ROUND 7: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (Central Coast Stadium, 28/6/20)

Manly had substituted Brendan Elliot for Tom Trbojevic and Lachlan Croker for Dylan Walker when they hosted the Sharks at Central Coast on Sundat afternoon, although they did have Jorge Taufua back on the wing to help compensate for their disastrous run of injuries against Canberra the week before. On the other side of the Steeden, Cronulla had one won a single game against Manly during their last ten fixtures – in 2016, their premiership year – so they were keen to take advantage of the depleted Sea Eagles line this afternoon. They got the first penalty when Jake Trbojevic was called offside, but Reuben Garrick – who took over the fullback role for Elliot immediately – collected the ball pretty easily at the end of it all, while Briton Nikora conceded an offside penalty a few plays later. Garrick followed with a scintillating run up the middle on the third play, but Braden Hamlin-Uele also cleaned up Daly Cherry-Evan’s final kick pretty easily, and so the Sharks got rolling again. A moment later, Shaun Johnson sent the ball over the sideline, giving his men some breathing-space as they packed the scrum, laying the long platform for their first four points.

Manly got two successive calls of six again at the start of the next set, and Addin Fonua-Blake broke out of a tackle for a twenty-five metre run on the second effort, but Josh Dugan conclusively shut down Curtis Sironen on the right edge, before collecting DCE’s kick at close range, bringing the best period of Manly field position so far to an abrupt end. Jack Williams fumbled the play-the-ball a few sets later, and the Sharks could conceivably have taken a Captain’s Challenge since Croker was lying in the ruck, but in the end Croker put down a pass from Trbojevic on the following set anyway, after Dugan made another heroic tackle when Elliot tried to fend past him on the right wing. This seemed to galvanise the Sharkies, who now executed one of their best sets so far, with Dugan once again proving the difference, making good metres up the left sideline to get his team a second successive restart. Chad Townsend and Johnson went left on the last play, but Manly had learned from Sione Katoa’s spectacular hat trick last week, and brought in a wall of maroon jerseys to shut him down as he tried to cross over.

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The Sharks now swept right, where Dugan made another tough carry, before Townsend shaped to kick but instead made a no-look pass to Hamlin Uele, who busted through Thompson, crawled along the ground, and scored beside the posts, holding himself aloft with his right arm while keeping his left elbow off the turf. It was a big like watching Greg Inglis’ iconic Goanna post-try celebration before the try was scored, bringing Cronulla to a six point lead when Johnson booted the extras through the uprights. Garrick’s kick wasn’t a stark contrast – twenty metres over the goal line – and the Sharks got their restart from halfway up the field, almost sending Hamlin-Uele over in the same spot, only for Thompson to jam in for a terrific trysaver, before Sironen forced an error from Aaron Woods on the last. Woodsy took out some of his frustration with a high hit on Brad Parker a moment later, but recouped to prevent a late offload from Fonua-Blake late in the tackle count, before Nikora made one of the best one-on-one tackles of his career on DCE, slamming the Manly halfback to ground and forcing Garrick to take the kick on the last.

In a sudden shift in momentum, though, Garrick’s kick split Moylan and Bryson Goodwin, who found the footy ricocheting back into his chest before he could gather it. This was the opening Manly needed, and they looked much more organized on the restart, with Croker and Trbojevic building momentum in front of the posts, before Danny Levi started a right sweep that ended with Tevita Funa withstanding a huge pack effort to remain in the field of play on the right edge. Thompson almost barged through four defenders ten metres in field, and DCE and Croker responded with a rapid sweep to the right, where Parker dodged and wove around a tackle from Katoa to shoot out a brilliant assist to welcome Taufua back with the first Manly try of the afternoon. Garrick missed the conversion, but the Sea Eagles had still made a statement, and got six again on the restart, so it was an even bigger statement when Townsend made a daring strip on Garrick early in the tackle count. Unfortunately for the away crowd, Moylan coughed up the ball as the rain started to slicken every surface, before finding himself offside at the end of the next set, allowing Garrick to finally level the score by booting through the first penalty goal of the match.

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Both teams searched for the next four points for a while, before an error from Parker unleashed a torrent of Cronulla points that continued into the other side of the break. The first try was disarmingly simple – a visionary kick from Johnson, who dropped the ball onto the right boot, and sent it spinning past Taufua to the in goal, where Katoa collected the bounce on the full and slammed off Garrick to put down another four points. Johnson now had the most try assist of 2020, while Moylan had also demonstrated good foresight by releasing the footy early to his five-eighth. Moylan was even more spectacular a few sets later, when he headed left on the last, and actually let the Steeden hang in his left hand, before seeing there was nothing doing on that side of the park, and so swiveling back away from Fonua-Blake, drawing in Thompson and banging a short ball out to Jesse Ramien, who sliced through CROKER and Parker to bring the Sharkies to triple the Sea Eagles at 6-18 when Johnson added the conversion. They came back from the sheds just as strong, as Andrew Fifita got them brilliant field position on the first carry, compounded by a restart and strong run from Toby Rudolf.

Finally, Townsend mirrored Johnson with an equally brilliant kick to the other side of the park, where Dugan capped off an enormous first forty by mirroring Katoa as well, collecting the footy on his chest to get down right in front of the dead ball line with Funa on his back. The Sharks followed with a dropout, and yet Manly momentarily seemed to have been let off the hook when Townsend couldn’t secure a loose ball on the second play. They got a restart on the first carry, Elliot did well to hold onto the footy during a combined tackle  from Townsend and Wade Graham, and Croker tapped the high ball back in field, where Marty Taupau kicked for a second time, only for Katoa to roll over a massive tackle from Trbojevic to avoid a Manly dropout. Katoa’s journey back from in goal was the key turning-point here, especially with Funa pinged for being offside a moment later, as the Sharkies went from preventing a dropout to gaining one at the end of this same set, thanks to a brilliant kick of the side of the boot from Johnson, and a superb chase from Katoa and Ramien, that saw Taufua unable to quite mirror Katoa, coming to ground just on the cusp of the goal area.

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Fifita now made a deft crossfield run on the first, and Moylan hesitated for the second but regathered with a wraparound pass to Nikora, before Johnson made a beautiful harbor bridge pass out to Goodwin, who fended off Funa and then burrowed low into Garrick to slam down the ball on the left wing. Johnson missed the conversion, but the Sharks didn’t have to wait long to score again, in what was becoming an absolutely catastrophic match for the Sea Eagles. They applied massive defensive pressure next time Manly had ball in hand, and Goodwin then cleaned up a desperate bomb from DCE, who was struggling to come up with last tackle options commensurate to how far his team had fallen over the last thirty minutes. The Sharks almost scored at the end of the next set, when Croker got a touch to Moylan’s kick, and Ramien kicked it forward, and Moylan scooped it up and slammed into a sea of Manly jerseys for a twist and spin to the right of the posts, but found Taufua too much for him. Still, Cronulla got another set, and scored immediately off an incredible pair of catch-and-passes – the slightest of tap-ons from Johnson to ferry the footy from Blayke Brailey to Townsend, and then a sublime pass on the ground from Townsend for a Katoa double.

In slow motion this whole sequence looked more like volleyball than rugby league – a beautiful passage of aerial dexterity that recalled Manu and JWH’s incredible linkup against the Dragons on Friday night. Full credit has to go to Katoa for the putdown as well – both the left foot pivot away from Croker and Garrick, and the soaring flight through the air, which made the one-handed grounding seem like a mere afterthought. This time Johnson got the sideline conversion, booting it straight through the posts from long range to bring his men to 6-34, while Nikora was staunch on the next Manly set when Croker tried to break through the line. For a moment Fonua-Blake seemed to have built on his five-eighth’s momentum another thirty metres up field, in front of the posts, but Graham brought him down by the back of the jersey, before Moylan executed a one-on-one strip at the very moment that the other Cronulla defenders dispersed from the tackle. Royce Hunt made a charging run up through middle a play later, but a slight bobble from Nikora prevented the visitors from capitalizing then and there. Indeed, after such a dominant period, this brief chink in the Sharkies’ armour seemed to slightly revitalize the Sea Eagles, who scored a few minutes later.

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The vision came from Jake Trbojevic, who collected a short ball from DCE in the middle of the park, broke through the line, and then shifted the footy back to Fonua-Blake for the second Manly try. Garrick added the extras, and so the Sea Eagles had a shot at a comeback if they could just consolidate here, since Jake had seemed to be running for both Trbojevic brothers, rallying his team to recognise what they could achieve if they started firing on all cylinders again. Sure enough, DCE got them a much-needed dropout – the perfect moment to consolidate –  but it all came to nought after a lost ball from Sironen on the very first play. This was too good an opportunity for Cronulla, who pretty much picked up where they had left off, starting with a restless run from Ramien, who dodged away from several defenders before Hunt straightened the play with another huge carry up the middle of the park. Woods barged straight into Fonua-Blake on the third, and Hamlin-Uele took the fourth, before Moylan’s kick ricocheted off DCE’s knee and into a sea of Manly jerseys, where Sironen was unable to clean it up, leaving it open for Brailey to scoot around and pop down the softest try of the night.

This was a pretty lucky call for Cronulla, since the on field ruling of try seemed to steer the Bunker away from Graham’s effort on Sironen, as another conversion from Johnson brought the Sharkies to a clean forty points. It was entirely plausible that they would break the fifty mark – and no team has won the premiership after conceding fifty points or more – so the last two four-pointers from Manly were significant consolation tries. The first came with a superb offload on the ground from Sironen to put Fonua-Blake over for a double, while the second came three minutes out from the end, when a pair of penalties from Graham and Ramien gave the Sea Eagles the accumulated field position they needed for DCE to send Funa over on the right corner. Despite these last two tries, however, this was a pretty dire display from Manly, even with their significant injury tally, so they’ll be looking for answers this week as they prepare to take on the Knights at Brooky on Sunday afternoon, for their first real home game after returning from lockdown. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a superb win for the Sharkies – again, even given Manly’s missing players – so they’ll be looking to keep piling on points when they meet a resurgent Gold Coast outfit at Cbus next week.

About Billy Stevenson (497 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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