It was a bit of a grudge match when the Rabbits hosted the Sea Eagles at ANZ on Saturday afternoon, given their devastating golden point loss when they met at Brookvale earlier in the year. It was also a classic winter fixture, with a strong wind blowing up the park that initially posed some challenges to Adam Reynolds’ kicking game. Conversely, Manly started strong, with two consecutive dropouts, only for Cade Cust to let the excitement get the better of him with a premature pass to Dylan Walker.
The Bunnies responded with a big surge up the left edge, but Brendan Elliot contained it with one of the best trysavers of the Manly season. Dane Gagai came close to scoring on the next set, thanks to a no-look pass from Adam Doueihi, but Reynolds was unable to build on it with the boot, sending the ball much too far on the last, and gifting the Sea Eagles the first seven tackle set of the afternoon.
For a moment, the visitors looked set to score, as Joel Thompson almost broke through the line, getting away from Tevita Tatola, and dragging Damien Cook a good two or three metres with him. From there, he offloaded to Elliot, who popped the ball onto Moses Suli, who looked as if he might score then and then, only to be brought to ground, where he knocked on while trying to set up the next play, letting South Sydney off the hook once again.
By this stage, the Bunnies were starting to come into their own, as evinced in a skittering, questioning run from Cody Walker on the third tackle of the next set, which ended with a torpedo bomb from Reynolds straight into the wind. Nevertheless, Elliot was up to the task, cleaning up the footy without too much trouble before scooting it back down the field. Reyno then got his own back by kicking, chasing and then dragging Elliot into touch at the end of the following set.
South Sydney now had their first dropout of the match, and they made the most of it, with Tatola coming within a hair’s-breadth of the chalk on the third tackle, and Cook popping the footy out to Doueihi to cross over on the fourth. For a moment, Cook’s delayed pass felt inspired – it had a touch of Lachlan Lewis’ ability to slow down time before the kick – but it ended up facilitating an obstruction play, while also setting up Dylan Walker to be called out for an offside penalty.Embed from Getty Images
It ended up being two instead of four for the Rabbits, then, as Reynolds booted the first points through the posts. A pretty weird sequence followed shortly after, as Daly Cherry-Evans double pumped and then passed to Suli out on the right wing. In both real time and slow motion it was clear that Suli had knocked on, but the play somehow continued, as DCE regathered the footy and got it across to Reuben Garrick.
Playing to the whistle like his life depended on it, and possibly channeling some of the frustration of Origin III, DCE now collected the ball back from Garrick, opting for a no-look flick pass as the South Sydney defence converged, rather than conceding the tackle. It paid dividends, since the Steeden found Cust, who gathered it into his chest and slammed over for the first try of the game, bringing the Sea Eagles to a four point lead once Garrick added the extras.
Incredibly, this was called a try on field, with no recourse to the Bunker, and the visitors seemed spurred on by their good luck, with DCE following up by booting through his very best kick of the game so far. Jorge Taufua proved that the Sea Eagles could be just as impressive in defence, absolutely flattening Doueihi with the biggest hit of Round 17. Reynolds then kicked the Steeden straight into Walker on the last, but the Bunnies got a penalty, thanks to a slow peel from Cust.
Cometh the hour, cometh Reynolds, who now sent Dean Britt across for the first South Sydney try of the night with a well-timed short pass. It was a supremely cathartic moment for Souths, not least because Taufua’s hit on Doueihi had also come off a short ball from Reynolds, who easily added the conversion now to put the home team two points ahead.
Yet Reyno wasn’t done with the first stanza, drawing his inspiration from Mitchell Pearce’s performance against the Bulldogs the night before for a superb try assist for Gagai, and his best pass of the year so far – a soaring parabolic ball from the middle of the field that found his no. 2 right on the chest before the Sea Eagles knew what had hit them. Thinking quick, Gagai got it in the right hand immediately, and kept it there as he stormed through Elliot to put down the next four points of the game.Embed from Getty Images
It was a rousing way for South Sydney to end the first stanza, not simply because of the quality of Reynolds’ pass, but because it put a chink in Elliot’s superb performance over the opening forty. A couple of minutes later, the Bunnies followed up with their biggest defensive effort of the match so far – a five-man effort that saw them drag DCE over the chalk after he appeared to have secured the Steeden eight metres out from the try line.
With ninety seconds on the clock, South Sydney had another dropout. Gagai collected the footy under pretty precarious conditions on the edge of the field, and the play headed left, where Reynolds and Walker combined to send Campbell Graham over for a try forty-two seconds out from the siren. Walker’s timing, in particular, was perfect, as he hesitated for the briefest second, as if to head inside, before shifting the Steeden to his winger, throwing Garrick off balance.
To make things even better for the Bunnies, the try looked easy – like a master class in organisation and focus that was only intensified once Reynolds sent through the conversion after the siren, directly into the wind. South Sydney had mastered the windy conditions, and taken a close game to an 18-6 scoreline in a matter of minutes. Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles responded in kind when they returned from the sheds, thanks to a pair of spectacular tries that got them back on the board.
The first was a short-range effort, and saw DCE pop the footy across to Curtis Sironen to slam over in the face of some indecision from Cody Walker regarding whether to slide out or to take out the Manly halfback. The second was a long-range effort, starting with a Hail Mary pass from Cook right on the Manly line. The ball found Suli, who knocked it backwards through his legs, and then managed to secure it with his left hand without knocking it forward in the process.
From there, Suli seized his opportunity, outpacing John Sutton on the sideline, as Garrick ran up on his outside for support. By the time Garrick was in position to score, however, only Campbell Graham and Braidon Burns were behind Suli, who’d achieved enough momentum to crash over the chalk. This time, Grant Atkins referred the decision to the Bunker, but the replay showed – amazingly – that Suli had managed to secure possession safely, despite a very dangerous football.Embed from Getty Images
It was an incredible moment for Manly, who had narrowed the scoreline as quickly as South Sydney had expanded it – and an amazing moment for Suli, who’d had a few messy moments over the course of the afternoon, but more than delivered here. Conversely, it was the nadir of the match for South Sydney, not just because of Suli’s role in the controversial earlier try, but because that try had also depended on a Hail Mary pass from DCE right on the line that had the opposite effect to Cook’s.
In other words, the game was starting to bring back memories of the arm-wrestle that ensued when these two teams met in Brookvale in Round 4, giving it a really personal edge as the second stanza really got underway. For the second time since the break, Garrick missed the conversion, keeping the Rabbits four points ahead. The Sea Eagles got their next big chance with a dropout, on the back of a Doueihi error, but the Bunnies survived it, while milking a penalty from Sironen on the next set.
Sironen’s second efforts gave Reynolds another two points, but Cust responded with a superb one-man effort that saw him storm through the South Sydney defence, and then through Gagai, shortly after. Yet Gagai’s effort was even greater, forcing Cust to lose possession of the footy and gather it back into his body. In some ways, it wasn’t all that different from Suli’s earlier knock-on, but Manly’s missed try here also seemed to make up for that more controversial try, levelling the playing-field.
Nine minutes out from the end, the Sea Eagles levelled things in a different way, as Sironen broke through the line and sent the footy across to Marty Taupau, who wisely chose to take the tackle instead of opting for an offload then and there. Moments later, DCE sent through a grubber to the left side of the park, where the bounce defied Gagai, but was contained by Thompson, who gathered it into his chest and slammed it to ground to make it a two-point ball game.
With Garrick adding the extras from right in front of the posts, the two teams were locked up, bringing back memories of their golden point showdown earlier in the year. With Cade Cust and Manase Fainu off the field, too, there was considerable pressure on DCE and Elliot to maintain the Manly spine, especially when Reynolds booted through his second field goal of the year with five minutes left on the clock.Embed from Getty Images
It remained a one-point game right until the end, though, in a fitting sequel to Manly’s 12-1 win early in the year, and Souths will be keen to build on this momentum, and Reynolds’ superb form, when they travel to Townsville to take on North Queensland next week. On the other side of the Steeden, Manly came close enough to winning this to make it a particularly agonising loss, and they’ll be keen to take advantage of their home turf when they host the Eels at Brookvale next Sunday.