The Sharks had toppled the Titans for the first game of Magic Round, while Manly had gone down by sixteen to the Broncos, when they met at PointsBet Stadium for the Steve Rogers Cup on Sunday afternoon. Things were stacked in the Sharkies’ favour, and not just because this was a home match, but because they were on the cusp of three consecutive home wins, and a club record of five from six home wins to start the season. Paul Gallen was also celebrating his 160th game at Shark Park, breaking the record for the most number of matches played at a single NRL venue.
Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles came away with a convincing win – a spectacular way for Cade Cust to make his NRL debut as Manly five-eighth. Josh Dugan took the first hit-up, and Paul Gallen ended the first set, before Brendan Elliot comfortably caught Kyle Flanagan’s opening kick on the full. Marty Taupau then responded with a brilliant opening set for the Sea Eagles, offloading on the third tackle, and then scooping up a Kane Elgey bomb after the Sharks failed to secure it. Elliot then proved just as calm under the second high ball, before Cust muscled his way through four Cronulla men, and over the halfway line, before booting through a bomb of his own.
Taupau’s next offload set up Addin Fonua-Blake to break through the line, but Manly lost ground after this burst of momentum, and were almost back at the forty by the time that Cronulla recovered the football. They got a lucky break, though, as Chad Townsend was now held to have sent it forward on the first tackle, despite the subsequent replay indicating that the pass was alright. Manly capitalised quickly on this good fortune, doubling the speed of their play on the next set, as Dylan Walker marked his return to the field with some big questions on the left edge, where Joel Thompson almost crashed over with a trademark combo of speed and strength.
Fonua-Blake followed up with another testament to the dexterity of Manly’s big men, collecting a short pass from Jake Trbojevic on the right of the posts, and beating Kurt Capewell over the line to complete the speed and momentum of his linebreak a couple of minutes before. Reuben Garrick was always going to add the extras from right in front, bringing the Sea Eagles to a six point lead with eight minutes on the board. While the whole team had flourished on this set, their second rowers and frontrowers had been particularly impressive, capping off a round of football in which props had scored the first try in three of eight games.
Dugan’s kick went too long on the restart, getting Manly another surge of field position immediately, but it was the Sharks who scored next, amping up their defence here to hold up Marty Tapau when he tumbled over the chalk on the third tackle after receiving a deft short ball from Apisai Koroisau. For a moment, it looked as if Kapow might have lost the Steeden into Dugan, but the Bunker decided that he’d maintained possession, giving the Sea Eagles another few tackles. Nevertheless, this sustained period of scrutiny had broken their momentum, and the set ended in tatters, with an overlong kick from Cust that got Cronulla seven tackles.Embed from Getty Images
With only 28% of possession so far, this was a critical set for the Sharks – and Flanagan made the most of it, booting through his best kick of the night, a well-weighted long-range effort that sat up perfectly for Bronson Xerri to gather into his chest and put down in the right corner. The sequence as a whole also spoke to the organisation of Cronulla, who drew the defence over to the left edge, and then opted for a series of short, conservative passes back in field, leaving the right edge wide open for Flanagan’s boot to find Xerri. Only Elliot got a hand to the Cronulla winger, but Xerri was too quick, dancing over him to put the Steeden to earth.
While Flanagan missed the conversion, this was still a big turnaround for the Sharks, and they seemed pumped at the start of the next set, when Xerri came close to a linebreak on the right edge, only for Townsend to cough up a challenging low pass from Flanagan. Luckily for the Cronulla haldback, he was able to contain the damage, leaping up in the air uncontested to collect a left-boot kick from Cust at the end of the next Manly set. For a while, both teams went set for set, until three successive mistakes from the Sharkies got the Sea Eagles the sustained burst of field position they needed for their next six points.
The first two came pretty close together, as Gallen was pinged for not being square at marker, and Matt Prior followed up with a hand in the ruck. Aaron Gray may have corrected with a terrific one-on-one tackle – the best trysaver of the night so far – to prevent Jorge Taufua taking a cut-out pass over the line, but Prior then knocked on the high ball, before Briton Nikora was penalised for crowding a couple of plays later. With so much field position, it felt almost inevitable when Elliot got on the outside of Josh Morris, and then slammed through a last-ditch low tackle from Capewell to put down the next four points for the Sea Eagles.
Garrick was staring straight into the sun, but still managed the conversion, bringing Manly to three times Cronulla at 4-12 as the second quarter of the game got underway. The visitors had capitalised brilliantly on their first really sustained bout of field position, so it felt paramount that the Sharkies do the same when they got a series of repeat sets ten minutes out from the end, thanks in part to an offside penalty from Jake Trbojevic, marker not square from Corey Waddell, and a slow peel from Elliot, along with some of their best defence so far in the preceding sets.
Jayden Brailey now made one of the best individual efforts of the game to duck through three Manly defenders, but Elliot went one better, reaching out a hand to rotate the footy ninety degrees so that the tip didn’t touch the grass when the Cronulla hooker was brought to ground. Curtis Sironen put an equally brilliant trysaver on Braden Hamlin-Uele on the very next tackle, while a pack effort held up Nikora on the right side of the posts. By the time that Gray made a handling error, the Sea Eagles had worked hard enough for a try, and the Sharkies’ rhythm had taken a big dent after three exhausting sets that hadn’t yielded a single point.Embed from Getty Images
The last five minutes of the first stanza were a nightmare for Dugan, who lost a Kane Elgey bomb a few sets later. Capewell came up with the footy, but lost it directly into the chest of Elgey, who read the play in advance, and ran a brilliant line to put it down. So deftly had Elgey orchestrated this whole sequence that Capewell’s loose carry felt like a try assist, while things got worse for Dugan under the next high ball, when he took his eyes off the Steeden for a millisecond – just enough for Walker to get right up in his face for the best kick chase of the game, forcing Dugan to knock the footy on right into him. It was pretty deflating, then, when Manase Fainu delayed a pass on the next set long enough for a Cronulla forearm to deflect the ball into touch, but this had still been a sterling end to the first half for the Sea Eagles.
Their prodigious game continued right after the break, when Garrick kicked on the last, and ran forward to kick it again. Dugan was in line to scoop up or deflect the footy, but it ricocheted away from him at the last minute, leaving Sosaia Feki as the final line of defence. In one of the most damaging misreads of the game, Feki opted to take himself out of play instead of risking an offside penalty, leaving the ball wide open for Walker to slam in, make a third kick, and then chase down the Steeden to score – a scintillating way for Walker to mark his return to the footy field that brought the visitors to a twenty point lead once Garrick added the extras.
Nevertheless, the Sharks were immediately galvanised by this turn of events, as Feki made up for his defensive misread with a linebreak, and the team as a whole executed some of their most barnstorming attack all night, gaining two dropouts and then a grapple from Gosiewski that set them up for the first quick tap of the game. Seizing his opportunity, Hamlin-Uele put his head down low and burrowed through Elliot and Waddell right on the line, completing his massive run after Brailey’s near-try in the opening stanza, in a perfect rejoinder to Fonua-Blake’s fragmented try in the opening minutes.
The Sharks now felt on the brink of a major comeback, especially with a passionate home crowd behind them, but they wouldn’t score again until the seventieth minute, when Feki crashed over, and finally got full closure for letting Walker through just after the break. They had ten minutes to come up with ten points – more, if they wanted to avoid golden point – but the Sea Eagles dug deep to maintain their lead, forcing a crowding penalty from Josh Morris before capitalizing on two errors from Bronson Xerri – the last thirty seconds out from the siren – to come away with a convincing 14-24 win.
This was a strange second stanza, then, as Cronulla perpetually seemed to be on the cusp of a comeback that eventually eluded them. They’ll be looking for better consistency in the back forty when they travel to WIN Stadium to meet the Dragons on Sunday afternoon, while Josh Dugan, in particular, will be keen to show how brilliant he can be after a fairly inconsistent night with the football here. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a tribute to Manly’s grit and guts after a disappointing result against Brisbane last week, so they’ll be looking for a big home win against the Titans at Brooky next Friday night for the second match of Indigenous Round.