Manly have Des Hasler firmly on their radar for Friday night’s blockbuster at Brookvale, but the bigger picture is reinvigorating their NRL finals hopes without star Brett Stewart.
The Sea Eagles are still in contention for a top-four finish but, if their recent inconsistent form continues, it’s not out of the question the defending premiers could miss the playoffs.
Coach Geoff Toovey confirmed on Wednesday that fullback Stewart, with a record of 62 tries from 67 matches at Brookvale Oval, will miss the Bulldogs clash with a hamstring injury.
And despite being named in the side, his brother Glenn Stewart remains in doubt, as he’s yet to fully test out the knee that kept him out of State of Origin III.
“He’s looking good but he hasn’t trained with the team yet so we’ll assess it from there and see how he pulls up,” said Toovey, who scoffed at suggestions by Hasler that Manly are still the benchmark of the competition.
Ahead of Hasler’s anticipated return to Brookvale, Toovey said the Sea Eagles wouldn’t be fooled by their former coach’s latest attempts to fly under the radar, despite his Bulldogs sitting on top of the ladder alongside Melbourne.
Toovey knows the Sea Eagles are in a tricky predicament and two losses could see them out of the eight.
“Des is a good throw off in regards to benchmarks but they’re on top of the comp,” said Toovey.
“If you’re winning the comp, you’ve got to be doing something right and that would make you the benchmark, wouldn’t it?
“It doesn’t matter (getting one over Des). If we lose, we could be (close to dropping) out of the eight so it’s important for us to win and stay in touch with that top-four position and that’s all we’re concentrating on.”
After the Sea Eagles won the 2008 title, they limped into the finals the next season and were bounced out in week one by Melbourne.
The Sea Eagles are desperate to avoid a repeat and, under the new finals system, finishing in the top four is even more vital.
So far, Manly have been forced to field weakened line-ups most weeks and Toovey called on NSW enforcer Tony Williams to repay teammates for the time he’s spent sidelined through suspension and injury.
“I think he’ll be in for a big game,” Toovey said.
“Tony’s been out for several weeks this year – more than we’d hoped – and he’s just finally getting some form and some match fitness.
“We’re hoping that by semi-final time, if we’re there, he’ll be hitting his straps.”
Manly co-captain Jason King and hooker Matt Ballin also laughed at Hasler’s attempts to play down Canterbury’s brilliant seven-match winning streak.
Ballin said Hasler could expect to cop a barrage of abuse from the Sea Eagles faithful on Friday but believes there’s still respect for the two-time premiership coach.
“Fans will love to give it to him, that’s for sure – that’s just the honest truth of it,” he said.
“The Manly community know this game is a big one and people have been talking about Des coming back to Brookvale, but that’s an external thing …
“Des has a long history with the club and he’s done wonders for the club. He’s moved on and we’ve moved on.”