with a leading role in the clubs charge towards September.
The finals equation: Whoever wins is undoubtedly playing finals footy, that much is certain. While a Dragons loss on Sunday means both sides are guaranteed safe passage, the best way for either side to guarantee their presence one more week into September is to record a victory. If Penrith do lose, they'll want to limit the damage to eliminate the risk of being pushed below the Cowboys and out of the eight should the Dragons beat Canterbury the next day. If Manly lose, their fate is simply in the Dragons hands, regardless of the margin of loss.
1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Matthew Wright 3. Dylan Walker 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Blake Green 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Darcy Lussick 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Frank Winterstein 12. Curtis Sironen 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Lewis Brown 15. Lloyd Perrett 16. Brenton Lawrence 17. Addin Fonua-blake
1. Dean Whare 2. Josh Mansour 3. Tyrone Peachey 4. Waqa Blake 5. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 6. Tyrone May 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Peter Wallace 10. Regan Campbell-Gillard 11. Corey Harawira 12. Isaah Yeo 17. Trent Merrin 14. Sione Katoa 15. Bryce Cartwright 16. Tim Browne 13. James Fisher-Harris