MAITLAND coach Matt Thomas has noticed a difference in Carl Manu this week.
The broad smile, swift hands and light feet have been ever present.
But the jokes and commentary have abated.
For Thomas it's a sign that Manu has flicked the switch ahead of the qualifying semi-final against Wanderers at No.2 Sportsground on Saturday.
"He has been relatively quiet this week," Thomas said. "You can tell he is more focused. He hasn't spoken a lot, but when he does everyone listens."
Manu has collected the past two Anderson Medals as the NHRU's best and fairest player. The game-breaking centre hasn't been as dominant this campaign, but Thomas is confident that Manu's best is to come.
"You look for the key players to lift in these type of games," Thomas said.
The controversial washout last weekend has provided extra time to prepare.
"We did a heavy training session in the rain last Saturday," Thomas said. "It was a hard, physical session. We got a lot out of it and then did team bonding afterwards."
Wanderers have trained twice this week on No.2 Sportsground, which will be in mint condition.
"We haven't looked at Maitland at all this week," Wanderers coach Dan Beckett said. "We did our preparation on them a fortnight ago. We didn't go back to the tape or refocus on them. This week has been all about trying to produce our best rugby on a big stage."
Wanderers winger George Ashworth returns from an ankle injury in place of teenage sensation Liam Dalibozek.
Dalibozek, who has scored eight tries and kicked 21 conversions and one penalty in four games, is away with the NSW Gen Blue side for the next two weekends.
"It was one of the hardest calls I've had to make," Beckett said. "Liam is an exceptional talent. In saying that, the forgotten player of the side is George Ashworth. He has been outstanding all year and rarely gets any recognition. He injured his ankle against Nelson bay and has worked as hard as anyone I have seen during my coaching career to get back. They are very different players. In many ways, Liam is a nice ace up your sleeve to have him on the bench."
Maitland have won the previous two encounters this campaign - 21-17 at Marcellin Park in the season opener and 15-12 in the mud at Passmore Oval in round 10 after No.2 Sportsground was closed due to the wet.
The Two Blues hadn't lost again until going down to minor premiers Hamilton 40-29 in the final round.
The Hawks were successful at slowing down Wanderers' ruck ball and attacked them in the middle of the park.
Maitland also compete hard at the tackle contest.
"Hamilton are a class side and exposed a couple of things," Thomas said "If you try to change too much, it will cause you some issues. It will be a cracker of a game.
"We know Wanderers are going to attack Josh McCormack and Carl Manu. They will have their big runners going at them hard. Their 12 (Nimi Qio) is one of the form players in the competition. He and Carl have completely different style and sizes. One is up in your face and one plays with his brain."