Manly were without Tom Trbojevic and Sydney City were without Cooper Cronk and Jake Friend when they met at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night, for a game that started with total decimation from the Roosters, but ended up more evenly paced after a fast finish from the Sea Eagles. A couple of minutes in, the home team got their first big chance when Joseph Manu lost the ball on the last play, but instead of diving on it, the Sea Eagles gave the visitors time and space to get six again.
From there, the Chooks shifted the ball back inside the field, where a huge charge from Angus Crichton on the third tackle was only just held up by Joel Thompson. Despite losing against the Rabbitohs last week, Luke Keary showcased some truly brilliant moves, and he started early here too, with a superb crossfield kick to the left side of the field. While Manu missed it, so did Brad Parker, as the footy ended up bouncing perfectly for Brett Morris, who scored his first try for the Roosters.
It was a flashback to the fast open of the World Club Challenge, and a reassuring moment for Sydney City given the reminder of what they’d lost in Blake Ferguson during Parramatta’s win over Penrith last Sunday afternoon. As Latrell Mitchell booted through the conversion, the rain really started to set in, leading to Boyd Cordner losing the football on the restart, and players from both teams trying and faiing to hold it up.
Both sides had struggled under wet weather conditions against the Bunnies and Tigers the week before, so the next to score under heavy rain would probably get the competitive edge for the next part of the game. At the end of the next set, James Tedesco saved a try from Curtis Sironen on the back of an Apisai Koroisau kick, and it was now the Sea Eagles’ chance to get repeat sets, with Mitchell going long on the following dropout.
A period of Mitchell brilliance now ensued, starting with Latrell reaching up a hand to intercept a high Manly ball on the third tackle, popping it back to Danel Tupou to scoop up. It was a risky play for the Roosters, given how far Mitchell and Tupou had come in field, but it paid off, especially once Mitchell booted through a 40/20 midway down the park. Two tackles into the next set, he had a go at scoring, backing his way over the line with the ball, but the Sea Eagles managed to keep him up.Embed from Getty Images
The home team weren’t quite so successful on the next play, as Victor Radley ran into the line and then shifted the ball across to Keary. Pausing for a preternaturally timed pause, Keary then sent a harbor bridge pass across to Tupou – so high that the big winger had to put both his hands above his head to catch it, before slamming to ground with his trademark dexterity. This time, Mitchell’s kick bounced off the uprights, but the Roosters were still comfortably ahead and in control of the park.
Fifteen minutes in, the most torrential conditions of any NRL game so far this year set in. It reminded me a bit of the Titans-Sharks match at Robina in 2017, so bad was the visibility from certain camera angles. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, however, as Keary now added to his first two try assists, supplementing his kick to Morris and his floating pass to Tupou with an offload to Sironen in the midst of a heavy tackle from DCE and Curtis Sironen. During heavy rain, second phase play has to be conserved, so the simplicity of this play belied Keary’s judgment, timing and daring in choosing to send out the footy to Siro at this exact moment in the game.
So heavy was the rain that basic moves were hard to pull off, meaning that it was a real achievement when Brendan Elliot caught a looming bomb twenty-five minutes into the match. The young fullback’s confidence was short-lived, however, as he was subbed off following a dangerous tackle from Mitchell under the next high ball, forcing the Sea Eagles to bring Kelepi Tanginoa onto the park and rearrange their backline once again.
With this reshuffle, the first half started to reach a tipping-point, as Manly brought a new level of desperation to their defence. Shortly after Elliot was removed, the Eagles came up with the best trysaving tackle of the night, a pack effort that prevented Zane Tetevano crossing over on the Roosters’ right edge, and ensured that the Manly defenders were still in place to keep Tedesco a couple of millimetres short of the line on the following play.
A handling error from Tupou with ten minutes to go gave Manly some much-needed breathing space, while a penalty from Mitch Aubusson for a slow peel gave them the opportunity for a critical try before the half-time siren. While DCE made a good run at the line on the fourth tackle, and Koroisau answered it with a deft short-range kick, Api’s enthusiasm got the better of him, with his dangerous tackle on Lindsay Collins giving the Roosters the momentum once again.Embed from Getty Images
Still, the Sea Eagles weren’t quite done yet. Midway through the next set, Jack Gosiewski put enough pressure on Tedesco to send the ex-Tiger’s pass so awry that the ball actually bounced off the defender’s head before skittering over to the side of the field, where Manu tried to collect it only to be slid into touch under pressure from Jorge Taufua. The low point of the match now followed for Manly, as DCE fumbled the football after trying to gather a pass from Jake Trbojevic that he should really have been able to contain.
For a moment, it looked like this might be an incentive for Jake Turbo to take control of the game, starting with a big tackle early in the next set that forced Tetevano to mirror DCE’s handling error. After Sironen glimpsed some space a couple of tackles later, Jake sent through a pretty decent kick at the end of it all, only for Teddy to slide along the turf and scoop it up as easily as if this had been a Roosters training run.
Part of the ease of Tedesco’s pickup came from the sudden decrease in rain that had taken place over the last couple of minutes. In keeping with the tropical conditions that have continued into Sydney’s autumn, the night was suddenly hot and humid, while the field started to dry out as quickly as it had been soaked – the perfect conditions for the Chooks to consolidate their mammoth lead in these final critical minutes.
No surprise, then, that Tedesco followed his pickup with one of the best Sydney City runs of the night, pivoting his way out of several incipient tackles before barging his way through a couple of Manly’s big men to offoad to Morris about thirty metres out from the line. Taken aback by the strength and speed of Teddy’s burst, the Sea Eagles were down on their right edge, as Keary realized when he booted another try assist over to Tupou to catch in the air.
If his floating pass to Tupou earlier in the night initially seemed a bit high, then this kick initially seemed a bit low. In both cases, however, Keary’s judgement turned out to be superb, with the ball now sailing over Moses Suli’s head and right into the Giraffe’s hands, before an effortless kick from Mitchell brought Sydney City to 0-22. It was the perfect way to cap what was arguably the best forty minutes of football so far this year – certainly the best opening forty minutes – and one of the best ever forty from Keary, who was now at an equal career best with four try assists.Embed from Getty Images
The only blemish was that Morris had to be removed after the field after falling awkwardly when taking the pass at the end of Tedesco’s barnstorming run. To make matters worse, Keary was taken off for an HIA seven minutes into the second stanza, leaving the Chooks without their most important weapon of the night, and without either of their gun halves on the park.
Yet Lachlan Lam now stepped up, accelerating and reaching out an arm to collect a tricky pass from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves right on the line, before slowing down enough to time his grubber perfectly. When it bounced, it sat up perfectly for Cordner, who spun over the top of Elliot to put down the first four points of the second half. In Keary’s absence, it was brilliant to see the try assists keep coming, while with Cordner and Tupou having both crossed over twice in succession, there was now a regularity to the Roosters’ attack that made it feel as if they might be settling into a deep pointscoring groove.
Yet the shadow of Keary’s absence would loom longer that initially appeared, since these turned out to be the last points scored by Sydney City over the course of the night. If it had been a fifty minute match, this would have been the single most scintillating performance of the year so far, but the Sea Eagles now mounted a comeback that would have almost guaranteed them the game if it had been a ninety-minute affair.
As the Chooks had ground on, they had begged the question – what would it take for Manly to wrest back control of such a one-sided match? The home team provided an answer almost an hour in – a David-and-Goliath effort following by a rapid try on the restart. For a while, it had felt as if the Sea Eagles needed one of the players – ideally one of their smaller men – to take on the Roosters’ big boppers, and reverse the unbalanced state of the game in one superb David-like gesture.
Manase Fainu now provided just that gesture, building off a renewed focus on second-phase play in the wake of the rainstorm to slam through Taukeiaho, Tetevano and JWH to score beside the posts. With a call of try onfield from Matt Cecchin, the bunker had no option but to ratify the decision, since Fainu was so enmeshed in the maelstrom of Sydney City jerseys that there were no chance of seeing the moment when the ball hit the turf.Embed from Getty Images
Even this David-and-Goliath effort wouldn’t have been enough, however, if the Sea Eagles hadn’t built on it immediately. What they needed was a more sustained sequence to extend this one-man effort, and they got it when DCE popped a pass across the short side to Moses Suli, who send an even tighter offload across to Reuben Garrick. Dancing along the edge of the field, the ex-Blacktown Worker glimpsed Jake Trbojevic unmarked in the middle of the field, and sailed the Steeden across DCE’s head to get the Sea Eagles four more points on the board.
Full credit goes to every playmaker, but this was also a critical moment for Jake Turbo, who had been raring to break out and show some leadership in his brother’s absence, and during what had been a fairly quiet night from DCE. One more consolidating gesture from Jake, or one more try from the Sea Eagles in quick succession, and the Roosters might have suffered their most disappointing loss in ages, but neither of those options ever eventuated, as the Chooks ground in for their most determined sequence of defence of the night.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Sea Eagles lapsed back into some of the messiness of the opening half, as their young guns started to feel the pressure in the absence of their fullback and organizer. A fourth-tackle option from Gosiewksi said it all, as the young second-rower chose to kick the ball despite being faced with enough space to run through, or at least enough time to execute a quick play-the-ball and another shot at the line if he didn’t manage to slice through the defence himself.
While Manly might have prevented the Roosters scoring, then, they wouldn’t cross over again until Moses Suli put down the last try of the night at the seventh-fifth minute, following a scintillating run from DCE capped with a kick that ricocheted off the Roosters at just the right angle for the ex-Bulldog to scoop up. It was the best run of the night from the Sea Eagles, but that just made it feel more belated and frustrated, since if it had come even ten minutes earlier Manly might have been in for the win.
Yet this wasn’t a perfect victory for the Roosters either. Despite Keary being subbed back on an hour in – just after Fainu’s try – they hadn’t manage to execute another four points, and had started to lag in attack as the game wound down. They’ll be looking for an equally tough but more consistently paced effort when they take on Parramatta next weekend, while the Sea Eagles are going to work hard for their first win of the 2019 NRL season when they host the Warriors at Brookvale.