The Sea Eagles brought home one of the most visceral wins of the 2018 season with their 24-4 victory over the Storm at AAMI Park in Round 11, but their next two weeks of football didn’t manage to build any real momentum out of that stunning performance. A one point loss to the Raiders in Round 12, and then a more substantial loss to the Cowboys before the bye, meant that they were raring to regain some of that Round 11 spirit when they took on the Warriors at Christchurch on Saturday afternoon, for what was technically a Manly-Warringah home fixture.
Meanwhile, only a fairly predictable win over Parramatta has redeemed a fairly underwhelming few weeks of football for New Zealand, who still hadn’t quite bounced back from devastating 50-10 and 32-0 losses to the Storm and Roosters respectively when they fronted up against the Sea Eagles for their first meeting this year. They were just as keen, then, to claim Christchurch as a home fixture, and to take advantage of the New Zealand majority supporting them from the grandstands.
Nevertheless, Manly were the first to stamp their signature on the match, thanks to an early try from Apisai Koroisau, who burst through the line after Marty Taupau laid the formation with some good hard work earlier in the tackle count. With Trent Hodkinson adding the extras, the Sea Eagles were six points ahead in almost as many minutes, although the spectacle of this opening scoreline may have worked in the Warriors’ favour, steeling them to gradually take control of the rest of the first half.
Accordingly, their attack consolidated almost immediately in the wake of Koroisau’s try, with a pair of penalties piggybacking them up their own end shortly after – the first for a strip from Trent Hodkinson on Shaun Johnson (although it could equally have been deemed a loose carry) and the second for a dangerous tackle from Marty Taupau. For the next couple of sets, Johnson took advantage of these moments with some of his most consistent fifth tackle options in weeks, culminating with a deft grubber Akuila Uate was forced to take into touch just before David Fusitua got to it.
The dropout siren rang out long before Daly Cherry-Evans booted the football along the ground, though, since Koroisau had sustained a leg injury during the set that saw him limping off the field as New Zealand got prepared for another set of six, in a dramatic reversal of his leadership and presence on the field in the opening minutes of the game. The Warriors took advantage of this shift immediately, with Isaac Luke taking advantage of an error from Jake Trbojevic to opt for a quick tap and then scoot to the left side of the field, before sending the football across to Tohu Harris.
It was a tryscoring formation, but with Gerard Beale popping the ball forward after receiving it from Harris the putdown in the right corner came to nothing. Still, New Zealand had started to get into a good rhythm, and while three successive penalties might have got Manly down their end of the field in a couple of tackles, this succession of Warrriors errors probably ended up doing the Sea Eagles more harm than good, inducing them to take the two rather than take advantage of a quick play-the-ball to capitalise upon their accelerating movement towards the try line.
Sure enough, New Zealand owned the rest of the first stanza, with their first points coming on the back of a terrific run from Ken Maumalo, who collected the high ball and got all the way to the forty after a bad read from Jorge Taufua prevented him being cleaned up where he took it. It wasn’t just getting away, however, but the run itself that was so galvanising to the Warriors, as Maumalo got away from four or five Manly players, beating DCE twice before a combined tackle finally got him to ground.
A couple of tackles later, Blake Green took the football up to the line and then sent it across to Isaiah Papali’I to slice through, as Shaun Lane was left in no-man’s-land after assuming the Steeden was going to be sent further back. Johnson added the extras as easily as ever, and the Warriors set themselves up again, with Tohu Harris going over untouched six minutes later on the back of an almost identical formation.
This time, it was Simon Mannering who set up the play, coming into the line much as Green had for his first try assist – a testament to his speed and strength as a ball playing forward, and one of his deftest moment of the last couple of weeks. From there, he sent the ball over to Green, who got Harris in place just as he had got Papali’i in place, for an even more dramatic and drastic exposure of the Manly line.
Just to make things symmetrical, Papali’i himself had almost broken through just before Mannering had set up Green, with the result that the first tries for New Zealand felt part of the same splendid organisational sequence, despite the fact that they’d occurred several sets apart. The Warriors’ defence was just as impressive, too, culminating with a terrific, jamming, trysaving tackle from Beale and Luke that forced DCE to awkwardly cough up the football with seven seconds left on the clock.
The Sea Eagles needed to come back from the sheds and renew the control they’d showcased during the opening minutes of the game, but it was the Warriors who seemed revitalized by the half time break, since they now proceeded to score their most impressive try of the evening so far. It started with some good work from Solomone Kata right on the New Zealand line, followed by a hard run from Ken Maumalo, setting up Fusitua for the linebreak of the night, as he pummelled Hodkinson out of the way and then trampled over Kelly to make his way up the park.
While Harris might have been burning up in support, Fusitua waited for just the right minute to send the footy back inside to Johnson, sensing that his halfback would be in the perfect position to storm ahead and ground it beside the posts. His prediction was spot on, and the spectacle of Johnson scoring and then converting his own try put the Warriors ten points in front, cementing their ownership over the evening.
That just made it all the more frustrating, however, when a sloppy play-the-ball from Afoa disqualified any consideration of whether a short pass from Luke had managed to put Mannering over on the next tackle. Still, the Warriors had regrouped – their whole night had been regrouping, following Koroisau’s opening try – as the visitors put down a try that was even more spectacular than their last four points, even or especially as it drew upon them and reinvented them in the most ingenious manner.
This time it was Luke who laid the foundations, muscling his way up to the ruck before bouncing along it to the middle of the field, appearing on the verge of breaking through himself before the simplest of passes saw Johnson break through instead. Ducking out a pair of tackles from Hodkinson and Joel Thompson, the Warriors halfback showcased his most blistering acceleration of the season so far, burning his way up to the right corner where he probably could have crossed over himself even if Fusitua hadn’t read the play perfectly and run in at an oblique angle for support, arriving at just the right moment for a speedy inside ball from Johnson.
From there, it was inevitable that Fusitua would score, for one of the best team tries for the Warriors so far this year. With Fusitua having laid the platform for Johnson’s four-pointer, and now crossing over off a try assist from Johnson, these last two points felt as organically intertwined as Papali’i and Harris’ opening efforts, with both pairs of tries attesting to New Zealand’s brilliant ability to control and command whole sequences of a match that had started off firmly in Manly’s hands.
If the Warriors had finished the pointscoring here, this would still have been one of their best matches of 2018, but Fusitua now compounded their lead with two tries for the third hat trick of his career. The first came off the back of a superb series of passes from Green, Mannering, Johnson and Luke that were so effortless they looked as if they were taking place in slow motion before the Bunker even replayed them, resembling a training or demonstration run, more than a top-tier NRL game.
The final harbour bridge pass from Luke was the pinnacle of that serene confidence, allowing Fusitua to catch it, fend off and get around Uate, and then beat Tom Trbojevic to the corner all in one focused movement. The put-down from Fusitua was as stunning as it always is, but it was also subsumed into this broader sense of cohesion and professionalism, putting the Warriors twenty points ahead, in a testament to the synergy they can attain when they’re genuinely firing on all fronts.
As a result, the next try didn’t feel like a fresh piece of play, but a mere reconfiguration of the tryscoring groove that New Zealand had got into since the opening moments of the game. Once again, it was Fusitua who crashed over, but the platform, this time, was an incredible banana grubber from Johnson that utterly defied Uate, who tried to get a hand to the footy but ended up losing it right on the chalk, leaving the line open for the big winger to cruise in and put down his third.
By this stage, the Sea Eagles’ deficit was starting to feel as catastrophic as Melbourne’s final moments at AAMI Park a couple of weeks before, with an economic clean-up of a DCE fifth-tackle kick from Kata saying it all. Manly fans must have breathed a sigh of relief, then, when Brian Kelly got down a consolation try with ten minutes left on the clock, even if the Warriors were still twenty points ahead.
These were the last points of the game, but the last word undoubtedly belonged to New Zealand, who will be looking to showcase this same stunning sense of teamship against the Cowboys at 1300SMILES next week. Meanwhile, the Sea Eagles hadn’t had a particularly terrible game – they were effectively error-free – but they’ll still be looking to revise and reconsider their strategy for when they take on the Dragons.