Manly star Matt Ballin could return for a preliminary final if the Sea Eagles can earn a week off by beating South Sydney on Friday night.

Star hooker Matt Ballin is on track to make an early return from a leg fracture should Manly qualify for an NRL preliminary final.

The rare piece of good news on the injury front has provided added incentive for the Sea Eagles to scrap their way to victory in Friday night’s qualifying final against South Sydney and earn themselves a valuable week off.

Manly’s forward stocks have been hard hit in the past month and they face a stern test to get on top of the giant Rabbitohs pack in their opening playoffs clash at Allianz Stadium.

But if the Sea Eagles can dig in against Souths, and rookie hooker Jayden Hodges can hold his own up against New Zealand dynamo Isaac Luke, Manly are confident their on-field general Ballin can return for the knockout match a fortnight later to get into the grand final.

“The week off would be fantastic,” said Manly coach Geoff Toovey.

“Matty Ballin (would then be a) chance so that’s a good news story for us.”

Ballin might not be the biggest name in the Sea Eagles line-up, but his value can’t be underestimated as the most durable dummy-half in the NRL.

Until suffering a fracture in his leg in round 25 against Penrith, Ballin had only missed one match since 2010.

The last time he spent an extended stint on the sidelines was way back in 2007, his debut season.

The stability of having their hooker on the field every week has been integral to Manly’s reputation as arguably the most consistent team of the past decade.

Ballin’s absence was keenly felt in last week’s thumping loss to North Queensland although there were promising signs from 20-year-old Hodges.

The Cairns product and cousin of Queensland star Justin Hodges completed 51 tackles and ran for 69 metres in his first 80 minute performance.

Like Ballin, Hodges is a tough defensive player, but he will have his work cut out containing the Burgess brothers and Luke up the middle of the field on Friday.

“Matt’s a big part of our team but we think Jayden Hodges will do a great job,” Toovey said.

“First game last week was always going to be tough being thrown in last minute but I’m sure he’ll have an impact on the game.”

The Sea Eagles are hopeful prop Richie Fa’aoso could complete an incredible recovery from a broken neck to play again this year – and alleviate the losses of Glenn Stewart and Jamie Buhrer.