The Tigers came into their last home game of the 2018 season desperate for a really resounding win. Even the Eels and the Dogs have had a couple of decisive victories over the back half of 2018, while the black and gold army are yet to enjoy the kind of win that they can use to really sustain them over the off-season and into 2019. It was the worst attack in the NRL against the worst defence in the NRL, since where Manly have conceded an average of 25 points per game in 2018, the Tigers have scored an average of about 15 points, meaning that the eventual 20-22 scoreline felt just about right, statistically speaking.
The match started with a sublime linebreak from Robbie Farah, who beat Joel Thompson for a fifty metre run and got the ball across to Michael Chee Kam. He didn’t time it right, however, and the lanky second-rower was cleaned up there and then. That didn’t stop the Tigers regrouping though, and a pass from Luke Brooks out to Mahe Fonua looked promising at first, only for some scrambling defence from Manly to bring it all to nought.
A poor pass from Esan Marsters to Brooks at the other end now got the Sea Eagles the platform needed to score their first try. No surprise that Daly Cherry-Evans was the man in the spotlight, although full credit also goes to Addin Fonua-Blake for bringing in some defenders before sending the Steeden over to Jake Trbojevic, who set things up perfectly for his halfback to crash over. The Tigers’ defence played a role, too, since Marsters was close enough to have got to DCE and spoiled his party, instead of allowing him to clock up his fiftieth four-pointer at an NRL level.
Once again, the hosts came up with another brilliant linebreak, and once again it came to nothing. This time Brooks was the main event, getting on the outside of the Manly defence and speeding up the left edge, lobbing the footy back to Fonua on his inside before being bumped into touch. While the bulky backliner might have kept Dylan Walker off his back, he couldn’t fool Turbo, who brought him to earth. The entire set ended a couple of tackles later, when Moses Suli knocked the Steeden from Mose Mbye’s hands as he was lining up for a try assist to Kevin Naiqama.
The Tiges got a repeat set, but Brian Kelly cleaned up the high ball. Nevertheless, on the next set it was Benji Marshall’s turn to shine, since while he may not have broken through the line he offered a play that was just as good – a huge kick on the third tackle that looked as if it would go dead for all money on the second bounce, only to stop just short of the back line, forcing Turbo to desperately scoop it up and try to make his way back into the field of play.
It was a valiant effort, but the black and gold army still secured the dropout. Once more they went left, and once more the linkup between Mbye and Naiqama didn’t quite work, although this time Naiqama was the issue, popping the ball forward with his hand and allowing Brad Parker to regain possession for the Sea Eagles.
Two handling errors now ensued – the first a strip from Walker on Brooks that we called Manly’s way, and the second a putdown from Suli after some silky handling from DCE, Walker and especially Taupau. They were followed by another handling error from Kelepi Tanginoa right on the Tigers’ line, and then by a near-handling error from Alex Twal, who showcased some terrific dexterity after bobbling the ball to recapture it, foreshadowing his brilliant thinking and timing in the second half.
At the other end of the field, Farah lost the footy on tackle two, and at this point Manly started to consolidate a bit, with Sauaso Sue gifting them a fifth tackle penalty for a flop. It ended with a terrific grubber from DCE at the end of the set, but with Thompson knocking the ball on the Sea Eagles took a bit of a dent in their momentum. Sue now made up for his earlier error with a huge run right on the line that seemed to take half the Manly defence to hold him up, disheveling the Brookvale boys enough for a quick play-the-ball to set up Farah, Benji and Fonua to send Naiqama over on the left edge.
Special mention has to go to Fonua, who managed the offload of the night – a one-handed flick back that not only accommodated a big tackle from Suli, but took advantage of it to get the footy to his winger at just the right moment. With Marsters adding the extras the Tigers were on the board, and Manly desperately scrambled to regain their competitive advantage as the half-time siren loomed.
They got two pretty good opportunities. The first was a DCE 40/20 attempt that bounced unexpectedly and forced Naiqama to bring all his defensive strength and ingenuity to bear on cleaning it up before Turbo could get to it. The next was a pass from Turbo himself that initially seemed to have assisted Jorge Taufua with a try, only for it to be called back as marginally forward. In the end, Manly did regain their lead, but it was only by two points, as DCE kicked for goal just before the siren after Matt Eisenhuth was penalised for being offside within the ten.
The second stanza started out by looking much like the first, but it quickly became clear that Ivan Cleary had given the team a good spray in the sheds, since they now proceeded to put down a glorious trio of tries, and one of their best five minute sequences of the year – certainly their best five minute attacking sequence. The first came off the back of a linebreak from David Nofoaluma, who slipped between DCE and Thompson and almost made it to the chalk, only to slip to ground ten metres out from the line.
A quick play-the-ball later, Brooks was calling for the footy on the short side, and was clearly frustrated when Mbye instead chose to send it across to Farah on the inside. Robbie noticed it, too, although that may been what galvanised him to put in the play of the night, dummying so many times, and so decisively, that it looked as if he was destined to pass it on, only to send out a deft grubber for Chris Lawrence to slam forward and score right beneath the posts.
The power of this try for the Tigers couldn’t be underestimated. First, it was the first try of the second half. Second, it was a testament to the power of the black and gold veterans, a set play that saw the team’s biggest tryscorer crash over for a classic move. Third, it finally made good on a linebreak, helping to erase the memory of Farah and Brooks’ opening runs having come to nothing. Finally, it put the Tigers two converted tries ahead, once Marsters had added the extras once again.
Whether it was all those factors, or Cleary’s talk in the sheds, the Tigers now proceeded to put down two more tries in quick succession. The next came off another massive run, as Twal now had a turn to put in the first linebreak and try assist of his career. Making his way through the line within the Tigers’ thirty, the big front-rower scooted around DCE but found Turbo and Manase Fainu waiting for him. It didn’t both the ex-Paramatta City Titan, however, as he fended off Fainu and took the tackle from Turbo at just the right moment before getting the footy over to Mbye.
In retrospect, this was probably the try that won the game, not only because of the momentum it built, but of how unlikely and improbable it all seemed, even in slow motion. Still, the Tigers weren’t done, as Marshall, Brooks, Mbye and Naiqama finally, totally nailed their left edge, with Brooks coming right into the line and timing it perfectly, Mbye contributing a superb cut-out-pass, and Fonua standing back from the line to allow Naiqama to clock up his second four-pointer of the evening.
All night, the Tigers had been trying to make this left edge come together, and while it had reaped an early try for Naiqama, it was only at the culmination of this splendid period of momentum that it really, perfectly synced up. The Sea Eagles now started their comeback, and were further motivated by the most dramatic and deflating call of the evening, as a pass from Trbojevic saw Fonua-Blake put in a massive run from about ten metres out, disposing of a couple of Tigers along the way, only for the play to be called back as forward.
To their credit, the Sea Eagles responded with a series of massive plays, but the Tigers contained them every time, making it clear that the visitors were going to need something a bit special, or a bit anomalous, to put themselves back on the board. At the sixty-third minute, Trent Hodkinson provided just that, plunging through the line out of dummy-half, and making the most of Ben Matulino’s momentary distraction to pummel over Jacob Liddle, who wasn’t a match for the big ex-Knight.
A huge run and linebreak from Fonua-Blake seemed like a sure trymaker, but a brainsnap saw the big forward take the tackle, despite Turbo being in position to take it to the line. While Kelly seemed to have save Fonua-Blake a couple of seconds with a putdown in the corner, the camera showed that he’d lost the footy at the last minute, in yet another agonised moment for the away fans.
Yet that just set the platform for the best Manly play of the whole night, after Turbo shouldered Brooks off a brilliant boot from Naiqama for the trysaving effort of the night. At the other end of the field, Jack Gosiewski broke through the line and offload the football to his fullback and Liddle was crashing him to ground, setting up Turbo for the single best play of the game – a freakish one-handed pickup of the football centimetrs from the turf that looked more like a baseball move than anything possible on the rugby league field.
So surprising was the pickup that the Tigers were barely prepared for Tom to send the Steeden over to DCE to score beneath the posts, bringing it to a two-point game with eight minutes left on the clock. So freakishly brilliant had this try been that ir felt inevitable that the Sea Eagles would score again, or at least bring the game to golden point.
It was a big turning-point, then, when Kelly lost the football for the second time this half two minutes out from the end, gifting the Tigers the scrum feed as the final siren loomed. In one final twist, and an agonising moment for the hosts, the Sea Eagles got a penalty after a second effort from Chee Kam. DCE took the penalty shot from within their own forty, but he couldn’t pull off Kyle Feldt’s mammoth effort from the sideline, with the ball coming up just short and allowing Marsters to clean it up beneath the uprights.
The Tigers be looking to come away with a good win over the Bunnies, then, to end up the 2019 season in pride, while the Sea Eagles will be looking for a decisive effort against the Broncos when they take them on in Brisbane, for the last match of the regular football season before the finals kick in.