ROUND 17: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. New Zealand Warriors (nib Stadium, 1/7/17)
The Sea Eagles have come away with one of their most rousing wins of the season, responding to three successive opening tries from the Warriors with an astonishing 36 unanswered points, with only a late consolation try from Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad preventing New Zealand being shut out of the game altogether after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck put down points at the seventeenth minute. For the Warriors, this was one of their most heartbreaking losses of the year, and one of the best examples of the inconsistency and unpredictability that can make them so mercurial as a team.
Bodene Thompson put down the first try for New Zealand five minutes in, although the Warriors almost scored even earlier following a terrific charge at the line from Simon Mannering that only a mass of Sea Eagles were able to prevent getting to ground. Shortly after, the visitors timed their play perfectly, with a series of broad cut-out pass culminating with a short ball from Shaun Johnson to Thompson, who slammed over the line like a pumped-up winger.
After a couple of weeks of wide sweeps from Thompson and Ryan Hoffman in the back row (especially in their recent fixture against the Titans), it was reassuring for the Warriors to see this strength in their strategy clicking back into gear, not least because Hoffman had broken a bone in his foot following the captain’s run (or, rather, following a stretch in the hotel after the captain’s run) and had been ruled out for at least five to six weeks.
Two minutes later, Nikoll-Klokstad crossed over off the restart, thanks to some more interaction from Thompson and Johnson. This time, it came off the back of a pass from Nathaniel Roache to Thompson, with the big second-rower opting for a short ball to Johnson, who broke through the line and slipped out of a tackle from Jake Trbojevic before getting the Steeden over to Nikoll-Klokstad a millisecond before Tom Trbojevic closed in for a hit. So fast was the execution that the Sea Eagles’ focus couldn’t shift from the New Zealand halfback to winger rapidly enough, with Nikoll-Klokstad putting down his fifth try since graduating to the NRL from the Intrust Cup earlier in the year.
If this was a rousing moment for the young Cook Islands representative, however, it was just as important for the Warriors to see Johnson firing on all fronts, since his performance can often make or break a game, or at least make or break the team’s confidence and conviction in the early stages of a game. With two terrific try assists under his belt and two conversions attached to those tries, he was largely responsible for the pointscoring of the night as a whole, and the team seemed to feel it as well, regathering immediately to get their next try in order.
It might have taken ten minutes to come through, but when it did it was arguably the most elegant four points of the season from New Zealand so far – or at least the most elegant synergy of kicker and tryscorer. It started in the middle of the field, where in a set play Roache sent the ball left to Johnson, only for his halfback to abruptly change the direction of play and shoot it over to Kieran Foran, who put through one of the most impressive fifth-tackle kicks of the year – a low, leisurely, relaxed ball that was utterly assured of reaching RTS right on the chest with his fullback marker still on the other side of the field after Roache’s abrupt shift to the left hand side.
Most clutch kicks have a certain pressure, urgency or intensity to them, but the sheer casual calmness of Foran’s boot seemed to take the Sea Eagles by surprise, all of whom were momentarily disoriented by how perfectly it sat up for RTS to slam over the line. All in all, that made it the perfect way to turn two tries into a hat trick, as well as an impressive opening given how far the Warriors had travelled to being in Perth – a commute more appropriate to the vast distances of Super Rugby than to the NRL – especially on the back of their win over the Bulldogs the week before.
By this stage, the Sea Eagles clearly had to respond if they were going to have any chance of staying in the game, and they did so in the best possible way a couple of minutes later, with a try that was an important statement of purpose in two key particulars. First, it was Trbojevic who put it down, going fullback for fullback after RTS’ previous four points, while making up for being out of position when Roger the Dodger crossed over, in his third consecutive try against the Warriors in as many games.
Second, and perhaps more important, it was the first try of the night to be scored up through the middle of the field, and an even longer range try than Johnson and Nikoll-Klokstad’s combined effort seven minutes in. There’s something about a long-range try that suggests a long-range effort, and evokes a team capable of focusing on the long gam. While these pivotal points had been a long time coming – at least in terms of tryscoring – they had a lot of pent-up frustration and burgeoning conviction behind them, and seemed to have more than enough energy behind them to sustain the Sea Eagles over the remainder of the afternoon.
In terms of the try itself, it was Koroisau who acted as key assister, breaking through the line out of dummy half as effortlessly as Foran’s grubber had threaded through the Manly defence a couple of minutes before. From there, Api skipped past Bunty Afoa, slipped out of a tackle from Mannering and danced over an ankle tap from Ben Matulino, with the Warriors’ big men seeming to vanish into thin air, making you wonder how things would have been different if Hoffman had been fit to take the field.
Having busted through so impressively, all the Manly hooker needed to do was to get the ball across to his fullback, as Tom Turbo careened beneath the posts with only RTS and Nikoll-Klokstad having the slightest of chances of cleaning things up. Five minutes later, Brian Kelly crossed over to make it two – and, once again, it was a long-range try up the middle of the field, with the Sea Eagles coming from even further this time, and edging their way through an even more complicated configuration of Warriors’ defensive tactics, as if determined to come at the line from as far away as possible in order to steel themselves to come back from so far behind on the scoreboard.
The play started with a cascade of passes over to the left side of the field that saw the Warriors scrambling to defend against such rapid ball movement, culminating with a pass to Kelly, who slipped out of a tackle from Johnson and sped forward to get the ball over to Tom Trbojevic right in front of RTS, only for his fullback to get it back over to him a couple of seconds later, allowing Kelly to slide over the chalk with only Nikoll-Klokstad coming close to bringing him down. It was a rousing moment for Kelly after a couple of errors earlier in the game, and a sure sign that the Sea Eagles were circling the wagons as the half time siren drew near.
At first, it seemed as if Manly weren’t going to cross over again before the break, but a final long range try brought the score from 16-0 to the Warriors to 16-16, culminating a trio of four-pointers from the Sea Eagles that more than rivalled that put down by New Zealand in the opening minutes of the game. This time it was DCE who set up the try – or, rather it was Walker, who was set to dummy and run down the Warriors’ end of the field, only to glimpse that a pass to his halfback might just send him through the line.
It did, too, with DCE finding open space, dodging between David Fusitua and Ata Hingano, and then running a good fifty metres for a breakout dash that seemed to consolidate and condense all of Manly’s previous long-range vision into one splendid bid to be ahead for the first time in the game. It didn’t hurt the spectacle, either, that the rain really started to torrent down at this point, rendering it all the more astonishing when DCE reached the critical moment at the other end of the field.
Here, he actually slowed down, so assured was he of his thinking and timing – it was one of those scenarios when you can really glimpse DCE’s intelligence – almost stopping to draw in RTS before abruptly pivoting off his right foot and changing the direction of play to get the ball across to Uate, in the most leisurely move of the night since Foran’s spectacular grubber twenty-five minutes before.
If you’d been told that the Manly halfback and winger were going to score a pivotal try, you wouldn’t have expected that it would be the winger on the inside – especially given Uate’s dexterity on the extreme fringes of the field – and the inversion and reimagination of this particular combination testified to the Sea Eagles’ willingness to reshape their formula and combinations in order to accommodate the necessity of returning to the game from so far behind in those opening minutes, completing a trio of outstanding long-range tries that count amongst their best efforts this season. While Matthew Wright may not have managed the subsequent conversion, getting to 16-all was galvanising enough, and must have sent the Sea Eagles to the sheds on the runner’s high that eventually won them the game.
There was no doubt, now, that if the Sea Eagles could return from the break and put down the next try – and put themselves ahead for the first time in the game – they would have reversed the Warriors’ fortune so drastically that they’d be likely to come away with the win, or at least provide us with a pretty exciting match in the process. At first, it seemed as if they’d done so a couple of minutes in, when DCE coasted through the line and grounded the ball effortlessly – too effortlessly, as it turned out, since video footage showed that Addin Fonua-Blake had obstructed Foran as he was running to make a play at the ball.
Yet that just made it all the more momentous when Fonua-Blake linked up with the backline again a couple of minutes later – this time, during a short ball from Blake Green to Tom Turbo, when he acted as a dummy half and ran an almost identical line, but now refrained from the obstruction, disheveling the Warriors defence enough for Turbo to put down the much-needed points. What was so spectacular about these four points were that they seemed every bit as effortless as DCE’s a couple of minutes before, and with Fonua-Blake transforming a try-destroying move into a try-enabling move, the crowd were able to see the Sea Eagles consciously revisiting and revising their play before their very eyes, much as Kelly’s try in the first stanza had consolidated his play after a bit of a spotty opening half.
Seven minutes later, Walker made the lead a bit more secure, following a sublime series of cut-out passes from Koroisau, Green and, especially, DCE. Given how critical Walker’s timing had been in setting up DCE’s mad dash earlier in the game – along with his generosity in giving DCE the opportunity for a line break instead of dummying and running himself – there was a nice symmetry in seeing the Sea Eagles halfback put in the try assist this time, bringing Manly to 26-16 and – perhaps more importantly – a staggering 26 unanswered points since the Warriors had last scored at the seventeenth minute.
It was the very definition of a consolation try, then, when the Warriors crossed at the sixty-fourth minute for the final points of the game. It came off the back of a knock-on from Uate under the pressure of RTS’ high ball, gifting New Zealand the scrum feed and setting them up for a renewed assault on the Sea Eagles line. As if determined to further displace the spectacle of Uate’s try, the play converged on the right side of the field, where a terrific backwards pass from Johnson combined with a rapid, pitch-perfect cut-out pass from RTS – as fast as the shortest of short balls, and more like a flick pass in spirit than a cut-out – saw the Steeden flash before Wright and Kelly’s eyes before they could even register that Nikoll-Klokstad had taken possession of it and got it to ground.
In the space of a few seconds, the direction of the ball changed by about ninety-degrees – Johnson’s set-up was almost a no-look pass – and if the Warriors had to go out with any configuration, then it was perhaps best that they saw their fullback and halfback showcasing some of the best dexterity of the game in this way, especially after RTS’ boot had set it all up down the other end of the field. It didn’t hurt, either, that it was Nikoll-Klokstad’s second try, or that he matched his record of scoring two tries in every game in which he’s scored, since that collaboration of veteran players and young gun went some way to offsetting the distress of seeing Roache sent off with a hamstring injury a couple of minutes later
In one more heartwrenching moment for the Warriors, it looked as if Nikoll-Klokstad might have scored again a couple of minutes later, with the referee calling it a try only for the video replay to show that the Steeden had actually come off the young winger’s hand – a pretty big letoff for the Sea Eagles given that the Warriors were only trailing by four points, and that Johnson had actually enjoyed a more consistent evening than Wright with the boot relative to the number of tries scored.
At the end of the subsequent set, Kelly almost went over in turn, landing on a beautiful kick from DCE only to find the ball bouncing at just the wrong angle for him to scoop it up and get it to ground. All of a sudden, the Sea Eagles lead seemed just that little bit more insecure, with the Warriors returning to their momentum of the first stanza, and Tom Turbo responding with the biggest hit of the night on Foran for good measure, while the Sea Eagles consolidated their defence more than at any point during the game so far, culminating with an extraordinary sequence six minutes out from the end in which Uate let the high ball slip through his hands right on the Sea Eagles’ line.
No surprise that David Fusitua slid under to take possession, but what was surprising was that Trbojevic managed to prevent the New Zealand winger putting down points from about a quarter of a metre out, tackling him over the line and, with DCE coming in for assistance, managing to keep the Steeden off the turf despite Fusitua’s speed and momentum. With three minutes to go, Nikoll-Klokstad was set to crash over once again on the back of a long ball, only for Wright to skid ahead and get there first – just one in a series of terrific clutch plays that made these final six or seven minutes one of the most spectacular defensive sequences of the year for Manly.
The final effort came with one minute to go, when a fairly average set from the Warriors spun out following an offload from Matulino to Johnson, with the halfback putting in a run that, in its own way, was every bit as impressive as DCE’s earlier in the game, dodging and weaving his way out of four or five potential tackles and finally finding himself on the left side of the field without his support players to back him up, where he was dragged into touch by Lawrence, Green and Uate.
In a way, Johnson’s face said it all – the agonised frustration that came from seeing the game-winning try vanish before his eyes, along with all the other tryscoring opportunities that the Sea Eagles had shut down so clinically in the last part of the game. Despite their magnificent string of tries, it was these final minutes when Manly really showed their mettle as a team, putting in a defensive effort to rival anything else they’ve done this year, and a rousing spectacle of team cohesion as they head into next week’s game against the Panthers.
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