ROUND 6: Canberra Raiders v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Campbelltown Stadium, 21/6/20)
Sunday afternoon’s game started with a big pair of injuries for the Sea Eagles, who lost Dylan Walker and Brad Parker on their second and third sets. At first, Manly looked well placed to capitalise on an early surge following the first error of the match from Curtis Scott, but three tackles in Walker got caught beneath Elliott Whitehead, leading to a sustained stoppage in play that ended with Lachlan Croker subbing on for him. Two tackles into the next set Parker slid on the ground, where his neck made contact with the right knee of Iosia Soliola, who was unfairly penalised for what was clearly an accidentally dangerous tackle. Parker immediately froze, prone, to make sure there hadn’t been any damage, and was thereafter replaced by Jack Gosiewski, who copped an enormous hit from Corey Horsburgh on his very first carry. The Raiders got the first restart next time they had ball in hand, and Curtis Sironen took out his team’s frustration with big contact on Horsburgh, before George Williams kicked to the right edge, where Nick Cotric tapped the ball back to Soliola, who would have scored if not for a combined trysaver from the two interchange players.
Seeing Gosiewski and Croker step up in such an emphatic manner seemed to steady the Sea Eagles, especially once Daly Cherry-Evans ran a few extra metres after shaping to kick, forcing Jordan Rapana to bring the footy back from the Canberra line. Still, it didn’t take long for the Raiders to accumulate some more field position, thanks to an overlong kick from Croker that gifted them a seven tackle set, when they got another restart, and then another six tackles when a well-placed kick from Jack Wighton to the right corner caught Croker outside. This was Canberra’s best attacking opportunity so far, but it came to nothing when Rapana coughed up a wide pass from Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad on the third play. Manly got a penalty on the next tackle, when Scott was pinged for a strip on Gosiewski, and then a cascade of field position, as restart followed restart and Tom Trbojevic made his way to the left edge. Once there, Turbo executed one of his toughest plays this year, moving from the inside to outside shoulder of Scott, fending off Cotric, and then withstanding a second tackle from Scott, who he carried with him over the line as CNK tried in vain to get his hand beneath the ball.Embed from Getty Images
This was a big statement for Manly after their disastrous opening, putting them six points ahead once Reuben Garrick added the extras. For a moment, they seemed to have sacrificed some rhythm when Gosiewski put down a pass from Danny Levi on the restart, but Gosiewski got the ball back sooner than he was expecting, taking the first carry a second later, after Wighton followed in his footsteps by coughing up a pass from Josh Hodgson on the first play out of the scrum. The set fizzled, though, when Levi was forced to kick on the last, although the Sea Eagles got a booster with another restart next time they got ball in hand, sweeping right late in the tackle count, where Wighton prevented Sironen getting a good offload away ten metres out. Wighton made an even better tackle on the last play, preventing Brendan Elliot crashing over off a short ball from DCE, as news emerged from the sheds that neither Walker nor Parker would be returning to the park this afternoon. Meanwhile, Levi went hooker-on-hooker with a massive hit on Hodgson, as the Sea Eagles started to dominate possession, with 62% of the ball, along with an 88% completion rate to Canberra’s 73%.
Croker now leaked the second Manly error of the gane, but the Sea Eagles followed with one of their strongest defensive sets so far, ending with Croker and Funa cleaning up Cotric right on the line. Elliot glimpsed some space on the right edge three tackles later, and DCE tried to tap into his momentum by kicking down the same side, but the Raiders recovered without too much trouble, while the away crowd breathed a sigh of relief when Elliot got back to his feet after appearing to sustain a knee injury during his right side raid. Turbo withstood three Raiders to prevent a dropout as the light turned golden over Leumeah, but Canberra were starting to improve their field position, getting an extra burst of energy when Sivila Havilii came on for Corey Horsburgh. They got a repeat set a second later, and then a penalty after Addin Fonua-Blake was called offside, finally consolidating with a massive trio of runs from short-range – Guler, Tapine, and then Guler again, when DCE slammed in with one of the best tackles of the night right beneath the posts, forcing the Canberra no. 15 to bobble the ball ever so slightly as he came to ground.Embed from Getty Images
The Raiders looked good to score here, so this was a big boost for Manly, and Elliot responded by attempting big runs on both sides of the field. He didn’t break through, but the Sea Eagles were still building energy, and capitalised on it after a pair of Canberra penalties five minutes out from the siren – a strip from Hodgson, and holding back from Williams. Both times they chose to tap and go, and on the second restart, Turbo collected a wide pass for another great contest with Scott, who he turned inside out after running through the line, opening up space for Tevita Funa to roll through Williams and Cotric for the second Manly try, bringing them to a twelve point lead when Garrick made it two from two. Turbo was just as great in defence, knocking back the high ball from Williams a set later, while the Raiders didn’t do much better when they got back from the break, despite a pair of big opening bombs from Wighton and Williams. Both Whitehead and Havilii made errors, and while Canberra defended well enough to prevent the Sea Eagles building on their mistakes, there was a strong sense that Manly would have well and truly claimed the game if they scored the next try.
It was a big twist, then, when Wighton made the catch-and-pass of the night, leaping up to collect a high pass from Hodgson and then popping it on to Whitehead, who pivoted away from Garrick, brushed through a low tackle from Turbo, and swung around to score behind the posts, making it a six point game after Jarrod Croker slotted through the first Canberra conversion from right in front. Sutton, Havilii, Whitehead and then Sutton all made big carries on the restart, before Turbo cleaned up the final kick, only to grab his left hamstring after emerging from an awkwardly angled tackle from Guler and Wighton. Tom now became the third Manly player to return to the sheds, leaving the Sea Eagles with one man on their bench after Sean Keppie ran on to the field and took the first hit when the set resumed, as Elliot moved into the fullback position and Gosiewski took left centre. Keppie worked hard to make up for Turbo’s loss, making a deft offload to Fonua-Blaker two tackles later, getting the Sea Eagles a restart when Hodgson tried to strip the footy in response. They received six again on tackle four after a neat dummy and run from Croker on the left side of the field, marking the start of their most sustained period of field position all night.Embed from Getty Images
Keppie continued to step up as an interchange, taking the first tackle once again, before the Sea Eagles opted to take the two following an offside error from Williams, as Garrick kicked through the penalty goal to bring his men to an eight point lead. Yet another restart ensued following a high shot from Sutton on Levi, as the Sea Eagles accelerated into one of their most promising left sweeps, only for the game to pause when Croker was downed with a leg cramp. With that left edge rhythm evaporated, Manly headed right, but by this stage the constant restarts were almost working against them, fragmenting their form into their most disorganized last play option in some time – an overlong kick from DCE that got Canberra a seven tackle set just when Manly could and should have scored off a dropout. A better kick chase might have turned this kick into a try, but instead the Raiders seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief as they settled into their first set, and their most elastic sequence of passes in some time. Scott got the ball back on the last, and Williams made a second kick, but this time Elliot caught it, as news returned from the sheds that Turbo was likely facing a Grade 2 injury, and approximately six weeks off the park.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Steeden, everything came together for the Raiders a set later, when Williams kicked to the left of the posts, where Croker leaped up, caught the footy clean in both hands, and got to ground in the same arcing motion, appearing to get it down securely in the midst of a combined defensive effort from Sironen and Garrick. In an agonising revelation for Canberra, however, the Bunker replay showed that Croker didn’t quite manage the final degree of this arc, losing the ball the moment before he hit the grass, and so sacrificing what would easily have been one of the most elegant and geometric tries of 2020. In retrospect, this was a major turning-point for the Sea Eagles, who might not have survived with two Canberra tries on the board, but managed to defend their eight point lead courageously over the final quarter of the game. With sixteen minutes on the clock, they needed to put down another try to secure their position, but in lieu of that they just kept the Raiders out again and again, culminating with a sublime flick pass from Croker that seemed destined to put Rapana over the chalk, only for Sironen to storm in at the very last second for the trysaver of Round 6.Embed from Getty Images
The Raiders seemed even more rattled by this aborted try than by Croker’s bobble under the high ball, as Rapana and Havilii and Horsburgh made a series of errors that guaranteed Manly most of the field position in the last five minutes of the match. Canberra got their last big opportunity with two minutes on the clock, but the Sea Eagles kept them in their own end, wrapping up the play at the forty metre line. They ended up maintaining their eight point lead – a truly heroic result for a match that had started with Suli and Taupau off the park, and proceeded through Walker, Parker and finally their fullback being taken off for medical injuries. In other words, this was just the rallying victory that Manly need to take on the next six weeks without Turbo – and more immediately, their match against the Sharks at Central Coast next week – while the Raiders will be looking for a big win against the Eels as well to make up for a pretty disappointing second stanza here. That said, Parra will also be galvanised following their loss to the Roosters, meaning that Canberra will have a challenge on their hands, in what promises to be one of the hardest fought contests of Round 6.
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