The first game of Round 22 saw the Tigers and Sea Eagles in a sombre, gritty mood. Last week, Manly had suffered an unexpected loss to the Warriors, while the Tigers had lost by two to the Bulldogs after Paul Momirovski struggled to put through what seemed to be a fairly straightforward conversion. To make matters worse, Robbie Farah had been taken from the field with a tibia injury that threatened to prevent him ever returning to the NRL, while Moses Mbye was also out of action.
Both teams therefore started the game with grim determination, moving the footy back and forth for the first couple of sets, and both clocking up a series of early errors. Only six minutes after replacing Farah, Jacob Liddle was taken off the field with what appeared to be a medial ligament injury, sustained during a collision with Tommy Talau, who was appearing for his debut game. The Tigers were now down to their third choice for hooker, as Elijah Taylor subbed on much earlier than expected.
Feeling the heat, the visitors now began to push the issue, with Esan Marsters staying in the tackle about five seconds too long after the Sea Eagles collected the high ball on the next set. While Marsters got away with it, Luke Brooks wasn’t as lucky, planting his knee right in Jack Gosiewski’s face after the Manly second-rower had fumbled the footy anyway. Punches were almost thrown, while the Tigers lost a critical chance to build momentum, giving the Sea Eagles another shot at the line.
David Nofoaluma now stepped up with a big defensive effort to bump Jorge Taufua into touch, foreshadowing the superb try that he would put down about twenty minutes later. Yet the Tigers now went four deep with their rakes, as Brooks momentarily slotted into the no. 9 position while Taylor got his head bandaged, barking out instructions to his teammates as the medics applied the wrapping.
The Tigers were really struggling to achieve field position, and had leaked a number of penalties, so it felt almost inevitable when Brendan Elliot made the first linebreak of the night, storming up the left edge of the park until he was brought to ground by a brutal trysaver from Corey Thompson. After making a second handling error, Gosiewski had some more heartbreak when he crossed over on the right edge after almost fumbling the footy again, only for a forward pass from DCE to deny the try.Embed from Getty Images
Tom Trbojevic now followed Elliot with a near-linebreak on the next Manly set, after a Luke Brooks bomb initially seemed to favour the Tigers, making his way halfway up the field before Matt Eisenhuth slowed him down and Oliver Clark finally halted his progress. A hand in the ruck from Michael Chee Kam got the Sea Eagles some more field position and momentum, but it was halted just as abruptly following an error from Moses Suli, as Manly kept struggling to turn their superiority into points.
The Sea Eagles got another near-try following a knock-on from Talau, and then a flop from Thompson, when Turbo chose to take a quick tap and ran at the uprights. Yet while he got to ground, he never got the footy to ground, leaving the Tigers as the one team he still hasn’t scored against during his NRL career. It didn’t matter, though, since DCE kicked for Gosiewski to score on the last tackle, providing some closure for both Turbo and Gosiewski’s earlier almost-tries.
This was also a brilliant sequence on its own terms, as DCE glanced over to Gosiewski to pass, but realised that it would be better to kick, making just enough contact with the football for it sit up on the try line after only travelling about five metres. The gather was just as good from Gosiewski, who came to ground, collected it into his chest, and then planted it on the turf, all in one dexterous motion. With Reuben Garrick adding the extras, Manly were 6-0, and seemed to be getting into gear.
Meanwhile, the news came out that Liddle’s injury was feared to be serious, keeping Taylor at hooker for the foreseeable future, and raising the prospect of Josh Reynolds’ return to first grade over the next couple of weeks. Still, Manly didn’t make the most of their momentum – at least not yet – as Apisai Koroisau knocked-on out of dummy half fifteen minutes from the siren, and then added a slow peel a minute later, setting up the Tigers for one of their most spectacular tries of 2019.
Taylor followed Turbo by taking a quick tap, getting Benji, Brooks and Nofa in place for a superb set piece and deception play. Taking the footy into the line, Benji dummied to Brooks, drawing DCE in off his line, and leaving a small space in the defence. Meanwhile, Nofoaluma surged over from the right edge, running a diagonal line to arrive right beside Benji right after he’d double-pumped to Brooks, where he collected the Steeden and stormed through a fractured Manly front to score.Embed from Getty Images
The Sea Eagles had to come back strong, and they did, responding with two rapid tries in the last five minutes before the siren. First, DCE and Gosiewski reprised their earlier tryscoring formation, although this time Daly had space to pass, sending his second-rower over before Talau could bring him down. Moments later, a pair of passes from DCE and Dylan Walker put Turbo through the line, before Tommy shifted the footy back outside to Walker to score at the end of his splendid run.
All of a sudden, the Tigers had a twelve-point deficit to make up when they returned from the sheds. Fifteen minutes in, everything seemed to converge against them once again, as Chris McQueen was taken off almost as soon as he came on, and the Sea Eagles got another dropout after Joel Thompson and Brendan Elliot forced David Nofoaluma in goal. They got another dropout almost immediately, after a deft Dylan Walker kick trapped Corey Thompson in goal, only for Jake Trbojevic to make a rare fumble after pulling back from a pass to Addin Fonua-Blake.
Yet another dropout followed, as Thompson took on Nofoaluma once again. This time, however, Nofoaluma had collected the footy and made his way eight metres back from the line, only for Thompson to link up with Jake Trbojevic to drag him back over the chalk. With that show of strength, the Sea Eagles had to score on the next set, and they did, as Taufua spun his way over the try line four tackles in, after the slightest and quickest of play-the-balls from Turbo.
Manly now reprised their five-minute double, scoring on the restart after a rapid sweep to the right. First DCE had the footy, then Walker, who paused just long enough before sending it across to Turbo in turn. The Manly fullback then showed some superb judgment, opting for a harbor bridge pass that allowed Garrick to pop the Steeden back into Suli to slam down another four points. While Garrick missed both conversions, Manly were still a comfortable twenty points ahead.
With nine minutes on the clock, Brooks and Momirovski added another six points to the board off the back of a terrific linebreak from Chris Lawrence. An equally brilliant linebreak from Benji a moment later made it look like the Tigers might go back to back, but the play didn’t quite come together, and the Sea Eagles remained fourteen points ahead. Two minutes out from the end, they resumed their twenty point lead when Fonua-Blake slammed over after big runs from Taufua and Turbo had utterly exhausted the Wests Tigers line.Embed from Getty Images
While the Sea Eagles were the favourites for the win, then, this was still a disappointing loss for the Tigers on the back of last week’s disastrous match against the Bulldogs. With Farah and Liddle both absent, they’ll be playing for pride when they host the Knights next week for their last game of the regular season. On the other side of the Steeden, Manly will be raring for a win over the Raiders at GIO to make their way into the top four, in what should be one of the best games of footy before finals begin.