Manly may have scored 34 points and dominated the first half, but they felt utterly decimated by the Titans by the time that Friday night’s game at Brookvale had come to a close. It was the first time that the blue jerseys have played at Brooky since 2013, and they stamped their mark on the game from the sixth minute with a Gold Coast milestone, as Anthony Don became the equal top tryscorer in Titans history along with David Mead.
It started with a superb 40/20 kick from Ash Taylor, followed by some sweeping play to the right edge, at the end of which A.J. Brimson almost made it to the line, only for a scrambling Sea Eagles defence to bring him half a metre short. A quick play-the-ball set up Brenko Lee for a short pass across to Don, and the big winger scored easily, putting the Titans six ahead once Taylor had booted through the extras.
For the fifth game in a row, Manly had conceded the first try, so they needed to consolidate now if they were going to continue the tentative comeback they’d showcased with their wins over the Sharks and Bulldogs. Nothing signals consolidation for the Sea Eagles like Jake and Tom Trbojevic linking up, much like the spectacle of Brett and Glenn Stewart linking up before them, and an offside penalty for Ryan James now provided the Turbo brothers with the platform for a stunning trio of tries, bookended by stellar efforts from Tom in particular.
The first started right on the line, where a bad defensive read from Keegan Hipgrave allowed Tom to muscle his way into A.J. Brimson, football under his arm, and get to ground for the start of the Manly comeback. Since he’s so wiry, it’s easy to underestimate Turbo’s strength, but here he was playing like a prop, scoring from right next to the ruck in the hardest won four points of the opening stanza.
Sensing some Trbojevic momentum, Jake got the ball across to Tom early in the next set, running up on the inside to collect it when his brother got to the other end to score the next try of the night. Once again, it was a testament to Tom’s strength, as he broke through a low tackle from Taylor and skirted around a higher effort from Brenko Lee, as well as a testament to the brothers as a duo, since Tom could just as easily have passed to Daly Cherry-Evans, but chose to bring his brother back into it.
The next try was even simpler – a set play out of the ruck in which the Sea Eagles moved the footy across to the right edge of their attack, where Dylan Walker set up Tom to crash across in the corner, thanks in part to some sloppy defence from Konrad Hurrell and Kane Elgey. The momentum started to slip a bit from here, with Turbo and then Jake almost scoring on the second and fourth tackles of a subsequent set, but Manly were still dominant, as evinced in a stunning sequence in which they sniffed around the Titans right edge before a ball from Manase Fainu saw Joel Thompson shoot straight through the defence for his seventh try of 2018.
It was followed by a mammoth effort from Frank Winterstein, who was held up by a mass of Gold Coast jerseys at the last minute, as well as another burly effort from Thompson, only for a double movement to prevent him clocking up a double. It seemed as if half the Sea Eagles had come close to the chalk, but DCE now came the closest, dummying left and then running right, with only Kevin Proctor and Brimson to tackle him to ground a mere centimetre out from the line.
It was a disappointing moment for DCE, but he was close enough for Brian Kelly to take advantage of his field position to crash through for what would have been the next Manly try had Brimson not put in the trysaving tackle of the night – a clutch effort that saw him bundled up with the Manly centre as they tumbled over backwards in a mutual somersault.
This was every bit as important for the Titans morale as actually scoring a try, making it doubly galvanising when Brimson outdid DCE and Kelly once again at the other end of the field, after collecting the Steeden at speed and heading right, before changing his mind and storming between the Brookvale no. 4 and 7 jerseys for the second Gold Coast try of the evening.
You had to wonder whether Brimson had chosen to slice through Kelly and DCE after outplaying them defensively, or whether he just read the gap where he saw it, but either way it was a powerful concluding statement from Gold Coast, who might still have been at ten points after Taylor failed to add the extras, but had nevertheless bookended the first stanza and managed to reclaim a bit of the game’s narrative.
To capitalise on that momentum, they had to score first after returning from the sheds, and that’s just what they did, thanks to a dummy and linebreak from Kane Elgey that allowed him to pop the footy back inside to Taylor just as Turbo was arriving. No doubt, the Manly defence was a bit sluggish, but Taylor’s line was just oblique enough to dishevel DCE as well, who couldn’t quite reach him in time.
Seeing their top tryscorer go over would have been the perfect way for Manly to come back from this repeat of the first stanza, but a try for Shaun Lane was disallowed shortly after due to an offside downtown penalty. Once again, the Titans consolidated, as a short ball from Konrad Hurrell got Philip Sami across on their left edge. Once again, too, the Sea Eagles seemed strangely apathetic in the face of this attacking formation – still complacent despite themselves, perhaps, after such an effortless string of tries and almost-tries across the course of the first half.
For the first time of the night, the scores were now levelled once Taylor had added the extras. The Titans comeback had been so sudden that it effectively felt as the match had been reset, giving the final thirty minutes a distinctively different feel from the opening fifty. When Mitch Rein dummied and ran to score a couple of sets later, it now felt as if the Manly defence were as bad as the Gold Coast defence had been in the first half, and that we were watching the first half in reverse.
With their fourth consecutive try, the Titans were ahead for the first time since the opening minutes, and a handling error from Jorge Taufua early in the tackle count provided them with another chance shortly after. Lee set the tone with a barnstorming run to take him two metres into the in-goal area, where he was only just held up, while Jack Stockwell responded with an enormous twist-and-spin two tackles later to gain Gold Coast yet another four points.
It was a bit of a contentious four-pointer, though, since the replay suggested that Stockwell might have promoted the footy and produced a double movement rather than a try, but A.J. Brimson made up for it with the single most spectacular try of the evening. Once again, Lee played a pivotal role, offloading to his fullback on the ground. From there, Brimson ran up, saw Kelly, and then took a risk on grubbering the footy through the defence, before slamming forward to score in front of Turbo.
In its daring, dexterity and determination, this was the decisive moment at which Brimson eclipsed Turbo’s efforts at fullback earlier in the night, and will surely come to be seen as a critical moment in his evolution in the no. 1 jersey. It was at this point, too, that Manly supporters started to leave the grounds, creating a grittier and more sombre atmosphere at Brooky than in any of the Sea Eagles’ last home fixtures.
The low point of the game for Manly came when Walker was sinbinned for a professional foul at the seventieth minute, seven minutes after Addin Fonua-Blake had been binned for dissent. It was an interesting decision, then, for Taylor to kick for goal against an eleven man team. Perhaps Gold Coast were being careful, or perhaps they were now having their own period of complacency, but in either case the decision to kick seemed to empower the Sea Eagles in the final seven minutes, as they managed to put down two more tries.
The first came off yet another combination from DCE and Turbo to give Jake a double, who seemed to summarise the entire atmosphere of Brookvale when he rose from grounding the footy, exhausted, with blood surrounding his left eye. Accordingly, Manly consolidated a bit from here, as if hoping for a comeback like the one that Penrith enjoyed against them a couple of weeks before.
Still, the crowd was starting to thin and the cheers of support had dimmed significantly by the time that Turbo scored a consolation try in the final minute of the match. All in all, then, this was every bit as disappointing as Manly’s string of losses a couple of weeks ago, not least because they seemed to have found such fine form in the opening half of the game.
Before the players even jogged onto the field, the Sea Eagles knew that they were going to have lost the majority of their matches at Brooky in 2018 – a losing record that has only occurred previously in 2016, 2003 and, before that, the mid-1960s. They’ll be looking for some pride, and some motivation for the 2019 season, when they take on the Tigers at Campbelltown next Thursday, while the Titans will be looking for another upset with a home win over the Storm.