Sunday afternoon’s match at Leichhardt Oval was the first time in a long time that the Tigers have genuinely felt like a force to be reckoned with – and genuinely felt hungry for the win. Despite a much stronger Manly side – fourth on the ladder if they had won by a margin of thirteen or more – the Tigers came up from behind for a classic last minute win, as if the spirit of Benji Marshall was already animating them, following the announcement that same morning of his decision to return in Leichhardt in 2018.
Unlike most other Tigers wins this season, however, the victory over the Sea Eagles didn’t start with a show of strength and end with a war of attrition. While the hosts may have scored first, Manly were dominant for the remainder of the first half, with Daly Cherry-Evans and then Akuila Uate putting down doubles in quick succession. To win, the Tigers had to manage something they’re hardly renowned for – a second stanza surge – with Malakai Watene-Zelezniak scoring at the seventy-ninth minute to finally seal the deal.
It was a massive loss for the Sea Eagles after such a decisive win against the Roosters last week, with Manly’s massive surge in the build up to half time mirroring Sydney City at Brookvale last Saturday afternoon. Generally speaking, the Manly seem to take a bit longer to warm up than other outfits, but you can’t really attribute their loss to that here, since if anything they seemed to decelerate over the course of the game, despite the consistency of DCE and some of their other top-tier players.
Eight minutes in, Elijah Taylor went over for the first Tigers try, off the back of a deft fifth tackle option, as Luke Brooks brooked expectations with a terrific short kick that threaded through the Manly defence to sit up in just the right place. The four points felt all the more eventful in that Taylor didn’t seem convinced he’d grounded the ball – a hunch the on field referees concurred with, only for the Bunker to reveal that the bounce that seemed to worry the Tigers’ lock had only occurred after he’d managed to get the Steeden to earth.
It was a moment that seemed to take all the Tigers’ self-doubt over the course of 2017 and offset it with a gleam of hope that would sustain them over the second stanza. Nevertheless, the next thirty minutes belonged to Manly, with DCE putting down points a mere five minutes later, off a dummy and line break from Apisai Koroisau, who slipped out of Tim Grant’s tackle and danced over an ankle tap from Tui Lolohea to burst into open space, with DCE burning up behind him and James Tedesco not too far away either.
While Koroisau might have passed to his halfback a fraction too early, DCE nevertheless managed to correct and straighten the play, only to abruptly change his direction to prevent Teddy making the most of it, curving around to ground the first try for the Sea Eagles. Whether because they had expected to win, or because they were playing an away game, Manly hadn’t matched the hosts’ line speed in the first ten minutes, so this display of blistering acceleration was just what they needed to restore their foothold on the field.
Ten minutes later, DCE went over again, after a sustained period of field position and possession for the Tigers. At the end of one of the best Manly sets in some time, Tom Trbojevic found himself with the ball, only to suddenly realise that it was the fifth tackle after DCE barked a warning up the field behind him. From there, Turbo opted for a last minute grubber that ricocheted off the posts, but not without DCE showcasing his pitch-perfect reflexes to run forward, pick it up, and ground it, all in a single split second.
Not surprisingly, this level of organisation and focus seemed to nettle the Tigers, and I don’t think anybody would have backed them to win after Akuila Uate crossed over three minutes later. Whereas Tom Turbo had been in the spotlight the first time around, now it was his brother Jake, who set things up with such a great pass out of dummy half that you could be forgiven for assuming that he had made his career in the no. 9 jersey.
As if that wasn’t disheartening enough for the Tigers, Uate went over again shortly after, following a pair of penalties and some escalating field position for the visitors. Towards the end of the resultant set, Dylan Walker tried to get on the outside of Kevin Naiqama, but found the Tigers’ back too deft for him, forcing him to flick the ball back to his winger who had no option but to contest Malakai Watene-Zelezniak right on the edge of the field.
And contest him he did, slamming through the new recruit to bring the Steeden to ground while MWZ was still wrapped around his torso. It was an extraordinary display of both strength and agility, as Uate used the tackle to his advantage while managing to maintain enough composure to retain possession and prevent himself sliding into touch, fusing the skills sets of a winger and frontrower more dexterously than any other no. 5 in the game.
You could have been forgiven for thinking that the game was all but over by this point, but whatever Ivan Cleary said in the sheds sure worked, with Kevin Naiqama opening the second stanza with a try that put a serious dent in the Sea Eagles’ momentum. The prologue occurred five minutes in, when David Nofoaluma came up with a terrific aerial intercept to dash half the length of the field, before sending the ball over to Naiqama, who made good on his winger’s momentum with a skittering, skidding run up the left side that saw him dodge and weave out of a multitude of potential tackles.
At this point, the Tigers felt as if they must score, only for them to do what they had done throughout the game – send the ball over to Teddy as a last resort, forcing their fullback to fall back upon a pretty unconvincing fifth-tackle grubber. Yet, miraculously, on the subsequent Sea Eagles set Nofoaluma managed to intercept once again, this time running virtually the entire length of the field before he was brought down right on the line.
From there, Tedesco made good on his botched grubber with one of the longest balls this season, lobbing the Steeden a good two thirds of the width of the field, after which it changed hands a few times before Naiqama crashed over, in what felt like a direct continuation of his rousing run down the left side of the field on the previous set.
It was a critical turning-point, not least because of the way in which Nofoaluma’s successive intercepts proved that the Tigers were also capable of double trouble, and Tui Lolohea, who had been impressive all evening, quickly made the most of it. Taking advantage of a series of deft passes from Brooks and Taylor, the young five-eighth was poised to pass himself, only glimpse a bit of space between Blake Green and Frank Winterstein, edging his way through them to slam the ball to ground for the best arm stretch since Mitchell Moses earlier in the year, and converting his own try a couple of seconds later to make it a two point game.
Yet the Sea Eagles responded almost immediately, with Lloyd Perrett putting down points a couple of minutes later after Koroisau tempted Littlejohn in and opened up enough space for his forward to crash through the defence, dragging Michael Chee Kam over the line with him. At this stage, the Tigers’ momentum was still fragile enough to feel as if it might have been all but sapped by this damaging play, especially as the visitors had only regained possession in the first place after Tedesco made a rare fumble under the Manly high ball.
Nevertheless, Sauaso Sue crashed over just as quickly, off the back of a mistake from Perrett moments after putting down his four points. As if shutting down Marty Taupau’s residual comfort at Leichhardt Oval once and for all, Sue mimicked his quick side step to dodge past him and put the ball over the line, despite Perrett, Winterstein and Koroisau jumping onto his back. Both the best footwork and the best display of brute strength in the game so far, it was just the show of spirit that the Tigers needed to believe that they could win it.
Yet believing and doing are two very different thing, especially for the Tigers, and I’m not sure anyone was expecting their spectacular seventy-ninth minute try – and certainly not MWZ, whose moment in the spotlight came after a well-timed shot from Chee Kam on Parker forced him to cough up the ball right on the Tigers’ goal line, just after Matthew Wright had put in yet another masterpiece of goal line defence in the dying minutes of the match.
In the best and gutsiest decision of the entire game, the Tigers – who were right in front of the posts – chose to forestall the possibility of golden point and instead run the ball. It was utterly sublime, then, when MWZ managed to go over on the fifth tackle, on the back of a long ball from Brooks and some nice movement from Tedesco and Naiqama towards the left edge.
Despite an agonising couple of minutes in which the Bunker debated whether Chee Kam had obstructed DCE or DCE had simply run into Chee Kam, the try was awarded, in what must have been a particularly cathartic moment from MWZ given how clinically Uate had ploughed through him earlier in the game. While he was easily overshadowed by his brother at Penrith last week – what winger wouldn’t be? – it’s important not to underestimate how much MWZ has already exceeded expectations at Leichhardt, with this last-minute try seeming to finally entrench him in the Tigers’ iconography even as it did the Panthers a finals footy favour as well.
From facing four unanswered tries in the first half to a seventy-ninth minute try on the fifth tackle out of the scrum, the Tigers put in a classic display of rugby league theatre on Sunday afternoon. While it would be great to see them continue this form over the last couple of weeks, they can rest assured that they’ve managed to give Tedesco, Woods and all the other departing players a proper Leichhardt sendoff, while blooding the newer players in front of the Leichhardt faithful in the most emphatic way as well. On the other side of the Steeden, this must be a strange loss for the Sea Eagles, who will be looking to recapture their blistering second-stanza form against the Roosters when they take on the Dogs at ANZ next weekend.