The Tigers were looking for their first consecutive win of the 2017 season against the Sea Eagles at Lottoland on Sunday afternoon, as well as a consolidation of their victory over the Knights before the bye – their first in seven games. As it turned out, however, the predictable outcome was the one that eventuated, with Manly coming away with a home win despite a trio of tries from Joel Edwards, Esan Marsters and Luke Brooks that saw the visitors momentarily double the Sea Eagles score, and Brooks’ best game with the boot in weeks.
Combined with an erroneous referee call at a critical juncture in the match for the visitors – shortly after their third try – and a Manly try moments afterwards, this was probably a good match for the struggling Wests Tigers outfit, who came respectably close to beating the Sea Eagles as the game reached its final twenty minutes. Add to that Brooks’ improvement with short-range kicking options, his creativity in dealing with ricochets, and his enhanced willingness to run the ball, and this was probably one of the less dispiriting Tigers losses of recent times.
Still, the game started in a fairly mixed fashion for the black and gold army .On the one hand, Brooks immediately showcased his long-rang skills with the boot, forcing Matthew Wright to scramble back into the in-goal area to clean up his opening last tackle option. At the same time, Jacob Liddle was debilitated by two unfortunate tackles. The first, from Brenton Lawrence, seemed to have damaged his ankle, only for him to limp back into the field of play and get on with the game. The second, from Jake Trbojevic, was more damaging, dislocating the shoulder that had plagued him at the beginning of the 2017 season.
The upshot was that he was out of action from five minutes in, forcing the Tigers to rearrange their spine with a whole game to go. It felt only natural, then, when the Sea Eagles put down the first points a few minutes later, on the back of a superb cut-out pass from Blake Green to Daly Cherry-Evans, and then a short ball from DCE that forced Brooks to commit and cleared up enough space for Shaun Lane to crash over the line. While Wright may have lobbed the ball to the left while trying to add the extras straight into the sun, this was still an emphatic start for Manly – a try so apparently effortless that it seemed to unsettle the Tigers even more than Liddle’s sudden absence.
Wright didn’t have to wait long to make up for the missed conversion, either, putting down points in the left wing a mere minute later. Once again, it was DCE who set things up, putting in one of the very best 40/20 kicks on the season on the third tackle to get the Sea Eagles back down the other end again. Hooking the ball around from the opposite ruck, DCE utterly outclassed Brooks’ long kick, and proved how much of a beast he can be with the boot, as the Steeden skidded over the touch line right at the ten metre mark.
A tackle later, the Sea Eagles received a penalty, but decided – wisely – to tap and go, with Tom Trbojevic now taking on the role of try assister after realising that the Tigers defence had jammed up on his left in anticipation of a short ball. Instead, Turbo sent out a harbour bridge pass that hit Wright square on the chest and almost sent him flying over the line, so perfectly was it timed, with Esan Marsters unable to prevent him slamming the ball to ground.
Yet while Trbojevic may have been the literal try assister, DCE also felt like an assister in spirit, not least because his previous assist to Lane had been his 22nd of the season – the most he he has ever racked up in any one season. It felt appropriate, then, when he took over the kicking duties even if he hooked it as well, offsetting the Sea Eagles’ form ever so slightly by reminding us of their ongoing need for a reliable and consistent goalkicker.
The Tigers responded with a series of fairly disappointing options, most notably from Tedesco himself about a quarter of an hour in. It was preceded by Brooks’ best kick of the afternoon – a low, skittering grubber that he managed to thread through the defensive line more deftly than he has in weeks, to the point where Elijah Taylor was almost able to get a hand to the ball only for Lane to punch it into touch at the eleventh hour. Still, the Tigers got the first goal line dropout of the night, and built some real momentum – the momentum they needed to put down their first try – only for Teddy to grubber on the third tackle, sending the ball straight into Akuila Uate’s hands, who promptly scooped it up before the Tigers could get a hold of it.
Whether Teddy was spooked by the quick succession of Sea Eagles tries, or was aiming to take the opposition by surprise was unclear, but it quickly returned the momentum to Manly, only for a penalty to give the Tigers another shot. Once again, Brooks did well, recollecting his fifth-tackle kick after it ricocheted off the Manly defence, and then picking up a long backwards pass from Matt McIlwrick and responding with a short ball to put Tedesco over the line. At first, it felt like the correction og Teddy’s misplaced grubber that the Tigers needed, along with the reward for Brooks’ kicking focus, but as luck would have it Aaron Woods had stopped still in the defensive line, preventing Jake Trbojevic from making a tackle, and compounding Teddy’s early decision with another aborted Tigers attacking effort.
Woods got a chance to make up for it, though popping the ball back to Joel Edwards a couple of sets later for the beginning of a magnificent, if short-lived, Tigers comeback. Edwards isn’t typically known for his speed, but nevertheless he managed to bust through tackles from Frank Winterstein, Lane and Jake Trbojevic, before crashing over the line on the opposite side of the field. The fact that he bobbled the ball and then regathered it at the beginning of the play just made his four points all the more remarkable – a combination of brilliant handling, brilliant footwork and brute strength that seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since Edwards himself hasn’t put down a try since he was wearing Canberra colours in 2013. It was exactly the kind of improbable move that the Tigers needed to get back in the game, especially since their more stalwart players hadn’t managed to deliver the goods.
A couple of minutes later, the Tigers built even more momentum, shutting down what appeared to a certain try from Dylan Walker on the back of some astonishing plays from Manly – the best offload of the game from Marty Taupau, a long, damaging run from Api Koroisau, and a pitch-perfect, extreme cut-out pass from DCE. That defensive effort seemed to the Tigers, since the next set was their best, and almost a mirror image of the previous Manly set – a brilliant offload from Woods right on the ground, followed by a long run from Tui Lolohea, and then some good work on the left wing from Malakai Watene Zelezniak to keep the ball in the field of play.
Once again, however, it was Brooks’ game with the boot that brought things into focus, with the Tigers halfback putting in a brilliant grubber whose dangerous bounce unsettled Brian Kelly, leaving him unsure of whether to come in and clean it up or wait for the Steeden to reach him. He opted for the latter, and if he’d been a foot taller the ball would have landed in his hands, so well did he position himself in its trajectory. Indeed, he almost seemed to have collected it as calmly and serenely as possible, only for it to slip through his grasp and find Marsters waiting for it, who put down four more points in what felt like an optical illusion as much as a try, so brilliantly had Brooksy’s bounce managed to disarm the Sea Eagles centre. Finally, Brooks’ kicking game had paid dividends, and the try seemed to bring his renewed efforts with the boot into greater focus, galvanising the Tigers into a superb defensive effort as the halftime siren drew near.
With about five minutes to go, the Sea Eagles got a penalty and Lane opted for a quick tap – a decision than in itself almost resulted in another four points, only for Taylor to put in a trysaving tackle just short of the line. It didn’t stop Manly from putting in one big surge before the break, however, with a nice grubber from Green threading its way past Teddy and setting up the Sea Eagles for a goal line dropout – even if Taylor did his best to get to it – forcing the visitors to put in an even more sterling defensive effort on the subsequent set. They pulled it off, though, with Manly trying several plays – most notably that harbour bridge pass from Tom Turbo to Wright – that had paid dividends earlier in the game, but this time they didn’t result in points, with the Tigers putting in a grinding effort until the siren rang and they could head to the sheds to recuperate.
The second half started in a bit of a dispiriting way for the Tigers, following the announcement that Edwards, who had been taken off at the end of the first stanza, had failed his HIA. Given his stunning try, and in combination with Liddle’s departure at the beginning of the first act, this couldn’t help but be demoralizing, and yet the visitors made up for it with their most rousing try in weeks five minutes into the second half. It came at the end of a terrific Tigers set that saw Woods almost crash over the line, and Brooks compound his improved play options by taking a dummy and a run himself.
The fifth tackle was where it all came together, however, with Brooksy making the most of a ricochet for the second point in the game, after his grubber bounced off Lane, and then the uprights, momentarily disarming the Manly defence and leaving Brooks himself with enough space to leap through and ground the Steeden right beneath the posts. Sure, there might have been a bit of luck in it, but Brooks responded with discipline and focus, putting in a beautiful pickup to catch the ball on the full when it came off the posts and then get it to the turf in the same minute.
There couldn’t be a better symbol for Brooks’ enhanced leadership this week than this image of him grounding his own grubber, and yet it was a moment of quiet and calm confidence for the Tigers that saw them double the Sea Eagles at 16-8 once Lolohea had booted the ball through the posts. While the Manly comeback would start soon after, it was a moving moment for Tigers fans – a vision of the team firing on all fronts as its dissolution at the end of the year creeps closer and closer.
Still, these would be the last points put down by the Tigers, with Wright starting the comeback with a four-pointer fifteen minutes into the second half. It was a bit of a frustrating comeback, however, at least in its early stages, coming, as it did, so suddenly, off the back of an onfield referee error. At the end of an especially damaging Sea Eagles set, DCE sent through a grubber that looked as if it might well be his 23rd try assist of the season, only for Brooks to scoop it up right on the land and get to ground under a tackle from Kelly.
A moment later, Brooks had lost the ball, and while the referees might have called it a knock-on, the Bunker replay clearly showed that the Manly centre had knocked the ball from his hand. What should have been a penalty for the Tigers, then, turned into a scrum feed for the Sea Eagles, who took advantage of the visitors’ deflation to get the ball across to the left side on the first tackle, with Wright eluding David Nofoaluma for his best put-down on the wing in some time. As dexterously as Wright had grounded the ball, however, it was a bitter pill to swallow for Tigers fans, partly because of how quickly the try had followed upon the bad call, and partly because Brooks’ stellar pick-up had promised to continue the momentum he’d showcased for his previous try, and might well have been a turning point in the Tigers favour.
Still, the Sea Eagles managed to build momentum on their own terms, with Uate putting in a spectacular line break after collecting the ball from Koroisau a couple of minutes later. It was the kind of dexterity that just looks better in slow motion, with Uate pivoting off one foot to get on the outside of McIlwrick, and then on the other foot to get on the inside of McIlwrick, before speeding ahead and dancing over an ankle tap from Tedesco to get the Steeden to ground. In a way, it was exactly the kind of burning display of speed and dexterity the Sea Eagles needed to quell the uncertainty raised by Wright’s try, and the crowd seemed to know it, growing more excited than at any point during the game once DCE had booted the Steeden through the posts
As the seventieth minute approached, however, Manly put in a couple of scrappy plays, making their four point lead feel just that little bit tenuous, especially given how quickly the Tigers had come from behind towards the end of the first half. At one particularly worrying moment, a pair of abortive tackles saw Nofoaluma intercept the Steeden and burst through the line, only to be brought to earth by a clutch tackle from Jake Trbojevic. It was clear that the Sea Eagles needed a really solid team try to seal the deal, and they got it after a howler of a fifth tackle option from Lolohea, who looked set to grubber only to lob the ball over to the right, where it caught Cameron Cullen right on the chest.
From there, the hosts marched back up the field, and put in a beautiful stealth play at the other end, masterminded by – whose else – DCE, who glimpsed a bit of space opening up right on the line and passed the ball inside to Green, who sent a short ball out to Tom Turbo, who sent a short ball back into Jake to crash over the line for the sixth and final try of the night. In that neat, controlled movement in and out, and the timing of the series of short balls, the Manly spine asserted themselves definitively after a pair of somewhat freakish tries.
Similarly, the fact that Jake and Tom found themselves switching positions in this relatively familiar formulation spoke to the flexibility of the Manly side and spine, while reiterating their inheritance of the Stewart brothers lock-fullback mantle more emphatically than at nearly any other point this season. With DCE slotting through a penalty goal three minutes out from the end, the deal was one, and while it may not have been the most spectacular win of the Sea Eagles season, it did contain one or two of their very best moments – a classic momentum builder as they start on the last stretch of the road towards finals footy over the next few weeks