No team has been quite so integral to the 2020 season – or quite so heroic in their determination – as the New Zealand Warriors, who have braved homesickness and dramatic depletion to come away with some of their gutsiest performances in team history. Their last stint of the Covid season was a home game against Manly at Central Coast, with both teams playing for pride after being ruled out of the top eight by this final day of the regular football season.
They came away with an equally impressive win here, although the game started strong for the Sea Eagles, who got a pair of early restarts off ruck errors from Eliesa Katoa and Chanel Harris-Tevita. Daly Cherry-Evans capitalised as soon as he was in position, defying the wind blowing in from Brisbane Water by popping a beautiful high ball across to Reuben Garrick, who received it on the chest and crossed over untouched in the corner, before converting from the sideline a moment later.
Manly were more than two points per minute as DCE got them going on the restart with a bullet ball to Morgan Harper, involving himself heavily in this early play as he fed it again to Tevita Funa again a tackle later. Meanwhile, Peta Hiku was in the fullback jersey for the second and last time this year with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck looking on from the sideline, and struggled with his first challenge under the high ball, spilling the kick cold to get the Sea Eagles seven tackles in the New Zealand twenty.
The visitors got another burst of field position off a Hayze Perham knock-on a play later, and Corey Waddell consolidated just as quickly as DCE. Collecting a short ball from Danny Levi right on the line, he showcased some terrific footwork to dodge away from Hiku, and then some impressive strength to barge through a low tackle from Isaiah Papali’i and a follow-up effort from Perham to reach out his right hand and get the footy down.
Garrick might have missed this second conversion attempt but Manly were still more than a point per minute as the Warriors got their first touch of the footy since the very start of the game when Hiku collected his first DCE bomb. He had to bend right back to the grass, but looked a bit more confident beneath Daly’s next kick, waiting for it to bounce before getting his men rolling – a good move, since it set up New Zealand for their first restart, off a ruck error from Morgan Harper.
They couldn’t get to a decent conclusion, however, since Adam Keighran’s kick ricocheted off the defence and into the hands of Patrick Herbert, who was forced to collect it in a vulnerable position on the left edge, making it easy for Garrick to bundle him into touch. Conversely, the Sea Eagles looked strong on their left edge, when a Funa cut-out ball sent Abbas Miski through the line, where he was only just held up by a clutch tackle from Hiku.
For a moment it looked like Manly might still build on this momentum, but Waddell’s subsequent cut-out ball was less inspired, bouncing awkwardly in the middle of field, where Curtis Sironen reached out a hand to contain it but knocked on instead. This was just the rapid shift New Zealand needed, giving their big men their first real chance to lay a trail up the middle, and their first real incursion into Manly’s half of the park, albeit without getting any offloads away in the process.
Nevertheless, it all came together at the end, although this first try was more a matter of Manly complacency than New Zealand brilliance. Harris-Tevita ended with a pretty unchallenging kick – so unchallenging that Funa and DCE were too casual in communicating beneath it, resulting in a Funa fumble that left the footy open for Kodi Nikorima to sail in and put down the first try. Chanel added the extras a moment later and the deficit was back to four.
If the Sea Eagles’ defence here had been careless, their kickoff was negligent, with Marty Taupau called offside when DCE put boot to ball a second later. After spending most of the quarter in their own end, all it took was two tackles for New Zealand to take the lead, with Jazz Tevaga laying the platform, and Eli Katoa collecting a short ball from Nikorima on the second, slicing through Brad Parker and Lachlan Croker, dodging away from Funa, and coming to ground with Waddell wrapped around his torso.
New Zealand got another augmented restart when Sironen was pinged for a strip on Lachlan Burr late in the tackle count, and capitalised just as quickly and seamlessly. On the third play, Karl Lawton sent out a wide ball to Harris, who caught it on the ground and fed it on to Hiku, for the deep run into the defence that drew in DCE and the short ball that sent Keighran straight through Harper and Garrick to smash down untouched.
Chanel’s kick was probably his worst all afternoon, but still came close to curving through the breeze and back between the posts, only to bounce off the left upright to keep it a converted try lead. DCE took his time getting the ball on the tee, so his men were all onside when he sent it off, but it didn’t quench the Warriors, who were now on a roll, and would put down two more tries on the trot before the Sea Eagles got any significant possession.
They survived a Tevaga offload but turned it over immediately when Waddell was called offside, as the Warriors upped the pressure again, with Adam Blair and Burr taking the first two hits, and New Zealand opting for their second left side raid. This time Keighran went from scorer to assister, catching-and-passing to put Herbert over the line as Harper stormed in to try and shut it all down – a perfect fusion of Hiku’s previous short ball and DCE’s opening harbour bridge assist.
Once again, the combination of left sideline and Gosford wind defied Chanel’s boot, although he didn’t have to wait long for another conversion attempt, since Katoa put down a double as the half hour mark arrived. In the interim, Manly got a bit of ball when Perham knocked on Nikorima’s next bomb, and then infringed the ruck. Yet a Jake Trbojevic over-run and cough-up on the third set up New Zealand for their next four-pointer.
This was the first New Zealand try to come off a conventional full set, as Taunoa-Brown took the first hit-up, Papali’i the second, Blair the third (with a sharp offload out the back) and Taunoa-Brown the fourth, before Nikorima shifted it across to Harris-Tevita for a deft grubber that Katoa dove on at speed. Only Miski was in place to contest it, but he couldn’t match Katoa’s determination, and the conversion from Chanel brought the Warriors from a ten-point deficit to a sixteen-point lead.
Keighran almost scored the next try, off a linebreak from Hiku, but knocked on, bringing this great period of New Zealand tries – their most first-half points since 2017 – to a close. DCE now stepped into the spotlight with the first 40/20 of the game, and then the most inspired kick of the game – a daring crossfield effort from the Manly thirty that bounced perfectly when it arrived at the left sideline, careening away from Adam Pompey and straight into Miski’s hands.
Miski now made good on his earlier linebreak, getting around Pompey, bouncing off Hiku, and then swiveling away from his rival no. 2 a second time at the ten to put down the try needed to get Manly back in the game. This was a critical motivator on the brink of half time, so the Sea Eagles needed to continue this momentum back from the break – and they got their chance when Pompey fumbled a difficult kickoff, and Tevaga was called offside after regathering the footy.
Thirty seconds later, Manly showed they could sweep left as good as New Zealand, as pair of wide balls from Trbojevic and DCE set up Croker for one of the best try assists of his career – a languorous, sailing, cut-out ball that sent Miski over untouched in the corner. The Cedars international had now gone from his first NRL try to his first NRL double, scoring two tries in two minutes on either side of the break.
Garrick had the same issues from the sideline in exactly the same spot where Harris-Tevita missed his first kick, but this still felt like a consolidation moment for Manly, especially since both Miski tries had come off Pompey errors. They had to score next to really secure the comeback, but instead allowed the Warriors to execute their most daring try, and usher in their second big tryscoring sequence of the match.
This next try started with a successful Warriors Challenge to insist on a knock-on from Waddell – a risky move that seemed to embolden New Zealand out of the scrum, propelling Keighran, Papali’i, Tevaga and Harris into a quartet of big runs. Only Sean Keppie made a significant statement in defence, against Papali’i’ on the second, while Jack Murchie tried to compensate with a belated effort on Chanel after he got the kick away, getting a fist in his face without even attempting a regulation tackle.
One play later, Tevaga pulled off a risky offload to Egan, who got the first dropout for New Zealand at the end of the set with a sneaky grubber that trapped Funa with the footy in goal. Manly now started to tire, unable to take advantage of a second risky offload from Tevaga, a bobble from Harris, a long one-handed run from Papali’i as he secured an offload to Egan, or a pair of clutch catch-and-passes from Hiku and Keighran on play four.
In fact, this whole set hinged on uncontested high-risk play from New Zealand, so it felt almost inevitable when Keighran put down the simplest try of the night beneath Chanel’s kick, collecting the footy easily after both no. 5s lost it in the air, and popping it down before the Manly defence even registered he’d taken possession. Chanel might have missed the conversion again – the wind was tricky – but Keighran continued this rhythm with an even better try to secure a hat trick with fifteen minutes to go.
After a game packed full of sinuous linebreaks, this was the silkiest, as Keighran collected a short ball from Nikorima, slid past Albert Hopoate, and skipped over a pair of half-hearted ankle taps from Haumole Olakau’atu and Funa to put it down behind the posts. Setting up Chanel for a much-needed conversion from right in front, this was only Keighran’s fourth NRL try, and only his third game of the year, but the first Warriors hat trick since Hiku scored three against the Cowboys in Round 5.
Manly went short with the next kick-off, and it paid dividends, as a good catch from Miski and fumble from Harris got them into the groove for their fifth try. Harris-Tevita tried to motivate his men with a hit on Olakau’atu – Nathan Cleary-like in its courage against the forward pack – but the big men shrugged him off, and Pompey was forced to bump a Croker grubber into touch a few plays later.
Levi now got an offload away to DCE on the first, Taniela Paseka made good metres on the second, and Perham knocked on the third, possibly shifting it backwards to Nikorima but without a Captain’s Challenge left to contest it. Manly scored out of the next scrum, as Parker ran deep into the line on the left and Paseka mirrored him on the right, travelling that little bit further to reach out an arm and get the ball down through another David-and-Goliath effort from Chanel.
With Garrick adding the extras, the Sea Eagles were only two converted tries behind with ten minutes on the clock. One of the best comebacks of 2020 was still possible – just – but the Warriors put a pin in it next time they had ball in hand, opting for the same no-holds-barred play that had paid dividends twenty minutes before. Katoa offloaded on the very first tackle, and and Hiku on the last, getting his men a fresh set when Garrick reached out a hand to try and shut down the second phase play.
Tempers now flared between Herbert and Harper, yet even this fracas on the left edge worked to the Warriors’ advantage, making their subsequent shift to the right seem even more fluid. Harris-Tevita capped it off with a crossfield bomb and Herbert outran Garrick to catch it right where the fight had almost gone down. Manly still had one try left in the tank, though, as a great trio of passes from Trbojevic, Croker and Funa set up space for Parker to pivot away from Hiku and score down the left edge.
While Manly had the last word, this was still New Zealand’s game, both in terms of the final score line and the courage they have showed this season. After 148 days of football in Australia, they’ll finally be heading home, after making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that the competition continues in the Covid era. No doubt they’ll return stronger for that mammoth gesture when they clock in again at the start of 2021 – hopefully for a home round at Mt. Smart Stadium. They deserve it.