Both the Sea Eagles and Broncos had come away with a 22-20 scoreline the week before they met for the second match of the double header, meaning that both teams were particularly hungry for a win in what was technically a Manly-Warringah home game. On the one hand, the Sea Eagles had lost by two points to the Roosters in one of the more frustrating matches of their season, while the Broncos had come away with a fairly unconvincing two point win over the Dogs.
Add to that the history of this particular clash – last year Manly led 14-0 at half time only to end up losing 26-14 – and the stage was set for one of the most visceral matches of Round 10. The fact that the Titans and Storm had already torn up the ground – and that the Suncorp turf has raised questions even in single fixtures over the last few weeks – just added to the sense that the first minutes of the game were already elevated to the intensity that you typically only see in the final moments.
The game started in a particularly emotional way for the Trbojevic brothers, since after having made five errors last week Tom Turbo initially seemed to have lost the footy on the first touch, only to breathe a sigh of relief when the refs called a strip from Alex Glenn. A couple of tackles later, a Daly Cherry-Evans grubber ricocheted off Kodi Nikorima and then bounched awkwardly back off Jack Bird’s boot, sitting up perfectly for Jake Trbojevic to gather it into his chest and slam over the line.
For a moment, a touch from Apisai Koroisau called these first four points into question, but when it turned out the wily hooker had actually knocked the football backwards, the Sea Eagles were able to celebrate in style, since between Tom’s scary opening moment and Jake’s gutsy four-ponter, it felt as if the Sea Eagles were taking a deep breath and regathering before our very eyes, following on from their disappointing result against Sydney City the week before.
Moments later the Trbojevic brothers linked up again, as Jake dummied to Tom and then burst for the line, waiting for his brother to reach just the right point on his inside to make the real pass. Yet Darius Boyd outplayed him, reaching out a hand to deflect the football, and leading to a sustained period of Brisbane possession that was enabled by four successive penalties for the Sea Eagles – a slow peel from Taupau, a pair of offsides for Walker, and a flop for DCE, all of which resulted in their captain getting a formal warning as the Broncos prepared for another six tackles.
They only needed two, though, as a quick play-the-ball from Tevita Pangai Junior took Dylan Walker out of the equation, setting up Andrew McCullough to bend his head down and burrow his way through a sea of Manly jerseys, in one of the most contorted, twisted, tangled bodily gestures needed to maintain and ground the football this year.
The toughest moment came when McCullough was pivoting over Taupau as Turbo was coming over the top for the ball, but in one of the toughest displays of his season so far the big Brisbane rake stuck his hands out from the maelstrom in order to prevent the Steeden being touched by the chaos of it all, before reaching around, Twister-style, to ground it right near where his own feet were tumbling around on the turf.
It was a triumphant moment for McCullough, who had granted the Sea Eagles an additional two points shortly before after a penalty for holding down, and the sheer strength and intensity of it meant that all the Broncos needed to make some more headway and take any opportunity they could from the Sea Eagles. A couple of sets later, Turbo provided it, coughing up the footy after a good take under the high ball from Matthew Wright, in a horror flashback to last week’s game.
From there, the Broncos consolidated, with McCullough now shifting from tryscorer to try assister, popping across a short ball to send Sam Thaiday into a one-on-one contest that he was always going to win, as he skittled the Manly fullback out of his way before clocking up another four points for Brisbane. Moments later, it took five Sea Eagles to prevent Corey Oates crashing over the line, only for possession to change after a rare forward pass from Boyd, but the Broncos regathered with McCullough almost repeating his earlier try shortly after, only for a hand in the ruck from Jake Turbo to get the Broncs their own penalty shot, in what simply felt like a Brisbane home game at this point.
Still, Manly had a flash of brilliance a set later, where an offload from Kelly, some good metres from Turbo, and a well-placed kick from DCE all combined to force the Broncos to make their way back up the field from right in the corner, setting the stage for one of Manly’s best defensive sets of the night – an energy they translated directly into their next attacking set, which ended with Koroisai’s final kick being charged down and the home team receiving six again.
It was a game-shifting moment, and Kelly and Turbo made the most of it, quickly accelerating the pace of the attack before the Broncos could regather – Kelly with a slinking, skittering run, and Turbo with an even harder and stronger surge at the line that saw Joe Ofahengaue panic and strip the Steeden from the Manly fullback’s grasp, resulting in a penalty for the Sea Eagles right in front of the posts.
The turning-point of the game arguably came with the Sea Eagles’ decision to tap and go here, and they reached into their momentum and then extended it to put down a brilliant finished to the first stanza. As soon as they could, they shifted the ball over the left edge, and seemed to be heading all the way for the corner, only for a short ball from Walker to allow Thompson to break the rhythm and smash his way through a Broncos defence that were heading right as well. From there, he trampled over Nikorima and came to ground under a huge twin effort from Bird and McCullough without committing a double movement.
If the Sea Eagles had showed that they could match the Broncos in strength, they matched them in dexterity a couple of sets later as well, when Tom Turbo put in a long, looping run from about twenty metres out, dummying to get on the outside of Ofahengaue, and making the most of some mistimed sliding play from Nikorima, to shift the ball across to brother Jake on the inside. From there, the big lock forward simply slammed through Boyd as Thaiday had slammed through Turbo twenty minutes before, and for the first time this really felt like a Manly home game.
A bad kickoff from Walker momentarily dinted the Sea Eagles’ rhythm, but it couldn’t have any lasting impact given how eloquently and powerfully Tom and Jake had defined this game against their loss to the Roosters the week before. By the time both teams headed into the sheds, then, Manly remained four points ahead, although the point difference felt even greater – and destined to be even greater if the Sea Eagles could bring the same energy to the second stanza.
The first forty ended with a bizarre and brilliant play from Matthew Wright, who kicked the ball over his head and then regathered it, for what could have been the start of another powerful sequence for the Sea Eagles if the siren hadn’t run out. Back from the break, an error from Jamayne Isaako got Manly some decent field position, but with Taniela Paseka taken off after a big hit their momentum was dented, and so they opted for a penalty goal following a hand in the ruck from Korbin Sims to bring their score to a converted try lead.
Nevertheless, Manly were resurgent over the next period of the match, utterly dominating the middle third of the field, thanks to a series of quick play-the-balls and inside passes that progressively exhausted the Brisbane forwatds. An offside play from Milford brought the penalty count to 6-6, and laid the platform for the next Manly points, which started with a quick pair of play-the-balls and two sharp inside passes from DCE – the first to Shaun Lane, the second to Jake Trbojevic.
The Brisbane response was sluggish, especially in response to Lane, while the Sea Eagles just seemed to grow quicker and defter, culminating with a great dummy-half run from Koroisau that saw him slice past McCullough and catch Sims by surprise to slam down four more emphatic points for the home team. This marked the turnaround in possession too, since the Sea Eagles had now enjoyed 54% of the football, and seemed capable of containing everything the Broncs could throw at them.
While Jaydn Su’A might have made a huge linebreak shortly after, Brisbane couldn’t consolidate, with Su’A himself bringing the set to an end with an error a couple of tackls later. At the end of the next set, DCE shot through a crossfield chip, and while Turbo might have been screaming for it over on the left edge, Isaako seemed to have got there first, only to find the footy sailing through his hands and landing in front of Uate, who scooped it up and fended off Nikorima to cross over the chalk.
As it turned out, however, the reason for Isaako’s missed catch had been a problematic tackle from Kelly, and sure enough the Manly backliner was called out for not contesting the football, and knocking the Brisbane winger off the play, in a pretty big let off for the normal home team. Yet even this was contained by Manly, as Wright responded to a terrific kick bomb from Milford shortly after by waiting for it to bounce, somehow knowing that it would sit up right in front of him.
With an offside penalty from Oates getting the Sea Eagles back up the field, the Broncos were suddenly defending once again, setting themselves against a series of damaging hit-ups that culminated with Taupau getting a hold of the footy about ten metres out from the line. For a moment, it looked as if Kapow was setting up for an offload, but instead he facilitated a quick play-the-ball that saw the Steeden shift through Koroisau, Turbo and Kelly for Uate to get the four points after all.
Full credit has to go to Koroisau for the brief dummy that disheveled the Brisbane defence, but this was such a sterling effort that it didn’t really seem to matter that DCE missed the conversion. Even without the two points, Manly were fourteen ahead on 30-14, while Brisbane seemed to be running out of ideas, meaning that they had to dig deep into their arsenal to prevent this turning into a total landslide of Manly points.
In a way, they came up with a solution shortly after, following a last-tackle kick from Nikorima. DCE got his hands to it, only for Milford to leap up and literally steal the football from his opposing half’s grasp, before scooting forward to crash over untouched. There was no doubt that this was the best try of the game, partly because DCE had done everything right, but it was also telling that Brisbane had to resort to a one-man display of prodigious brilliance to put points on the board.
In any case, the Sea Eagles responded almost as dramatically, following an extended lull in play while Nikorima was having his leg examined, with their most efficient and clinical try of the night – a grubber off the right foot from DCE, followed by a kick chase and put down from Thompson that was so quick that the ball was out of the ex-Dragon’s hands the moment after he’d grounded it. In fact, he didn’t ground it so much as simply tumble over it, for an exercise in timing every bit as perfect as his halfback’s grubber.
The contrast between the length of the pause in play and the suddenness of these four points couldn’t be underestimate – it was the ultimate moment to execute a set play – and there couldn’t a better strategy for shocking the Broncos into submission. While DCE might have missed yet another conversion, his judgement, timing and dexterity had been so subliminal for these four points that the Sea Eagles seemed utterly unassaibale, so it was appropriate that this was the last try scored by the home team for the night.
They weren’t the last points, however, since a second effort from Bird saw DCE sot through one final penalty shot with seven minutes left on the clock. A linebreak from Pangai Junior and then a try from Isaako a couple of minutes later may have narrowed the scoreline to fourteen points, but there was no doubt that this second stanza belonged to Manly, despite Milford stealing the show in terms of individual effort – and the Sea Eagles will be anxious to maintain that same blistering form when they take on the Storm at AAMI Park next Saturday night.