ROUND 23: Canberra Raiders v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (GIO Stadium, 25/8/19)

Canberra were coming off a last-minute win over Melbourne when they hosted the Sea Eagles at GIO on Sunday afternoon, while the visitors were raring to make their way into the top four after demolishing the Tigers at Brookvale the Thursday before. Josh Hodgson lost the footy almost immediately after a late offload from Iosia Soliola, but made up for it with an intercept on Jack Gosiewski, after a big tackle from Ryan Sutton on Jake Trbojevic put a dent in the Sea Eagles’ opening attack.

Hodgson’s error and correction set the stage for a remarkably evenly-paced first half of football, in which both teams continually seemed on the verge of scoring, and both teams proved brilliant at making up for occasional lapses in judgement. The pace was pummeling from the very outset, exuding the same intensity as the Broncos-Rabbitohs clash on Friday night, and it soon became clear that both sides would have to capitalise on whatever small advantages they could glean.

Fifteen minutes in, Daly Cherry-Evans got his team the upper hand with his third 40/20 of the year, but the field position was squandered when Addin Fonua-Blake made an error in the play-the-ball a second later, before following it with an offside penalty. There was a brief pause in the play after Sutton knocked his head, and then Jack Wighton resumed the acceleration by ferrying the footy up through the line and across the chalk, where only an enormous trysaver from DCE prevented him scoring.

Manly got their first penalty on the next set, thanks to a second effort from Jarrod Croker, and Dylan Walker almost scored a couple of tackles later, thanks in large part to an obstruction on John Bateman by Joel Thompson. This letoff seemed to inject a new energy into the Canberra attack, and sure enough Wighton made good shortly after, collecting the Steeden from Hodgson and double-pumping on the left edge, before shooting a bullet pass across to Elliott Whitehead to continue his rhythm

The big second-rower followed with a double pump of his own, making as if to offload while being held in the tackle by Moses Suli, but waiting just before hitting the ground to send the Steeden into second phase play. That brief lapse allowed Croker to speed up from his left, receive the footy, and change the direction of play, confounding the Manly defence, as he slammed down the first four points of the game, which became six once Croker had slotted the first kick through the posts.

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Possession was pretty even by the last ten minutes – 48% to Canberra, 52% to Manly – while both teams had completed 73% of their sets. The Sea Eagles were dramatically advantaged, then, by a small burst of field position that came off the back of three straight penalties. The extended set started with Jake Trbojevic collecting a Canberra kick and popping it back up to Tom to start moving up the field. While Manly lost the ball a moment later, it was deemed a strip by Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad, and they got a chance to resume their attack halfway up the park.

Wighton was the next to get pinged, after a massive hit on Dylan Walker, and when Hodgson was penalised for a hand in the ruck the sign came up from the sideline for the Sea Eagles to take the two and put some points on the board. Instead, they took on the line again, and very nearly scored, thanks to a DCE harbor bridge pass to Garrick, only for Wighton to put in one of the trysaving tackles of the season by launching himself around Garrick’s legs after Nick Cotric had slipped to the ground.

Canberra learned from Manly’s mistake, taking a penalty kick after Walker was called offside, setting the stage for a period in the game that was shaped by two-pointers. Despite losing both Joel Thompson and Moses Suli, the Sea Eagles rallied on the stroke of half time, with Garrick adding two consecutive kicks after Corey Horsburgh and Elliott Whitehead leaked penalties thirty seconds apart. Yet the Raiders resumed a converted try lead after returning from the break, when Croker booted through his 200th point after Jake Trbojevic got too keen in the tackle.

It was still a very close game, then, epitomised by a terrific contest between the two fullbacks under the high ball shortly after Croker made his milestone. One team needed to break the game wide open – and the Sea Eagles did just that, when Gosiewski intercepted a pass from Hodgson to Wighton right on the line, and carried the footy back up the field, before shifting it across to Garrick to put down an eight point try after the replay showed Joey Leilua leading with the knees once the Manly winger had scored.

Conveniently, the furore around Leilua eclipsed the question of whether Gosiewski was onside in the first place – he wasn’t – as Garrick got a double shot at goal to mirror his two penalty kicks at the end of the first stanza. The scoreline was now 10-12 and Manly were in front for the first time, although only one try had been scored apiece. By this point, both teams were into the top four on the live ladder, with the Raiders placed at third and Manly at fourth, as they ground in for one of the most barnstorming and volatile sequences of football this year.

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It was also one of the messiest, as the penalties and errors kept racking up, and each team grew more desperate to score what increasingly felt destined to be the match-winning try. With the mistakes and adrenaline escalating, a biff felt right around the corner, and sure enough Gosiewski and Wighton almost came to blows during a play-the-ball on the Sea Eagles’ right edge. Moments later Turbo broke through the line, at the end of Manly’s most plosive left sweep of the night, and got up to claim the try, only for the replay to show that Canberra’s pack defence had done its job.

By the twelve minute mark, there were more penalties than points. Manly now took control of the game with a short-range effort that was every bit as spectacular – and less questionable – than Gosiewski and Garrick’s long-range combination. Receiving a short ball from Apisai Koroisau right on the line, Jake Trbojevic shaped as if to send it out the back to Marty Taupau, but instead put his head down and burrowed through Josh Papalii to score right beside the posts, setting up Garrick for a pretty straightforward conversion.

This was a cathartic moment for Jake after losing the football a couple of sets before, while it was particularly frustrating for the Raiders in that the preceding bout of Manly possession had come off a questionable penalty on Whitehead for a ball strip on the right side of the field. Fuelled by those two pieces of good luck – and two tries that Manly perhaps didn’t deserve – the Rauders funnelled all their energy into their second and final four-pointer, which came very close to bagging them the game.

The play started with an amazing offload from Papalii, who was in the midst of being turned upside down by Taupau when he managed to get a hand out of the tackle and send the footy back infield. Following a parabolic arc, the Steeden somehow landed right in the paws of Wighton, who broke through the line, made it to the other end of the field, and condensed his speed and strength into a bullet pass to Hudson Young, who shifted it across to Croker in turn.

The length of Wighton’s run combined with the shortness of his pass made this one of the most breathtaking sequences, especially once Croker continued the momentum by curving around, in the face of a considerable Manly chase, to ground the footy as close to the posts as possible. Nevertheless, Croker’s kick bounced off the uprights, keeping the Sea Eagles a try ahead, and forcing the Raiders to aim for a converted try if they were going to have a chance of avoiding a loss or golden point.

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Yet the Sea Eagles held on, thanks in part to some incredible goal defence two minutes out from the siren, that culminated with a trysaving tackle from DCE on Whitehead, and a pack effort on Wighton that was also spearheaded by the Manly halfback. In the final minute of the match, the Raiders got their last set with twelve men in Canberra colours, after Morgan Boyle was sinbinned for a professional foul, having recently returned to the field after being taken off for a questionable HIA following a high tackle on Jordan Rapana earlier in the game.

A massive tackle from Koroisau on Horsburgh said it all during these final critical seconds, as the Sea Eagles walked away with one of their most valuable and hard-won efforts of the 2019 season. They’ll need that energy when they host the Storm at Brookvale next week, especially since Melbourne’s relatively lackluster effort over the Titans will incentivize a big game from the purple army. Meanwhile, the Raiders need to recover their morale as quickly as possible, and will be looking for a win – and a much bigger margin – when they travel to Cronulla to take on the Sharks in a week’s time.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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