Manly were without Tom Trbojevic for Daly Cherry-Evans’ 200th match when they rocked up at Hunter on Saturday night, but that didn’t prevent them starting right where they left off against the Bunnies last week. They got the first penalty of the match, late in the tackle count, thanks to a slow peel from Mason Lino, and they made the most of it, putting down their first six points on this same set of six.
Addin Fonua-Blake got things rolling with a big run to the right off the uprights, where he was only just contained by a pack defence spearheaded by Kalyn Ponga. Sensing a weakness in the Newcastle ruck, Apisai Koroisau made the same motion out of dummy half, and was held up even more precariously by Danny Levi. With this sustained effort on the right edge, the Knights were totally unprepared when DCE and Kane Elgey shifted the ball to the left with a cut-out pass and harbor bridge pass respectively on the next tackle, allowing Jorge Taufua to crash over for the first four.
DCE followed with a superb sideline conversion, curling the footy through the posts as the Sea Eagles got ready for the restart. They didn’t score on this set, and that seemed to galvanise the Knights, with Ponga making a huge run after collecting the high ball, dashing thirty metres up field and milking a slow peel from Rueben Garrick in the process. Garrick would have the last laugh on the next set, but before that happened Jesse Ramien mirrored Fonua-Blake with a hard run at the line, only for Edrick Lee to tap back Mitchell Pearce’s last-tackle kick into DCE’s hands.
The Sea Eagles now consolidated, as Koroisau ducked under Levi to break through the line and shift the football across to Taufau, who almost made it to the chalk himself, but was confronted with Lee about twenty metres out from the line. For a moment, Taufua decelerated, before pivoting off his left foot and heading back to the edge of the field, where he got the ball across to Garrick, who stormed back inside and slammed through Levi for another four resounding points.
DCE added the extras once more, and got a chance to score a try himself a few minutes later, collecting an offload from Fonua-Blake, before leaping over a low tackle from Ponga on his way to the line. Only a second low tackle from Lee stood between Daly and a third try for Manly, as Hunter seemed to be transforming into a Sea Eagles home ground, so absolutely had the visitors taken control of the rhythm.Embed from Getty Images
To make matters worse, Ponga was now sent off for an HIA. Both teams were without their star fullbacks, but the Sea Eagles were coping much better, scoring their third try a few minutes later. In one of the more eccentric sequences of their season, Jake Trbojevic grubbered about five metres out from the line, setting up Joel Thompson to take possession and ground the football in one motion, with a third conversion from DCE bringing the scoreline to an imposing 0-18.
Within twenty minutes, the Knights had conceded the most points of any of their games this year, and the Sea Eagles showed no signs of stopping, as Addin Fonua-Blake made a mammoth effort to bring the football back into the field of play. An offside penalty from Hymel Hunt allowed DCE to get the visitors halfway down the field, only for Garrick to lose the footy under some better pressure from the Knights, before successive slow peels from Waddell and Fonua-Blake got Newcastle their best chance yet.
It all came to nothing, though, when Curtis Sironen intercepted a flat pass from Mitchell Pearce to Aidan Guerra. While the Knights might have cleaned up a 40/20 effort from DCE shortly after, they failed to capitalise once again when Mason Lino sent a forward pass to Shaun Kenny-Dowall early in the tackle count. Waddell responded with a driving run to the chalk on the second tackle of the next set, and DCE followed up by a big play on the left, where the Knights looked like they might cop a call of slow peel, only for the refs to decide that Sipley had obstructed Barnett.
This was a massive letoff for the Knights, since Manly would probably have scored on one of the next tackles, so expertly and economically had they ramped up the pressure of the preceding minutes. Even better, Newcastle got a repeat set at the end of it all, following an error from Moses Suli, and then a penalty after a late tackle from Curtis Sironen. Yet Ramien was forced to take the softest tackle of the night to avoid an offside penalty, before Danny Levi was held up by Jake Turbo.
As the last-tackle grubber was effortlessly contained by Brendan Elliot, the Knights seemed incredulous that they hadn’t managed to score during this sequence. DCE now made good on his earlier 40/20 attempt, as some poor defensive communication saw Conor Watson allow the footy to sail straight by him. Incredibly, though, Newcastle got yet another leftoff, as a second error from Suli turned the footy over, before Barnett lost it while trying to offload out of a tackle from Parker.Embed from Getty Images
This had been pretty underwhelming football from the home team, so it was lucky that they managed one final surge before the break. Ponga brought the ball back into the field of play and Ramien made some good metres up the right edge, setting up his fullback for the best Newcastle grubber of the night. Kane Elgey tried to neutralize it, but the bounce favoured Edrick Lee, who ducked through a high tackle from Garrick to score his fourth of Newcastle’s nine tries this season.
Ponga then showed that he could nail the sideline conversions just as well as DCE, but the Knights were done for the first half after Lee lost the Steeden on the restart. Sure, Saifiti might have scooted back and picked it up, but this was a momentum-killer for the Knights, especially once Lino dropped the ball with forty seconds on the clock, gifting Manly a zero tackle set. For a moment they seemed to be shaping for a DCE field goal, but instead ended with a poor pass from Fainu as the siren rang out.
The first ten minutes back featured more of the same, as the Knights got one chance after another – notably Elgey coughing up a pass from Fainu – but just couldn’t nail their last-tackle options when it really counted. Finally, nine minutes in, Guerra came up with the goods, landing a short-range try – the second successive attempt from dummy-half – by keeping his elbow off the ground to score another four points for the Knights, before another well-placed kick from Ponga made it a six point game.
Once again, Manly lost the ball on the restart, as Fitzgibbon botched a pass from Waddell, but this time Saifiti wasn’t around to scoop it up, as the Sea Eagles got their first really big chance of the second stanza. Elliot glimpsed a space on the left edge and almost made it to the line on the third tackle, milking a slow peel from Watson in the process. With their first penalty since the 27th minute, and after seven straight penalties for Newcastle, the Sea Eagles decided to play it safe, as DCE set up the tee to take the two, giving the men from Manly some time to catch their breath.
Yet this turned out to be the biggest letoff for the Knights so far – a double letoff – as DCE’s kick bounced off the uprights, and then found its way back to the home team before any of the Manly players could get to it. Nevertheless, an unforced error from Watson out of dummy half a couple of tackles later put Manly back where they had started, especially when a hand in the ruck from Saifiti got them another penalty right in front of the posts. This time, DCE booted it through, bringing the Sea Eagles to a 12-20 lead as the final quarter of the match approached.Embed from Getty Images
The Knights responded with an incredible sequence that seemed destined to put them back in the game, starting with what initially appeared to be a misfire from Ponga – a misshapen kick to the left edge of the field that had touch written all over it. Showing his quickest thinking of the night, Lee collected the footy, managing to flick it back inside to Ponga over a low tackle from Garrick, before Ponga set up Fitzgibbon to slam over the line. For a moment, this looked set to be the defining try of the game, but the replay showed that Lee’s boot had – just – grazed the line.
After so many letoffs for the Knights, the Sea Eagles finally got some luck, and they consolidated immediately, starting with their third consecutive penalty at the beginning of the next set, thanks to a slow peel from James Gavet. DCE sent the Steeden off the side of his boot a few tackles later, trapping Pearce in goal and securing Manly a dropout that started with Sironen and Fainu asking some big questions on the right edge, before Elliot shaped as if to sweep right, only to flick the footy back to Fonua-Blake on his outside.
Fonua-Blake caught the Knights just as they were shifting from a left edge to right edge defence, carving an enormous space in their line to restore the Sea Eagles’ fourteen point win margin after DCE added another conversion. The Knights bounced back immediately, though, after Elliot fumbled a Pearce bomb in the air, Suli bumped it into touch, and Elgey was penalised for an escort, allowing Newcastle to get going right away without needing to rely on a dropout. They scored on this set, as Gavet sent Barnett through the line right beside the posts, in the same part of the field where Fonua-Blake had scored only a couple of minutes before.
It was good for Newcastle to see that they could also carve up the opposition’s defence, while another conversion from Ponga narrowed the Manly lead to only eight points, with a full thirteen minutes on the clock. With Fonua-Blake sent to the bin for a dangerous tackle immediately after, and Lino replacing Pearce with some fresh blood, the Knights looked as if they must score. Instead, the Sea Eagles buckled down, not leaking a single penalty, or making a single error, for the rest of the game.
This was another sterling win for the Sea Eagles, then, after their stunning golden point victory over the Rabbitohs the week before – their best opening fifteen minutes of the season, followed by some of their most grinding defence and gritty stamina. They’ll be looking to harness both those qualities for a bigger win margin when they travel to Wollongong to take on the Dragons next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was the Knights’ fourth home loss before a series of games on the road, so the blue and red faithful will be looking for a big win over the Titans at Cbus to kick off their away period next Saturday afternoon.