MANLY coach Geoff Toovey has praised rookie Jorge Taufua's role in plugging a problem position as the Sea Eagles try to clinch a top-four spot in the finals by beating Gold Coast at Skilled Park tonight.
Taufua, 20, had not played first grade before this season, but has become an important member of the team on the wing following the departures of William Hopoate and Michael Robertson at the end of last season, and further injury drama for David Williams.
The Wentworthville junior has played 19 games and Toovey says he has full confidence in him going into the big end-of-season games. That is despite the fact Taufua will be a newcomer to finals football in a star-studded Manly side that has won two premierships in four seasons.
''Jorge might be in his first year of first grade, but he plays with plenty of confidence,'' Toovey said yesterday. ''He's done a great job for us this year, and we really needed someone to put their hand up and make one of those wing spots their own after losing the players we did at the end of last season.
''There has been a bit of a trend at Manly in recent years of young players coming into first grade and making an impact really quickly. Daly Cherry-Evans is one of those who did that last season, and Jorge is another. Jorge is very enthusiastic about everything he does. He knows what his job is and he follows the plan well.
''Apart from Jorge, I'm very happy with the way our halves have gone up another notch from last season. Daly and Kieran [Foran] would have been under pressure to back it up after being in a premiership-winning team last year, but they've handled it very well. They're taking leadership roles now. The other thing is that the senior playing group here has done a tremendous job. The team has bonded really well under them.''
The Sea Eagles are the form team in the competition, with five straight wins. Before the round began last night they were in fourth place, but losing to the Titans they would risk dropping out of the top four and being replaced by North Queensland. The fifth-placed Cowboys, who play Cronulla at Toyota Stadium tomorrow, have a far superior points for-and-against differential to Manly, but are still a win behind them.
Toovey said Manly's defence was the key to their recent surge, which led bookmakers to make them competition favourites.
''The players have been working hard for each other,'' he said. ''They've grown as a team, week to week, and when you're defending well the game can open up for you to attack. We've played some great attacking football in the first half during our last few games. It isn't that we've fallen away in the second half of some games, but we've had a few issues with ball control. Still, our defence has given us confidence.
''We're here to try to win the comp, like everyone else, and we think we're a chance.''