The Sea Eagles were back at Brooky for the first time since lockdown when they hosted the Knights on Sunday afternoon. Both teams went set for set as the shadows stretched over the ground, and the first real disruption came when Edrick Lee simply allowed an off-kilter DCE kick to bounce over the sideline. Newcastle got the first scrum of the afternoon, and Lachlan Croker made the first error with a fumbled play-the-ball, while Mitchell Pearce secured the first dropout with a well-weighted kick past Reuben Garrick to the right corner. However, the repeat set was paused when Lee got medical attention for what seemed to be a forearm fracture, and was then taken off the field, replaced by Tex Hoy, as DCE finally booted the dropout back beyond the forty, forcing Daniel Saifiti, David Klemmer and Herman Ese’ese to make big runs to bring the ball to the twenty by the third tackle. The Knights now accelerated, as Kurt Mann dashed up the left edge, and Klemmer offloaded back inside to Danny Levi, starting a sudden right sweep that ended with Kalyn Ponga switching the direction again with a wraparound pass to Sione Mata’utia on his inside.
Once more, Pearce trapped Tevita Funa in goal for another dropout, and once more there was a brief pause as Grant Atkins referred the play upstairs for a potential penalty try after DCE pulled back the left hand of Lachlan Fitzgibbon on his way to the ball. The Bunker replayed the footage about ten times to gauge just how much of a difference the arm pull had made to the play, eventually deciding on a professional foul and sin bin for the Manly captain – a pretty big blow with Lee already off the field. The Sea Eagles had now lost two of their big playmakers before successive dropouts, and lost the second dropout in the process, which now became a penalty kick from Ponga. This had been pretty uncharacteristic for DCE, who had never been sent to the bin before, and cost his men some momentum, with Croker making his second handling error a set later, when he put the ball down cold off a pass from Danny Levi midway up the park. A moment later, Ponga scooped up the footy out of dummy half and popped it across to Mann, who in turn shifted it across to Tex Hoy for what would have been a try on the wing if Ponga’s pass hadn’t been correctly called forward.Embed from Getty Images
Still, Curtis Sironen broke the scrum too early, and Newcastle continued right where they left off, as Andrew McCullough gathered the ball on the try line, dummied to the right, and then burned through Levi to slam down the first four points beside the posts, putting Newcastle eight ahead once Ponga added the extras. Garrick collected Pearce’s next kick with confidence, and tempted Klemmer into a crusher tackle, as Manly searched for their first play-the-ball within the Knights’ twenty. Marty Taupau made a bold offload on the second play, and ended up sending the footy fifteen metres backwards, although the Sea Eagles recovered the lost field position with a set restart a moment later. Addin Fonua-Blake muscled his way up through the ruck, Jake Trbojevic followed on the left side of the field, Croker popped a harbour bridge pass to Bradley Parker, and DCE trotted back out onto the park, but not in time for the kick, as the set ended with a regulation grubber from Croker that Ponga was able to secure without too much trouble. The Knights had capitalised on DCE’s absence, but the deficit of eight points wasn’t too dramatic if the Sea Eagles could come back here.
That’s just what they did, as DCE made up for his ten minutes off the park in the most spectacular way imaginable. It all started with the Sea Eagles applying good pressure on their next defensive outing, trapping the Knights in their own end before a strong tackle from Trbojevic forced an error from Enari Tuala. Manly headed left out of the scrum, where Parker and Fonua-Blake took successive carries, before DCE started a rapid right swing that concluded with a cut-out pass to Suli, who was bundled up on the edge. Joel Thompson barged at the line on the right corner, and then DCE found himself with the footy again in the middle of the field. You could see the intention on his face at the moment he received the ball, so it felt like a foregone conclusion when he swiveled away from Klemmer, and burst through a low tackle from Fitzgibbon – poetic justice – to put down the first four points. This was an utterly superb way for DCE to reassert himself after his absence from the field, and compensated for the six points that his sin bin cost his men – so superb, in fact, that it was almost worth Daly leaving the field to double down with such a decisive gesture of leadership a mere sixty seconds after he returned to play.Embed from Getty Images
He next kicked over the sideline, giving his men some time to catch their breath, but the Knights were determined not to allow this sublime display to crest into a full comeback, and dominated field position over the next ten minutes, thanks to a pair of errors from Taupau (dangerous tackle) and Garrick (offside) and then a pair of dropouts, before a Ponga error finally broke the steady accumulation of Newcastle possession. Sione Mata’utia was taken off the park soon after for an HIA, copping Cade Cust’s forearm in the face, and then Ponga slipped in a tackle from Parker on the right edge, but despite this deceleration the Knights ended the first stanza brilliantly, as Mann leaped above DCE to catch a Pearce kick on the full and put it down forty seconds out from half time. This was a beautiful combination, and a silky piece of play from Mann, who tapped the Steeden up in the air with his left hand, inadvertently knocking it over DCE, who didn’t get a finger to it before Mann recovered it and slammed it down. After the trauma of seeing Mata’utia so dazed, this was just the elegance, symmetry and dexterity that the Knights needed to head into the break with confidence, recovering their eight-point lead when Ponga added the kick on the siren.
They got rolling again with a barnstorming set three minutes back from the sheds, as Ponga showcased some of his fastest footwork on the first carry, but their rhythm was ruptured when Joel Thompson was subbed off for an HIA, forcing Jack Gosiewski to trot on earlier than expected. Fitzgibbon tried to recover their momentum with a big run up the left side, and McCullough made a good grubber to the corner on the last, but Manly survived, and got a boost on play one when Fitzgibbon was called offside. DCE was unable to get the ball out of play on the last, only driving it beyond the Knights’ thirty, although the Sea Eagles also amped up their defence to trap Newcastle within the twenty. A minute later, Pearce and Mann nearly drove Garrick back over the try line for a dropout, but instead they leaked a penalty, while Garrick shrugged off Ponga during the next kick chase, and Suli responded with a deft offload to Gosiewski, beforeTaniela Paseka also looked for an offload on the third play, resulting in the most restless set of the second half so far from the Sea Eagles. It ended with a terrific kick from Croker that Ponga caught on the line, pivoting 360 degrees around his left foot, and tempting Cust into a second effort to drag him over the sideline.Embed from Getty Images
As the fifty-minute mark arrived, Funa found himself at the end of a DCE bomb, crawling to the line and almost scoring only for Bradman Best to surge in for arguably the best trysaver of the night. The Sea Eagles still got the ball back, though, and DCE secured them a dropout with the next touch of the boot, while a restart midway through the next tackle count further augmented their field position. Following Best’s monster effort, McCullough stopped Parker crossing on the first carry, but Manly lost some momentum when Croker only just regathered a loose pass on the next play, forcing DCE to make a big fend on Fitzgibbon to stead the ship, before a pass to Fonua-Blake on the last ended with an eccentric Tapau kick that Ponga cleaned up right on the line. Taufua made a barnstorming run to start the next Sea Eagles set and Taupau followed his kick with a deft offload, but once again Ponga brought the footy back into the field of play at the end of it all, defying and surviving the most sustained period of attack from Manly this half. Both teams now went set for set, until Cade Cust crossed over beneath the posts, but the try was denied due to a knock-on from Parker while contesting the high ball with Ponga, who had been massive under kicks all night.
Still, Cust got his try on the back of an error from Enari Tuala, who made a slightly forward pass to Hymel Hunt midway up the park while bracing himself to accommodate a low tackle from Taufua. Garrick stepped up for the first tackle and DCE sent it across to Taupau on the second – a spine-heavy start that helped congeal this into one of the Sea Eagles’ most focused sets since the break. Trbojevic and Thompson followed with a pair of runs towards the left corner, where Levi secured six again with a run deep into the wing. Two tackles later, Cust shifted the direction of play with a soaring cut-out pass to the right edge, and Fonua-Blake responded with a good offload, gradually disorienting the Newcastle defence, until an extra burst of second phase play from Sironen set the scene for Cust to put down his fifth try in ninth games, after collecting the footy from DCE and weaving past three defenders to score beneath the posts. Garrick was always going to get the kick from right in front, but these would be the last points that Manly scored, even though DCE seemed to have put down the next try on the restart, booting the footy from the thirty, and then chasing it down to the ten, where he regathered it from Levi after a contest with Ponga in the air.Embed from Getty Images
The on-field ruling was try, and this would have been a rousing sequel to DCE’s comeback try, but the replay showed Levi had contacted the ball with his right hand and sent it into Ponga, who was taken off for an HIA after coming down unbraced, and virtually landing on his head, while twisting away from the Newcastle hooker. This put a real dent in Manly’s post-try momentum, and they struggled to match DCE’s energy over the remainder of the game, despite a successful Captain’s Challenge issued by and for the Captain himself, as DCE correctly contested a supposed error in the play-the-ball to show that there had been no really discernible bobble of the ball, and that Daniel Saifiti had been applying excessive pressure on his back anyway. Manly got the footy back, but Suli put down DCE’s next pass, forcing the Sea Eagles to wait until the very last set for their next tryscoring opportunity, which came off an offside downtown penalty for Klemmer. Thirty seconds out from the end, Cust bobbled and regathered the ball, and six seconds out a pair of short balls from DCE and Suli put Funa through the line on the right edge, where he kicked to the goal area for McCullough to launch himself on the football and appear to win the game for Newcastle.
In a final twist, the play was referred upstairs to see whether this might constitute a penalty try, and while Funa was never going to ground the footy, he appeared to be pushed in the back by Best after the ball left his boot, raising the question of why this wasn’t deemed a penalty – especially since the two points would have been pretty manageable from that position, and would have sent the game to Golden Point. After their win over Parramatta was called back due to a pretty questionable forward pass, this was a bitter pill for Manly to swallow, so it wasn’t surprising that DCE was remonstrating pretty vividly with the referee in the aftermath, nor that Fonua-Blake was sent off after the siren for a more colourful expression of emotion. Newcastle will be keen to build on this adrenalin and acceleration, then, when they take on the Eels for a top four blockbuster next Sunday afternoon. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty frustrating outcome from the Sea Eagles, who will be looking to come back big, and put down a bigger point differential by the final minutes of the match, when they rock up to take on the Dragons after the Newcastle-Parra game.