Friday night’s match at Brookvale had a desperate kind of feeling for the Sea Eagles. Not only have Manly suffered fairly devastating defeats over the last two weeks – a 38-12 loss to the Wests Tigers followed by a 44-10 loss to a Parramatta outfit that they beat 54-0 in Round 2 – but the drama around Jackson Hastings and Daly Cherry-Evans, and the team’s conduct on the Gold Coast, has led to all kinds of questions being raised about cohesion and leadership. DCE, in particular, looked harrowed and haggard in the opening half of the game, which increasingly felt like the hurdle that Manly had to overcome to put this difficult part of their season fully behind them.
Meanwhile, Newcastle were looking for their fifth win after a terrific victory over the Tigers last week, while their first game without Mitchell Pearce made this game almost as high stakes for them as it did for the hosts. Perhaps because of that tension, much of the first half passed in a frenzy of stripped tries, aborted tries and frustrated tries, starting with Lachlan Croker, who crossed over off a pass from DCE after Manly got a penalty right on the Knights line and opted to tap the footy and go.
The set started strong, thanks to a barnstorming run from Marty Taupau who almost crashed over beneath the posts himself, while carring a couple of Newcastle defenders with him. It seemed to have paid dividends, too, when Croker sliced through a momentarily exhausted Newcastle line to ground the Steeden just before Aidan Guerra’s tackle managed to get the ball from his grasp or force a knock-on.
For a moment, it looked as if Guerra might have actually facilitated the try, providing Croker with the momentum he needed to slide over without committing a double movement. The footage showed, however, that the ex-Rooster had actually forced Croker to cough up the footy just before he subtly regathered and grounded it, leading to a call of no try that was repeated a couple of sets later, when a massive tackle from Tom Trbojevic forced Kalyn Ponga to lose the football just as suddenly as he was on the verge of putting down what initially looked like the Knights’ first try.
When they did come, the first points started out in a fairly unpromising way, with the Knights bouncing the ball backwards early in the tackle count, only for Dylan Walker to be called offside and get them a piggyback up the field. A few tackles later, Conor Watson ran the Steeden over to the right edge, not quite dummying at any one point, but framing his whole body as if he was about to dummy, and send the ball out to the wing, only to dodge and weave through the defensive line himself.
What happened next would have been one of the trysaving tackles of the year if Croker had pulled it off, as the young five-eighth came up and under Watson just as he was getting ready to score, forcing him to rotate a full one hundred and eighty degrees over the Steeden, before coming to earth on the other side of it with no clear sense of having grounded it. It was a spectacular way for Croker to make up for his earlier frustrated four-pointer, and from the video replay you could almost make a case that he had pulled it off, so adeptly did he manipulate Connor so that his rival five-eighth’s hand remained underneath the football at virtually every moment.
With an on-field ruling of try, though, it was hard to provide any evidence to the contrary – and for the briefest of moments it did look as if the ball had hit the turf – and Newcastle came away with the first four points of the night after Ken Sio failed to add the extras. So much was at stake that Manly had to be the next to score, and to score seamlessly or spectacularly, and so they did, thanks to a well weighted kick from Apisai Koroisau that found Dylan Walker in the top right corner of the field.
It didn’t find him directly, however, with Nathan Ross getting to the football first, only to knock it forwards in the process of trying to get a hand to it. In retrospect, smashing it into touch would have been the better option, since all it took was for Walker to now speed in and plant the Steeden to ground half a metre out from the dead ball line, in a display of dexterity and elegance that was even more impressive in slow motion, where it became clear just how close Jack Cogger had come to beating him to the footy, only for Walker to claim this clutch effort as all his own.
From there, things returned to the more frustrated atmosphere of the opening of the game, with DCE putting down the ball shortly after in what initially looked to be the moment of triumph the Sea Eagles were searching for – a way for their captain to get back in the spotlight in a flattering way – only for an obstruction from Shaun Lane on Lachlan Fitzgibbon to lead to a ruling of no try. Nine minutes out from the end, Daniel Saifiti was binned for a professional foul, but even then Manly couldn’t seem to capitalise on Koroisau and Walker’s brilliant combination, culminating with Taupau losing the Steeden while trying to offload fifty seconds out from the siren.
Since the 27th minute of the game, the Sea Eagles hadn’t completed a set without it ending in a penalty. To make matters worse, they hadn’t made anything of Saifiti’s absence when he jogged back onto the field a minute into the second stanza. That just made it all the more rousing, though, when Lane clocked up four following a beautiful pass from DCE, who read the sluggishness of the Newcastle line perfectly, running right up to the blue and red jerseys before sending the ball across to Lane.
All of a sudden, it felt as if the Sea Eagles had clicked into the professionalism they should have been showing all season, not least because this was a nice corrective to the previous combination between these two players, when Lane’s obstruction had turned DCE’s linebreak into nothing. On the other side of the Steeden, the lack of line speed from Newcastle was so dramatic that it looked like it might be the start of a sudden shift in momentum. While it was a bit odd to see a team so exhausted or apathetic after half time, the Knights had defended with a twelve-man outfit for the last nine minutes of the first stanza, and you might almost say that the Sea Eagles had now managed to milk a try from Saifiti’s sinbinning, even if was a little belated.
For a moment, Manly looked set to score again, receiving the feed after Jack Cogger’s kick pivoted off Lane’s face, and then making some good headway on the Newcastle line. With DCE’s grubber going too deep, however, the Knights regained possession, in what retrospectively felt like the start – the distant start – of the sequence of points that would win them the game. Their next moment came with about twenty minutes to go, when some calm and classy play got them six again, and Slade Griffin then busted over the line from dummy half, contending with an enormous tackle from Tapau for a try that was as strong and clinical as they come.
Moments later Ken Sio added the extras to make it 10-10, while a penalty against Koroisau for holding too long in the tackle allowed the Knights to add two more points ten minutes later, gifting them the lead once more. Shortly after, Manly gottheir own two points, with Watson mirroring Koroisau’s error, but these would be the last they would score over the course of the game, even if by bringing the scoreline to 12-12 they seemed to signal the start of a last burst from the Sea Eagles.
With eight minutes to go, a sloppy play-the-ball from Shaun Kenny-Dowall looked as if he might have lost the game for the Knights as abruptly as he’d won it for them off the back of Buhrer’s kick the week before, leading to a set that started with Tom Trbojevic almost breaking through the line, and ended with DCE setting up a field goal, only to realise he was a bit shallow and so grubber the footy through instead.
Moments after, Ponga now appeared to have coughed up the ball, and so given DCE another chance at field goal on the subsequent set, only for the refs to rule that DCE himself had been responsible for the knock-on just before Ponga got a hand to it. The reversal of fortune continued on the next set, when Ponga got on the outside of DCE to pop the ball across to Ross, who crossed over the corner for the most exuberant Newcastle try of the evening, with Sio adding the extras a minute later.
By the time that the Knights had finished the restart, the Sea Eagles had about a minute and a half left on the clock, only for Tom Trbojevic to make an error on the last tackle. To make matters worse, brother Jake was binned for verbal dissent with forty seconds left on the clock, in probably the most vulnerable moment of Manly’s season so far, even taking last week’s defeat into account. All throughout the game, DCE had struggled to resume his role as leader and organizer on the field, but the way in which his fortunes had shifted during the final encounter with Ponga said it all, as Manly headed to the sheds with their most dejected body language of 2018.
Meanwhile, the Knights have not only won their second game in a row, but they’ve recapitulated the victory over the Sea Eagles that marked the beginning of their season, and reintroduced them to the NRL world as a force to be reckoned with. Taken in combination, that’s probably enough to cancel out the memory of their drastic loss to the Storm in Round 6, but they’re still going to have to steel themselves when they take on a resurgent South Sydney Rabbitohs outfit next week.