With such a dramatic trilogy of games opening Round 7, it was only inevitable that there was going to be a decrease in excitement at some point over the weekend. Sure enough, Saturday afternoon’s clash between the Sea Eagles and the Dragons at Lottoland was a classically uneven match, with St. George running Manly ragged to come away with a stunning 35-10 victory. At this point in the season, the Red V are first in the competition for both completion rate and run metres, and they put that expertise to good use at Brookvale, putting in wave after wave of second phase play that saw the Sea Eagles struggling to find shape and structure to both their attack and defence.
That listless effort from the Manly side was all the more striking after their dominant performance against the Roosters last week, with many of their most dominant playmakers seeming to go missing over the course of the afternoon. Whether it was the tiring effect of the temperature on the forward pack, or the dispiriting conditions under which the first Dragons try was awarded – more on that in a moment – the Sea Eagles continually fumbled passes and mistimed play, a situation that was only compounded by aborted offloads and unnecessary flick passes.
After a certain point, all the Manly near-misses became enervating, rather than exciting, making for a grinding match that was quite dull to watch despite the stellar performances from the St. George side. While Daly Cherry-Evans had some good kicks and cutout passes, he was unable to break through the line when required. Similarly, Dylan Walker was underwhelming in the wake of last week’s hat trick, opting for a series of clumsy and indecisive moves that culminated with his failure to foresee or prevent Kurt Mann’s try in the closing minutes.
The Trbojevics, too, seemed to go missing, unable to save things as they so often do. Like the Stewarts before them, they’re critical to the momentum of the Manly spirit. Without their magic touch, the Sea Eagles slumped, failing to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. Before halftime, I was curious about how Trent Barrett’s address in the sheds might have looked, and even more curious in the second stanza, since it didn’t seem to have had any impact upon how the boys from Brookvale took on the Red V.
To be fair, the Sea Eagles were disadvantaged by what will surely be on of the worst calls of the season – from both referee and Bunker – in the opening minute of the game. In a play that had to be seen to be believed, Jason Nightingale held DCE back from the play-the-ball, allowing Gareth Widdop to scoop up the Steeden and plant the first four-pointer of the afternoon half a metre out from the Sea Eagles line. To call it a try was an absolute howler, and DCE showed consummate grace under pressure in handling the ref’s insistence that it was legitimate.
From then on, the tension was palpable amongst the Sea Eagles, with Darcy Lussick slapping Joel Thompson in the second half for a sly comment, resulting in a penalty for the Dragons. Once again, DCE came to the fore to handle the situation, maintaining his cool with considerable aplomb given that he’d been slapped in the face by David Klemmer in Round 4 with no consequences. Still, it was a sign of desperation, as well as a bad move for Lussick during his first game of the season, and from that point on the Sea Eagles just seemed to grow more injudicious with their second phase play and final tackle options.
Yet to attribute the Dragons victory to that opening call would be a mistake, since the team put in one of their best performances of the season from first to last. In fact, by the end the game took on a different kind of excitement – the excitement of seeing a team prepared to give their all for a fully eighty minutes of football, rather than the excitement of watching two evenly matched teams bash it out to the death. Sure, the Sea Eagles weren’t offering much in the way of resistance, but that just provided St. George with the opportunity to show how determined they were to given their all right up until the final siren.
Nobody personified that like Gareth Widdop, who not only put in the first try of the game – however contentious – but closed out with a field goal and an additional try in the final two minutes. If the field goal was the icing on the cake, then the four-pointer was the cream on the side, as Widdop outsped Tom Turbo, grabbed him around the waist with one hand and grounded the Steeden in the in-goal area with the other. It was a masterful piece of play and a brilliant coda to the renewed Dragons side, more like a training video or demonstration session than something occurring in the final minutes of an actual game.
If the game was a testament to Widdop’s leadership and vision, however, it was also a tribute to the speed, strength and size of the Dragons big playmakers. With Aitken bringing in two tries (assisted by Jack de Belin), and de Belin himself bringing in a third, I was reminded just how blessed St. George are with dexterous big men. Add to that Tim Lafai’s dexterity in spearheading offloads and it was a glorious afternoon for Dragons fans. The fact that Tyson Frizell was taken off in the twenty-fourth minute just made the victory all the more remarkable.
On the Manly side, the one moment of consolation came with Jorge Taufua’s try two minutes before the half time siren. At the time, it felt like it might have been a turning-point, as the burly winger tunnelled his way through the St. George defence, carrying Nene McDonald and Euan Aitken over the line with him. Above and beyond the much-needed four points, it offered the vision of grit needed to prove to Manly that they still had what it took (as well as a much-needed glimpse of a chink in Aitken’s armour).
Unfortunately, for the Brookvale faithful, it wasn’t to be, with Manly going on to play their most dismal second half of the season so far. In fact, so listless was the performance that – as the Fox commentators put it – it probably makes more sense to chalk it up to a bad day and a hot afternoon than anything else. Yet that doesn’t mean that Manly won’t be raring for victory next weekend either, since this is a hole they need to dig themselves out of as soon as humanly possible.