Sunday afternoon’s Battle of the Cats was preceded by the Battle of the Birds, with the Sea Eagles and the Roosters meeting at Lottoland for what would be one of the most surprising results of Round 22. With Tom Trbojevic taking the field for his 50th game, Manly opened by dominating possession, receiving five sets in as many minutes along with a succession of penalties to put plenty of pressure on the Roosters. They also put down the first points of the game only eight minutes in with a nice try in the left corner from Matthew Wright.
From there, however, the Roosters responded with a resurgence so strong that they looked to have all but won the game by the thirty minute mark, thanks to a blistering succession of three unanswered tries. The first came from Daniel Tupou, off the back of a terrific pass from Radley that took Uate entirely by surprise. To add insult to injury, the Roosters winger stayed right on the dead ball line as he skirted around to plant the ball beneath the posts, as if he’d committed the exact shape of the field beneath his feet to memory.
It was to be the first of several moves that would make the early part of the afternoon feel like a Roosters home game, which must have been frustrating for the Manly fans, especially as Tupou’s try had come after Tom Turbo coughed up the ball on the first tackle of what initially promised to be a fairly promising Sea Eagles set. Given that Blake Green and DCE had tended to opt for grubbers instead of bombs in order to shut down the Chooks’ wingers, it was also a big boost for the visitors to see one of their outside men stamp their signature on the field so early in the game.
Still, Tupou’s try was just the beginning, with Mitchell putting down points five minutes later in a stunning sequel, what initially looked like a second tackle set for the Sea Eagles suddenly shifted to four points for the visitors. Caught under one of Pearce’s spiralling bombs, DCE cleaned it up one second before his foot landed over the try line, forcing him to bust through a brutal tackle from Matterson and Tupou, both of whom somehow got their hands off him just in time for Mitchell to crash in and effect a one-on-one strip, grounding the Steeden directly under the crossbar before the Manly crowd knew what had hit them.
Once again, there was an uncanny sense that the Chooks had somehow taken the measure of Fortress Brookdale better than the Sea Eagles themselves, and so it seemed almost inevitable, at this point, that the hosts would be in for an unwanted sequel to their horror shows against the Storm and the Dragons over the last two rounds.
Sure enough, Luke Keary went over seven minutes latter, on the back of a dexterous dash from Mitchell down the left edge that ended with a perfectly timed flick pass to Tupou just as he was smashed out of the field of play. From there, Tupou simply continued his inside man’s momentum, dancing right along the sideline before sending it over to Keary, who had also been responsible for setting up Mitchell for his mad dash in the first place.
Given that it was the third unanswered try, and that Mitchell and Tupou had scored the first two, there was no better way for the Chooks to consolidate their momentum, to the point where I found myself wondering whether Keary had instinctively gravitated towards the left winger and centre in order to try and convert the lingering energy of their two respective tries into a new bit of magic.
Yet as strange as it might sound, these would turn out to be the last points scored by the Roosters over the course of the game, with the prospect of another devastating loss seeming to galvanise the Sea Eagles into the momentum that would take them from less than a quarter of the visitor’s scoreline to double their scoreline by the final siren, in a testament to the power of desperation, as well as (presumably) a good half time spray in the sheds.
It wasn’t just the talk in the sheds that did the job, however, since the Sea Eagles put in one of their most spirited tries of the afternoon right on the stroke of half time. It came from Tom Turbo, off the back of a terrific hit up and line break from Frank Winterstein, who showcased his Rugby roots in the strength with which he sped on after making massive contact with Joseph Manu, to ferry the ball across to his fullback. It was just the surge that Manly needed at the end of half time, with DCE almost going over again on the stroke of the siren.
Of course, that couldn’t be enough for the Sea Eagles – they had to come back from half time determined to reclaim Fortress Brookvale as their own. That’s just what they did, with Tom Turbo putting down another four points eight minutes into the second stanza, off the back of one of the team’s favourite signature plays. We’ve seen it before – the sudden shift from DCE out to Green, with Trbojevic coming in to straighten it up – but this time it was particularly special, culminating a particularly damaging Sea Eagles run over the previous two sets.
For a game that had started with DCE and Green seeming cautious to risk bombing it, the Sea Eagles had managed to get the best of the last two high balls – first, when Mitchell failed to clean up and left room for Walker to almost plant it over; second, when Pearce’s boot hit just a bit too hard and saw the ball skittering over the dead line to return possession to the hosts for the set that would culminate with Tom Turbo’s second try. Add to that the fact that Manly now had the breeze at their backs and it suddenly felt as if we were witnessing one of the most dramatic shifts in momentum in weeks.
Less than ten minutes later, Lewis Brown brought home the fourth Manly try, in an epic twist-and-spin that saw him slam to the ground beneath a mass of Roosters defenders. No doubt, some of them managed to get a hand under the ball, but as it disappeared from view you had to assume that the sheer weight of the pack bearing down upon the Sea Eagles forward had actually worked to his advantage, inevitably forcing the Steeden to ground at some point during the tackling maelstrom.
After a couple of dazzling displays of agility from the Sea Eagles, this affirmation of brute strength was just what they needed to cement their momentum, as they took the lead for the first time since Wright’s opening try. Nevertheless, the Roosters weren’t done, with the visitors starting to look dangerous again as the hour mark loomed and the boys from Brookvale sat somewhat precariously on a 22-18 lead.
In one especially scintillating set, Fergo popped the ball backwards right on the Manly line, almost gifting the hosts a try only for Liu to scoop it up and run an astonishing forty metres, with Pearce taking over his momentum until Tom Turbo put in the single greatest trysaving tackle of the game, slamming himself onto the Steeden as it was skittering along the ground but not without copping a boot in the knees as well, in what initially looked as if it might be a reprise of Nathan Brown’s horrific ground-level bustup against the Warriors the previous day.
Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles held on, with Brad Parker going over for the fifth try and the perfect sequel to his damaging tackle on Joseph Manu earlier in the game. It came at the end of some deft movement up the right side, with the stand-in centre eventually sliding to ground just shy of the try line but close enough for the accumulated weight of the Roosters defenders to push him over. Full credit to Marty Taupau as well, who got Manly up the visitors’ end in the first place with his most damaging run of the afternoon.
Even in the last fifteen minutes of the game, the Roosters continued to be a threat, meaning that this wasn’t a matter of Manly surging over a lacklustre opposition but instead putting in some of their best goal line defence in weeks to make the most of a galvanising home crowd. The sixty-sixth minute said it all, with Parker and Uate managing to drag Manu over the dead ball line from right on the ten metre line, while preventing him from grounding the Steeden along the way.
Five minutes out from the end, Winterstein almost went over for the sixth try, slamming through through the Roosters defenders only for an obstruction to prevent him putting down points. Yet the Sea Eagles made up for it thirty seconds out from the siren with DCE scoring as the Brookvale crowd erupted for their biggest win against the Roosters since 2012.
It came off the back of a beautiful backward flick pass from Walker to Uate, who responded with a massive harbour bridge pass that looped across half the field to find DCE, who planted it right beneath the posts for his easiest conversion of the afternoon. In the orchestration of those two passes – one short, one long, one fast, one looping – lay the final elegance of the Sea Eagles’ vision, and a pointed contrast to the Roosters’ awkward final set, which had concluded with Pearce getting hands to the Steeden just short of the try line but unable to ground it, with a knock-on from Guerra gifting the hosts a seven tackle set for the final minute of the game.
As with the Dragons’ match against the Rabbitohs, then, this was a kind of reckoning for the Roosters, who are going to be doing everything in their power to resume their run to the finals when they take on the Storm in Melbourne next week. Meanwhille the Sea Eagles desperately need to continue this dedication after their dispiriting losses in Rounds 20 and 21, and you can bet that they’ll bring everything to bear against the Tigers when they take them on at Leichhardt Oval.