General Sea Eagles out to repeat history in Newcastle



Hey, Sea Eagles, better have your heads screwed on if you hope to beat the Knights in Newcastle tonight, because the town is going crazy. Two years without finals football, after years of regularly dining out on it and celebrating premierships in 1997 and 2001, has the fans rivalling the players in their hunger for a kill.

"The whole town is going manic up here," Newcastle hooker Danny Buderus said. "Everyone senses a real chance. We haven't played in the semis for a couple of years and everyone is looking forward to being involved again."

Coach Michael Haganadded: "The interest in this game is as high as I can recall in my time here. Our fans are really making the most of it."

Home crowds - especially big, noisy crowds - are an advantage to any team. They are into the referee throughout the game. They howl when there is the slightest hint of a knock-on or high tackle or forward pass from the opposition, but they don't say boo when their own team is responsible.

At their most effective, they are like an extra man, and it is hard to argue that there is a more valuable home crowd than the one at EnergyAustralia Stadium. So what can Manly do to combat that, in the battle between fourth and fifth that is the first qualifying final? According to their coach, Des Hasler, it's all in the head.

"The players at every club are all full-time, they're all running the same lines and the same angles at training," Hasler said. "It's what they do mentally when they get into a position like this that makes the difference between winning and losing. You think you've been lifting, but suddenly you've got to lift even higher. That's what finals footy is all about. It's a real mental battle.

"Finals football can come down to one error, one play, one turning point, and it's a matter of what players do when that moment comes. It's a time when players find out things about themselves that they didn't know."

Those things can be good or bad, depending on what the player is made of, but Hasler is convinced his team, which is the least experienced of the eight sides left in the competition in terms of finals appearances by players, is made of the right stuff.

"I'm sure of that because it's the players who are challenging each other to get better and to do as well as they can in the finals," Hasler said. "I don't have to drive that - they are driving it themselves. We've been aiming at this all year, and now that we've reached the finals the players are lapping it up, because there's nothing like finals footy.

"It's all part of the development for young players like [Brett] Stewart, [Travis] Burns, [Anthony] Watmough and [Steve] Matai, and then you've got the experienced players like 'BK' [Ben Kennedy] and 'Beaver' [Steve Menzies] to keep it all going in the right direction. The experienced players addressed the younger players this week, to tell them that now the 26 rounds are over it's time to rise to a new level.

"I believe they'll react well to that, because there's a lot of belief among the players in this side."

Only four weeks ago Manly beat Newcastle 16-14 at EnergyAustralia Stadium, in a match charged with drama. Newcastle halfback Andrew Johns hasn't played since, because of suspension, and neither has Kennedy, because of injury. Both will resume tonight.

Even allowing for Kennedy's greatness, Johns' superstar status overshadowed him when he was playing for the Knights. Kennedy's move to the Sea Eagles has proved that when it comes to being able to lift a team by your own presence, he is in the same class as Johns. The other player involved tonight who gets unfairly caught in Johns' shadow is Buderus.

Expect a big game from Buderus, who recently gave up his place in the Australian team for the end-of-season Tri-Nations series so he could devote all of his time to his fiancee, Kristy Hewitt. Their first child is due in November and they will be married in January.

"I'm really focused," Buderus said. "It's four weeks to a decision in the finals and hopefully we'll be there all the way. The baby will be a month away after that and before Kristy and I get married I can start pre-season training and get some strength work done that I need. I haven't had a proper pre-season preparation for a while, because of Australian tours and injuries. I've lost a bit of weight and I need to put it back on.

"I know I'm moving on to the next stage in my life, with everything that's happening to me personally, and I'm looking forward to this finals series at least as much as I've ever looked forward to a finals series, because it's all that's left for me in terms of football this year."

Joey Johns running the show for the Knights, Buderus playing above his weight, as always, a full house, the Sea Eagles coming to enemy territory wearing the black hats, trying to repeat recent history by getting another win in Newcastle. The finals couldn't kick off any better than this.

Nb: Go the Knights!! ;)

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