Words Savannah Tafau-Levy 

The Vodafone Warriors on Thursday embarked on the longest road trip in the NRL after boarding a flight to Perth for Saturday’s clash with the Manly Sea Eagles at nib Stadium.

Although travelling overseas nearly every second week is hardly out of the norm for the Auckland-based team, the seven-and-a-half-hour flight to Western Australia is certainly a tougher ask.

Add in the fact there’s a four-hour time difference between New Zealand and Perth and it’s easy to see why Saturday’s game is a difficult assignment.

In previous years, the Vodafone Warriors have come back winless from Perth, including last year’s 15-14 golden point loss at Manly’s “home-away-from-home”.

But on the back of a good win over the Bulldogs, the playing squad boarded a plane on Thursday morning ready to turn history on its head.

Manly, however, are in good form themselves and will fly to Perth having beaten last year’s champions, the Sharks, 35-18 in round 16.

Based on statistics from round 16, here are some key matchups heading into Saturday night’s clash.


FIVE KEY MATCH-UPS

Halfbacks

Shaun Johnson v Daly Cherry-Evans

­Out of the five player comparisons for round 17, the matchup between Shaun Johnson and Daly Cherry-Evans is arguably the one that could decide the contest.

Each time Johnson connected his foot to ball last Friday night, it caused havoc for the Bulldogs. In 20 kicks in play, Johnson amassed 590 kicking metres. He also kicked one field goal and four conversions at Mt Smart Stadium while making 19 tackles on defence. Johnson’s clever kicking ability will be well matched against the man with a penchant for one-pointers, Cherry-Evans.  

After another match-winning performance last Saturday, Manly’s skipper Cherry-Evans proved that he will be a formidable opponent. His performance sent a reminder to Queensland selectors that he could well be the man to fill the injured Johnathan Thurston’s giant boots for Origin III. His unpredictability is a key factor on offense and leaving him with the ball for too long can be costly. Like Johnson, he played 80 minutes but assisted two tries, kicked one field goal and made 20 tackles.

(Johnson, full 80-minutes, 1 field goal, 4 goals, 9 offensive runs, 60 all run metres, 1 try assist, 19 tackles)

Cherry-Evans, full 80-minutes, 1 field goal, 8 offensive runs, 50 all run metres, 2 try assists, 20 tackles)


Fullbacks

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck v Tom Trbojevic

Johnson’s field goal in the 69th minute gave the home side a little breather but it was skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s try that sealed their win. There’s no denying that Tuivasa-Sheck’s speed is a threat on the field. A game earlier, in round 14 against the Gold Coast, he produced 203 metres from the backfield and 140 metres against the Bulldogs. With speed and an iconic sidestep to boot, his kick returns will be a huge benefit for the Vodafone Warriors.

Tom Trbojevic, brother of teammate Jake, is undoubtedly one of Manly’s most potent attacking weapons. Earlier in the season, the fullback made a remarkable comeback from a serious leg injury against the Brisbane Broncos. In round 16 he played 80 minutes and produced 184 metres.      

(Tuivasa-Sheck, full 80-minutes, 21 offensive runs, 140 all run metres, 1 line break, 1 try, 2 tackles.

Trbojevic, full 80-minutes, 22 offensive runs, 184 all run metres, 1 try assist, 3 tackles.)


Wingers

Ken Maumalo v Akuila Uate

Ken Maumalo undoubtedly had one of his best games of the season in round 16 against the Bulldogs. His confidence has clearly grown over the last month and with 19 runs and 203 metres last week, his performance was one of the Vodafone Warriors’ best. It would be remiss not to also mention his brilliant individual try that could lay claim to being the best four-pointer of the season so far.  

Maumalo matches up against Manly’s winger Akuila Uate, whose career has exploded again since moving to Sydney from Newcastle. Against the Sharks, Uate had a relatively quiet game by his standards. But there’s no doubt he will be a real threat on the wing based on his round 14 performance against his old team, the Knights, where he scored two tries.

(Maumalo, full 80-minutes, 19 offensive runs, 203 all run metres, 1 linebreak, 1 try, 2 tackles

Akuila Uate, full 80-minutes, 9 offensive runs, 93 all run metres, 3 tackles)


Locks

Simon Mannering v Jake Trbojevic

As has most certainly come to be expected, Vodafone Warriors veteran Simon Mannering walked off the field after Friday’s win against the Bulldogs following yet another Herculean performance. There is no question that Mannering has been the backbone of this team’s defence for many years. This was evident again in his mammoth defensive effort in round 16 where he made 60 tackles while also running for 155 metres in 80 minutes.

Blues star Trbojevic, meanwhile, backed up for Manly against the Sharks after a brutal State of Origin II. Despite a short turnaround of just two days, Trbojevic showed up and played 73 minutes against Cronulla. The forward racked up 18 runs and 174 metres. He also had an impact defensively making 31 tackles - half of what Mannering produced.  

(Mannering, full 80-minutes, 15 offensive runs, 155 all run metres, 60 tackles

Trobjevic, 73 minutes, 18 offensive runs, 174 all run metres, 31 tackles)


Props

James Gavet v Martin Taupau

The stars have finally aligned for us to witness the battle between former Wests Tigers teammates James Gavet and Martin Taupau. The big boppers both boast on-field aggression to match their hulking frames, making their match up this Saturday the most anticipated.

In round 16, Gavet made his return to the pitch after a minor hamstring strain and the short stint on the sidelines certainly didn’t prevent him from delivering some huge numbers off the bench. In 43 minutes, Gavet certainly made an impact, charging 122 metres up the field. In comparison to Taupau’s 12 tackles, Gavet committed himself to defend 32. On Saturday, the Vodafone Warriors will thrive on Gavet’s presence and look for him to set a platform for the halves to do their business.

It goes without saying that Taupau breaks down structured defensive lines and is a menacing ball carrier to boot. Against Cronulla, Taupau ran a staggering 210 metres in 17 hit ups. But it’s his prolific offload that the Vodafone Warriors will be looking to contain this Saturday. Currently the prop leads the NRL with 46 offloads.

(Gavet, 42 minutes, 12 offensive runs, 122 all run metres, 32 tackles

Taupau, 54 minutes, 17 offensive runs, 210 all run metres, 12 tackles)