Sunday afternoon’s game at Lottoland came at a pivotal point in the first part of the season for both teams. On the one hand, the Tigers needed to maintain the momentum that they’d built after beating the Storm for a second time, since the Eels didn’t really present them with all that much of a challenge the week before. Similarly, Manly had seen a mixed couple of weeks, and were surely looking forward to a home game as an opportunity to consolidate their better moments this season.
What ensued, however, was the most magnificent Tigers opening of the season so far, as the visitors finally broke out of their more defensive based play to completely dominate attack. Almost immediately, Luke Brooks showed off his renewed kicking prowess, sending through a silky grubber that saw Daly Cherry-Evans trapped right on the line, and then grubbering once again on the fourth tackle of the subsequent set for Chris Lawrence to slam across and put down the first four points of the game.
With a penalty on the restart, paired with an amazing run from Benji Marshall, the Tigers looked set for back-to-back tries, with of the big men coming close to crashing over, and Brooks once again securing a goal line dropout, this time at Dylan Walker’s expense. With another penalty right in front of the posts, however, the Tigers opted to take the two, as Esan Marsters booted it once again to bring the scoreline to 8.0.
The Tigers didn’t take long to crash over a second time, though, and once again it came off the back of some superb vision from Brooks. Finding himself halfway up the field, the young halfback put in a brilliant, Benji-esque run, totally disheveling the Sea Eagles defence, who barely had time to reform before he sent it across to Kevin Naiqama. From there, Kev burned forward, sending a one-handed pass off to Malakai Watene Zelezniak to cross over and put down the second try of the game.
Seeing Brooks and Naiqama syncing up so perfectly probably emphasised Ivan Cleary’s impact more than any of the work that he’s done with the newer players, and it was almost impossible to believe that these were the same two players who had struggled so consistently under Jason Taylor at the beginning of last year. From a burning run from Corey Thompson to an error in the ruck from Akuila Uate, the Tigers felt totally dominant during this period, surging forward on a runner’s high that saw the Eagles unable to find any immediate options for putting down points.
Things didn’t get any easy either, with Akuila Uate missing a Benji bomb in the corner shortly after, and Walker cleaning it up, only for Tom Turbo to make an error in the play-the-ball a tackle later. Once again, the Tigers were on the attack, and once again Brooks was more proactive than he has ever been, trying to cross over on the fourth tackle, and then crossing over on the last, when he slammed through Apisai Koroisai and reached out through Tom Turbo’s legs for a one-handed putdown beneath the posts, in a show of strength to match all his skill with the boot.
As if that wasn’t enough, Benji continued to torment the Sea Eagles’ right edge, putting in a brilliant torpedo kick shortly after that bounced backwards in just the right way for Naiqama to scoop it up and send it back to him. For his second kick, Benji now lobbed it right into the corner, where Tom Turbo caught it on the edge of the field only for MWZ to drag him into touch, setting the Tigers up for their most elegant play of the afternoon so far – a beautifully timed pass from Brooks to Benji that saw the ex-Bronco slice through the defence for the softest try of the first half.
While the Sea Eagles might have got a penalty and a quick tap just before half time – off Brooks’ only error of the game so far – they were unable to secure the points, heading into the sheds with a 26-0 deficit that marked an absolute watershed match for the Tigers – in the consoldation of defence with attack, in the consolidation of Brooks’ vision, organisation and dexterity, and in Benji’s magnificent leadership, which made you wonder what he’s been doing since he last played for the Tigers.
Five minutes into the second stanza, it was as if half time had never happened, and the Sea Eagles had never copped a spray from Trent Barrett in the sheds, with Benji crashing over for a superb double off the back of a dropped ball from Brian Kelly. With Joel Thompson chasing too hard and mistiming the tackle, Benji was able to pass Tom Turbo to slam over. It was an epic moment, all the more so in that Josh Reynolds trotted out for his first appearance in Tigers colours as Marsters was lining up the conversion, in an entrance that couldn’t have been orchestrated any better.
Thompson got his own back a couple of sets later, however, when he put down the Sea Eagles’ first try off the back of a deft pass from Lachlan Croker. Just as Marsters’ last kick had hit the sideposts and richocheted in, now DCE booted the ball right into the crossbars, where it also ricocheted through the posts, like a more fortuitous version of Kieran Foran’s notorious kick from a couple of weeks before. For a moment, it looked as if Manly might consolidate, thanks to a goal line dropout, but with Turbo tapping the ball over Kelly into touch they were back where they started.
Still, the Manly side were galvanised, with Uate finally returning to form with a deft catch under the high ball and a damaging run on the outside of Naiqama a couple of sets later. From there, the Sea Eagles put in one of their best sets of the afternoon – even if Walker was injured in the process – only for Corey Thompson to prove to be as safe under DCE’s high ball as Uate himself had been at the other end of the field.
As the last twenty minutes loomed the Tigers were faced with a different kind of challenge – maintaining momentum and continuing to keep the Sea Eagles out following the mammoth effort of the past sixty minutes of football. The cracks started to show with a cough-up from Chris Lawrence on the first tackle, gifting Manly a set, at the end of which they received six again and another shot at the line.
In what was probably the death knell for the Sea Eagles, however, Koroisau tried to mirror Brooks’ try at the end of the first half, bending down and trying to burrow through the Tigers defence, only to find himself further from the line than he originally thought, spilling the Steeden midway through the tackle count. Full credit has to go to Ben Matulino, too, for a crushing hit-up on Thompson the tackle before.
The Sea Eagles got a few more chances with ten minutes on the clock, with a strip on Addin Fonua-Blake gifting them some decent field position, and Walker almost crashing over, only for a trysaving tackle from Matulino to keep Manly out once again. Even if the ex-Warrior conceded a penalty in the process, and Taupau followed up with an inspired offload, a tackle from the Tigers defence saw the Steeden ricochet out to the right of the field, turning possession over one more time.
Shortly after, Tom Turbo seemed to have glimpsed open space, only for Jake to cough it up a moment later. With six minutes left, DCE appeared to have busted through a tackle, only for Reynolds to clean it up shortly after, in possibly the most decisive gesture of his debut game. Time and again, Manly seemed to have found opportunities, only for the Tigers to prove why they’re now rated the best defensive outfit in the 2018 game, shutting down play after play as if the night had just started.
What made this game so different from their previous efforts, however, was the quality of the Tigers’ attack. Over the first few games this season, they showcased just how effectively they could orchestrate a win around defence, but with a scoreline of 32-6 and four minutes left on the clock, not even a struggling Manly outfit could be held accountable for the speed and strength of the Tigers’ attacking.
As it turned out, Manly got through one more time, as not even a passionate tackle from Corey Thompson was enough to prevent Brad Parker getting to ground. Still, the Tigers had the last word, and in the most astonishing way, with the refs awarding a rare penalty try after DCE pulled back Jacob Liddle just as he was in the process of grounding the ball. With the young hooker’s elbow actually grazing the Steeden to earth, he would have got down the try if allowed, and it was awarded accordingly.
For the first time this season, then, the Tigers came away with a really comprehensive win – a twenty-four point lead that will surely galvanise them into a powerful performance against the Knights at home next week. Meanwhile, the Sea Eagles showed more chinks in their armour than they have all year, culminating with DCE’s closing error, and are going to be desperate not gift the Eels their first win of the season, while Parra are going to be just as anxious to decimate them at ANZ too.