The Raiders started fast against the Sea Eagles at Brookvale on Sunday afternoon, with Jack Wighton putting down two tries in the first eleven minutes, although Manly would eventually come away with one of their most satisfying wins of the 2019 season. A forward pass from Elliott Whitehead to Jordan Rapana actually got Manly a shot at some early field position, but it came to nothing when Lachlan Croker’s kick was too long, allowing Chanze Nicoll-Klokstad to usher it into touch for the first seven tackle set.
The sheer fact of CNK being back on the field was a rousing spectacle for the Raiders, following his visceral knee injury against the Broncos last week. They started to consolidate as soon as they got the ball back, with Joey Leilua sending an offload to Jordan Rapana that came as close to a loose carry as possible, allowing the Canberra no. 5 to make the first linebreak of the afternoon. Nevertheless, Apisai Koroisau responded with a mammoth effort to return to the field of play at the end of the set, and the Sea Eagles got rolling after a slow peel from Sam Williams piggybacked them up the other end of the park.
The pace of the game abruptly accelerated following a harbor bridge pass from Daly Cherry-Evans to Moses Suli right on the line. Initially, Suli gathered the football, only to spill it towards the sideline under defensive pressure, where it was picked up by CNK, who got up on a knee and popped it over to Nick Cotric. It was an elegant intercept, and Cotric built on it by carrying the ball back up to the forty metre line before the Sea Eagles could get their defence in order. On the next tackle, Leilua got the ball to Wighton, who got on the outside of Curtis Sironen and outpaced Jarrod Croker to slam the ball down and score.
The try happened so quickly that the Sea Eagles still seemed to be processing it when Croker lined up the conversion. He was only sitting at one from eight this year, so it was a promising sign for the Raiders when he managed to sail the Steeden through the posts from a relatively difficult sideline angle. If Wighton had scored quickly for his first try, his second was even speedier, thanks to a linebreak from Croker, who also added a second straight conversion to celebrate his 100th game as captain of the Raiders.
This was a pivotal moment in Wighton’s ongoing evolution in the five-eighth role, and a warning shot to the Sea Eagles, who still hadn’t scored a single point by the second quarter, despite a brilliant 40/20 kick from DCE seventeen minutes in. While it defied Rapana on the sideline, Rapana made up for his error a tackle later, when he bundled Jorge Taufua into touch to shut down one of the Sea Eagles’ best tryscoring opportunities in several sets.Embed from Getty Images
The play came at a cost to Rapana, who was sent off the park with a rib issue, and gave the Sea Eagles enough of a shock for them to start consolidating over the rest of the first half. They got their next big opportunity on the back of a series of Canberra errors, including a slow peel from Iosia Soliola, a mistake from Cotric and a ball strip from Croker. A pair of big runs from Fainu and Sironen on the right edge, and a deft pass from Elliot to Parker on the right, laid the platform for a crossfield kick from DCE that saw Suli regain possession after a contest between Cotric and Garrick in the air.
From there, Manly moved quickly, with Marty Taupau collecting a flick pass from Corey Waddell to carry the ball through the line for a one-handed putdown. Canberra would get the next points, however, opting for a penalty kick after a hand in the ruck, while Williams responded to DCE with a 40/20 of his own a couple of minutes later. While the result was the same, this was an even better kick than DCE had put through, since Williams timed the angle so well that he didn’t even have to apply that much pressure with the boot to get the ball in place.
Between Williams’ 40/20 and Croker’s penalty kick – executed from just within the forty – the Sea Eagles seemed to have got their mojo back, only for a forward pass from Wighton to Whitehead to prevent the Raiders capitalizing further upon this splendid sequence. With a penalty on Jack Murchie for a facial, the Sea Eagles were back down the other end of the field, but the Raiders responded well, intercepting a Thompson ball before Wighton made up for his forward pass by kicking and chasing to trap Elliott in goal at the end of the set.
Three tackles in, Trbojevic was penalised for a slow peel, and the Raiders chose to tap and go, in what initially felt like their big consolidation moment at the end of the first stanza. Instead, Sironen got in front of a Hodgson kick, scooped up the footy and started marching Manly back down the park. Like all of the tries so far, the next four points came pretty quickly, as an offload from Thompson allowed Parker to pop through the line on the left edge, where he shifted the ball across to Lachlan Croker to score the final try of the first stanza, a year out from his crushing ACL injury.
Croker’s penalty kick was therefore the only difference between the two teams as they headed into the break. With each outfit having bookended the first stanza with a rapid pair of tries, it felt like anybody’s game as they returned from the sheds, and ground in over the opening ten minutes. While no points were scored over this period, the Sea Eagles copped a massive blow when DCE was removed from the field with an ankle injury that may keep him out of the game well into the Origin period.Embed from Getty Images
Losing DCE was bad enough, but the Sea Eagles had only just started to come to terms with not having Tom Turbo on the park. Without the two key playmakers in their spine, it was critical that they score the next points, if only as a statement and a sign of strength for the home crowd. Canberra might have had the best defence in the competition over the opening six rounds, but it ended up being no match for this Manly desperation, as the Brookvale boys now put down the next rapid pair of tries of the afternoon.
The first came off their best sequence of second phase play, starting with an offload from Taupau that set up Taufua for a linebreak. At the other end of the field, a pair of offloads from Sironen and Waddell allowed Croker to bookend half time with two tries, while allowing Waddell to flex his muscles with the assists as well. Full credit has to go to Fainu, too, who ferried the footy between the two offloads, putting the Sea Eagles four points ahead once Garrick took over kicking duties from DCE.
In keeping with the game so far, Manly scored off the restart, and off an even simpler movement. Breaking through the line, Fainu considered shifting the footy across to Waddell, but took the tackle after recognizing that the angle wasn’t right. It was the correct decision, and produced points immediately, as Suli collected a quick play-the-ball and popped the Steeden across to Gosiewski, who had subbed on for DCE, and proved himself immediately by assisting Garrick for another four points.
It wasn’t just the speed of these tries but their skill and dexterity that put the game back in the Sea Eagles’ corner. On the one hand, they’d responded to DCE and Turbo’s absence by doubling down on one of their classic signatures – second phase play – to prove that the team could survive losing even their most important playmakers. On the other hand, Fainu’s decision to take the tackle proved that their desperation couldn’t mar their judgement, and that their rapidity was equaled by their patience and focus.
These would turn out to be the last tries of the game for Manly, but they were enough to get them the win, with only a consolation try from CNK at the seventy-eighth minute bringing the Raiders close to a comeback. Despite DCE’s absence, then, this was a cathartic game for the Sea Eagles after the disappointment and frustration of not receiving a last-second escorts penalty against the Dragons at WIN Stadium last week. On the other side of the Steeden, this loss brought back some bad memories of Canberra’s slippage of form in early 2018, and the Raiders will be raring for a strong win when they take on the Panthers at GIO next week.