Manly started out utterly dominant during the first quarter of Saturday night’s game at Brooky, gaining two successive restarts and then the first try four minutes in, thanks to a short ball from Danny Levi to Daly Cherry-Evans, and then a perfect pass from DCE to Morgan Harper. Harper hit the footy at speed, barged through Adam Doueihi, came up short of the line, but kept his elbow up and avoided a double movement as he lunged forward to put it down.
DCE swerved the conversion away from the posts, and Tevita Funa almost lost the kickoff, but it didn’t make a dent in the Sea Eagles’ momentum, as Harper made great metres up the right edge on the third, and DCE got Brad Parker room on the left with a wide ball a tackle later, while Moses Mbye knocked on Josh Schuster’s bomb to get Manly even more attacking position. By this stage the Tigers had only enjoyed 16% of possession – a mere 44 seconds with ball in hand – while the Sea Eagles continue to rack it up as Marty Taupau made a terrific offload in front of the posts to almost sent Addin Fonua-Blake across on the left edge.
Jack Gosiewski followed with more second phase play, Curtis Sironen took a run at the line, and DCE put Harper over the line with another short ball, but this time Thomas Mikaele got there in time, holding himself tight under the Steeden as the ex-Bulldog somersaulted over him. The replay showed this was closer than initially seemed, since there was no clear evidence that Harper hadn’t curved the ball down under the momentum of the tackle, leaving the Bunker no choice but to support the on field call of no try.
Benji Marshall tried to intercept DCE’s next pass to the left edge, but knocked it on instead, as the Sea Eagles got the scrum feed, and the other end of the park started to seem like a distant memory, especially since their scored on their very first play. All it took was another left sweep, a no-look pass out the back from Schuster, and a short ball from DCE to Jorge Taufua, who gathered the footy into his chest and came in low to carry David Nofoaluma over the chalk for another four points.
DCE’s next kick was straighter but still not quite straight enough, although the Sea Eagles couldn’t have been more dominant here, with 8 tackles to the Tigers’ 47, and then another burst of field position on the restart, when Mikaele tried to contain some great footwork from Schuster with a high hit late in the tackle count. Manly were inside the ten by the second play and DCE started another left sweep for Schuster to kick on the third, forcing Nofa to bump the ball into touch for the first dropout of the evening.
Marty Taupau took the first hit-up and, like Gosiewski on the previous first play, didn’t get an offload away. While Fonua-Blake managed some second-phase play on the second, Funa put it down to get the Tiges their first touch of the footy since the second minute. The visitors got another chance when Parker put down Benji’s next bomb, and scored off Benji’s boot a few tackles later, thanks to a beautiful grubber that Nofa chased down to ground one-handed before he and the Steeden tumbled into touch on the right wing – a grounding so soft that the cult winger seemed to conducting a symphony rather than playing first-grade footy.
The home crowd loved it when the footy fell off the tee before Doueihi’s kick, and cheered as it sailed away from the posts, but the ex-Rabbitoh’s aim was true, as the first conversion of the night narrowed the gap to two points. Manly resumed their lead immediately, however, when Josh Aloiai tried to give them a run for them money with some second phase play of his own on the first tackle, but instead shot it out to Fonua-Blake, who got his men restart off Aloiai a second later.
This was crunch time for the Tiges, as Sironen came up short on the right, and DCE followed Schuster with another tackle three kick, taking advantage of the sudden change in momentum to pop a grubber through the posts for Gosiewski to chase down and ground with only Joey Leilua left as last line of defence. This time Daly added the extras from right in front, although the Tigers responded with their ballsiest defence so far to avoid another dropout. First, Nofa caught DCE’s bomb on the full and passed it out to Asu Kepaoa; then the no. 5 was drive back over the try line by a massive Manly pack, only to pop a wide ball across to Doueihi to bring it back in field, where he collected the footy again from Brooks to put the near-dropout behind him.
This was still a worrying set for the Tigers, though, who were kept in their own end until the fourth, when a cascade of great runs – a linebreak from Harry Grant bookended by efforts from Brooks and Joey Leilua – got them back down the other end. This was an amazing set from slow start to fast finish, but the Tiges couldn’t complete satisfactorily, while an obstruction error from Mbye got Manly the footy once again, and a chance to build on their 78% possession.
Even with these last few sets, the Tigers had only had the ball for three and a half out of the last 25 minutes of play – and Manly showed no signs of slowing down, as Taniela Paseka took two big runs, DCE sent a wide ball out to Albert Hopoate on the third, and then executed a superb sequence to get the Sea Eagles their next dropout – a short ball out to Sironen on the right, and then second play from Sironen to grubber for Jake Trbojevic, who would have scored if Benji hadn’t taken advantage of an errant bounce to boot it into touch.
Brooks went long on the dropout, Schuster collected it at the Manly forty, Leilua was pinged for a strip on the second, Gosiewski restarted at the ten, and Grant held up Sironen on a right sweep, but conceded a penalty in the process. All things considered, the Tigers weren’t doing too badly to be only eight behind here, but the gap expanded quickly when Funa smashed through a tackle later, collecting a wide ball from Levi, then dummying right a storming through three defenders to plant it down with his right palm.
With DCE slotting through the second kick of the night the Sea Eagles reached twenty points, although the Tiges got their second big let-off when Levi coughed up the footy into a combined tackle from Luke Garner and Eljiah Taylor early in the restart. A ruck error from Harper got them their first real attacking opportunity a moment later, but Harper got his own back by cleaning up a Benji kick on the last. Still, the Tigers built on this momentum at the back of Benji’s next effort with the boot, as Mbye muscled his way into the defence, Kepaoa made thirty metres up the left edge to get his men six again, and Leilua almost sent Sam McIntyre on the right.
Brooks now set up Taylor for a big run, and Grant almost popped through on the third, but the Tigers couldn’t quite capitalise on their left sweep. With two tackle left, Grant was cleaned up in the middle of the park, and Brooks chipped to the left, where DCE came up with it, but was cleaned up in goal before booting through his first dropout of the night. Once more the Tiges got six again, this time four tackles in, so they had to show that they could build on accumulated field position as well as – or even better than – Manly, especially since they got their first penalty a play later, when Schuster came in too high to contain a no-look pass from Benji to Garner.
Jorge Taufua and Danny Levi had both left the park for injury a minute before, and the Tiges now set out to make the most of a reshuffled back line as Benji started with a rainbow ball to Kepaoa, Eisenhuth offloaded to McInture, and Brooks grubbered on the second, only for Parker to clean up the footy before it arrived in goal. Worse still, the Sea Eagles got a penalty when Nofa dragged Parker in goal after the play was complete, but things came apart when a DCE wide ball caused chaos on the right edge, where Hopoate managed to pop it back into the field of play, but Schuster lost it, producing a zero tackle set for the Tigers that ended with the unlikeliest tryscoring sequence.
It started with Benji’s worst ball of the night, which he effectively bounced, NBA-style, out to the wing, where Joey Leilua tapped it on for Nofa to scoop it up, slide back in field, and slice through a gap between Funa and Croker. In effect, Leilua corrected Benji’s pass, translating it back from basketball to football, and transforming it back to the trajectory that his five-eighth should have produced. Doueihi added the extras again and, little by little, the Tigers were turning this into a genuine contest.
Nevertheless, the first ten minutes back were all penalties and errors from the Tigers, starting with a dangerous hit from Benji, and proceeding through a quartet of Leilua errors – three mistakes from Joey and a ruck infringement from Luciano – before Parker finally followed a Nofoaluma mistake with one his own. It was impressive, then, that the Tigers were still the next to score, thanks to exactly the short sharp play they needed to self-correct and get themselves back into the game – a one-man effort from Mbye who collected the footy, dummied, broke through the line and got the footy down with his right hand while fending away Funa at the last.
This was probably the weakest moment of the night from DCE, who misread the play and instead went for Luciano Leilua, while the Sea Eagles as a whole were smarting after Taufua failed to return to the park during this second stanza, having suffered an Achilles injury that will sadly see him out for the rest of the 2020 season. It didn’ttake them long to recover, however, since they scored off their next dropout, which came when Nofa leaped up to catch the high ball, missed it, and was forced to bump it into touch as Parker chased him down.
Tapau made his hardest run of the night to get things rolling, Fonua-Blake followed him up the middle, Trbojevic set up Sironen for a strong run on the third, and Corey Waddell continued to exhaust the defence on the fourth. Finally, Taupau bookended the sequence with possibly the deftest assist of his career, capping off a terrific sequence for the Sea Eagles’ big men with a short ball for Trbojevic to crash over the posts, bring them to yet another eight point lead when Daly added the two.
DCE was back on track with his fourth try assist after a cough-up from Garner and crowding penalty from Grant bumped up Manly’s field position once again, receiving the footy from Levi and sending out a wide pass that looked destined to arrive at the wing. Harper showed he could do as well with DCE’s long balls as his short balls, effectively intercepted the right sweep to pivot away from Doueihi and slide past Kepaoa for another six points once DCE converted.
Yet it was Harper’s error, and the subsequent Captain’s Challenge that DCE wasted trying to contest it, that set up the Tigers for their next try, as a pair of ruck infringements from Parker and Harper himself laid the platform for the simplest and most elegant four points from the visitors all night. All it took was a deft catch-and-pass from Benji, and well-timed assist from Mbye, who almost fumbled the footy forward but recovered perfectly to send Doueihi across in the left corner. Doueihi made the conversion, and for a moment this felt like it might be a consolation effort, so muted and quiet did it seem.
In retrospect, though, that was perhaps more a reflection of how effortlessly these six points came, since the Tigers gained their best acceleration so far with the first back-to-back effort for either team a minute later. Aloiai injected good energy on the restart, Garner followed, Alex Twal headed towards the middle of the park, and Brooks and Benji found some space for Joey Leilua on the right edge on the fourth. They were unlucky not to get a penalty when Fonua-Blake didn’t roll away from the ruck, but still accelerated quickly on the last, when Doueihi fended off Hopoate and set up a rapid sweep to the right edge that ended with Nofoaluma putting down a hat trick with the same ease and relaxation he’d scored his previous two tries.
For the first time Doueihi missed the kick, but the deficit was only four points, while the Tigers got their last big chance with a scrum off a Funa error, four minutes out from the end. Benji took the first carry and was cleaned up in the middle of the park by Fonua-Blake, Twal barged into the defence on the second, Brooks sent it out to the right on the third, where Benji responded with a harbour bridge ball to Nofoaluma that didn’t go anywhere, and Grant was cleaned up a moment later.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, however, as Brooks chipped his best kick of the night to the left on the last, where Doueihi leaped above Harper to catch it on the full and slam it down in one magnificent motion for the match-winning try. Brooksy had spent the first five minutes of the warm up practicing precisely these kicks, and it brought the Tigers from a 32-18 deficit ten minutes out to a 32-34 win after Doueihi booted through his last conversion of the night.
This is the kind of comeback that the Tiges have often failed to pull off during the 2020 season – and for a moment this looked like exactly the kind of frustrating finish that has become their stock in trade in recent times, so this was a sublime ending, a reminder of how much potential they have once they find a way to regroup and regather. They’ll be looking for another barnstorming game – albeit a more consistent game – when they take on the Rabbitohs next Thursday night, while Manly will need a big one against the Bulldogs the following night to regroup after what seemed like certain competition points for the majority of this evening’s fixture.