ROUND 6: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Gold Coast Titans (Glen Willow Oval, 17/4/21)

There hasn’t been a better indication of Tom Trbojevic’s centrality to the Sea Eagles, both in terms of skill and culture, than their extraordinary comeback against the Titans in their first ever match at Glen Willow on Saturday afternoon. After losing to the Panthers, Dragons, Rabbitohs and Roosters in the first four weeks of the season Manly had nabbed a win over the Warriors the week before – and they compounded that achievement with thirty-six spectacular unanswered points here.

Turbo’s return couldn’t come at a better moment, since Dylan Walker was out for five weeks with a hamstring injury and Jack Gosiewski was off the park for up to three months with a foot complication. His presence was felt immediately, and continued right up to his departure from the park fifteen minutes out from the end, as the Sea Eagles cruised through the game as if they were the superior team on the ladder, unfazed by the fact that the Titans had won four of their last five games against them.

On the other side of the Steeden, Phillip Sami was sidelined due to the head knock sustained in last week’s win over the Knights, meaning Jonus Pearson was in the starting side for the first time in 2021. He did particularly well under the high ball, helping to prop up the Gold Coast backline in the absence of Anthony Don, who probably could have returned but had wisely opted to play it safe and wait for next week’s game against the Bunnies.

Turbo came close to a linebreak on his very first carry, and David Fifita responded in kind on the first Gold Coast set, barging the footy up the field and tempting Daly Cherry-Evans into the first penalty of the match, for working on the ground. The Titans had some good early field position here, but Ash Taylor’s kick ricocheted off the legs of Kieran Foran, while the Sea Eagles got back up their own end pretty easily when Tino Faasuamaleaui got pinged for a shoulder tackle.

Midway through the next tackle count, Mitch Rein stripped the footy from Taniela Paseka while AJ Brimson still had a hand on him. Foran fed the first scrum of the afternoon, and while Taylor did well to force a slow play-the-ball from DCE on the second tackle, big Tino contributed his second penalty for crowding Lachlan Croker a minute later, as if still high from his over-eager hit. Unaware of how dominant they would turn out to be, the Sea Eagles played it safe, and Reuben Garrick took the two.

Paseka and Josh Aloiai started the next set with a series of monster runs, and Brad Parker followed in their footsteps, before Josh Schuster took it across the halfway line on tackle four. Pearson only just contained Foran’s kick, and managed to remain just in the field of play as Garrick came in low for what initially looked like a certain dropout. The Titans couldn’t withstand this surge of Manly energy, however, with Fifita fumbling the play-the-ball under pressure from DCE.

This was a terrific David-and-Goliath effort from the Manly skipper, and it galvanised the hosts into their first try of the afternoon, thanks to two elastic plays on the left wing. First, DCE effected a sweep out to Turbo on the opening play, and then Turbo extended his momentum a tackle later, finding a huge hole for Parker to smash over, thanks in part to a superb decoy from Schuster that drew in Jamal Fogarty. It was one of the easiest set-ups of the year, a resounding return for Turbo, and a great first try.

Garrick read the breeze perfectly to slot it through the posts, and his men got an augmented restart when Patrick Herbert sailed the kickoff several metres behind the dead ball line. The Sea Eagles remained on the right side of the park for most of the set, thanks to a near-break from Foran, before the ex-Bulldog lobbed it to the other wing, where Pearson came up with his second heroic take under the Manly kick – leaping to air and then smashing to ground to avoid another potential dropout.

Pearson’s efforts seemed to take the Gold Coast defence up a notch, with Tino executing his best run so far towards the end of the tackle count, and while Garrick showed he could be just as gymnastic under the high ball, Parker was pinged for an escorts, gifting the Titans a fresh set of six within the Manly ten. Thirty seconds later, Jarrod Wallace barged through Croker and Sean Keppie right beside the posts, but the replay showed he’d lost the footy just as he came to ground.

Wallace tried to regain some momentum by dumping Morgan Harper on his back early in the next Sea Eagles set, and then made a tough tackle on Turbo on the fourth. To some extent it worked, preventing Foran getting to a convincing kick once Rein came in to add pressure on the last. Fogarty tried to consolidate with the highest kick so far, but Turbo was safe beneath it, while Aloiai got a deft offload away to DCE on play two, and Croker burst into open space on the fourth, flicking it across to Turbo on his inside.

Tom got it on to DCE, who initially looked set to go all the way, as he pivoted rapidly away from a Rein hit, only to wisely choose to take the tackle, delivering a rapid play-the-ball that set up Croker to start a rapid left sweep through Foran and Schuster out to Garrick. Special mention goes to Schuster, whose no-look cut-out assist to Garrick was possibly the deftest pass of the match, bringing the Sea Eagles to twelve unanswered points once Garrick added a silky sideline conversion.

It was a stunning example of how the entire spine syncs and congeals around Turbo’s presence, since this play would have been inconceivable – or at least inconceivable as such an elegant and effortless play – in his absence. Paseka and Aloiai didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart, and nor did Schuster and Jake Trbojevic, as the big men continued to carve up the middle third of the park. Once again, though, Pearson was courageous under the high ball, scooping it up on the wing this time.

Kelly was busting to break through the line on his next carry, and for a moment it looked like the Titans had regained some ground when Jason Saab lost the footy. He was right to send it upstairs for a Challenge, though, since the replay clearly showed that Fifita had stripped the ball, opening up space for Turbo to ice his return with a spectacular try. Even after two fast ones this felt high velocity, as Turbo effectively repeated and condensed the formation that led to Parker’s four points on the wing.

Foran started the play with a quick pass out to Schuster, who reprised his no-long pass at the twenty, as more of a harbour bridge ball this time around. Turbo collected it, dummied left to thwart Pearson, and accelerated into his first really scintillating run of the season, getting away from every Gold Coast defender before using the momentum of a Rein tackle two metres out to carry him over the line. Garrick added another brilliant sideline conversion, and the Sea Eagles were 20-0.

Turbo wasn’t going to slow down either, breaking into space on the right wing for another sublime run on the restart, making his way from the Manly twenty to the Gold Coast thirty before popping a leisurely pass across for Saab, who reaped the rewards of sending his supposed knock-on upstairs by crossing over for the easiest ty of the game. Garrick had his first conversion right in front, bringing his men to 24 unanswered points as the late afternoon light turned soft and autumnal over Glen Willow.

You couldn’t ask for more compelling proof of Turbo’s integral role at the Sea Eagles, since his presence and plays had already created the best twenty minutes of Manly’s season all year. It seemed like an age since Gold Coast had touched the football, and only another great take from Pearson finally got them a shot at some tentative field position. Even so, a punishing Sea Eagles defence kept them in their own twenty for most of the set, forcing Fogarty to kick within the thirty under extreme Manly pressure.

Still, the Sea Eagles lost a bit of their rhythm here, thanks to a pause in play that saw Aloiai put on report for a high shot earlier in the set. Brimson came off and on the field in the space of thirty seconds, making way for Jaimin Jolliffe and then relieving Tino, in one of the more bizarre interchange decisions of the year. He got working immediately, barging into Garrick after another superb Turbo play opened up miles of space for what initially looked like another sure try on Manly’s left wing.

This play seemed to rattle Manly, since DCE now had his first wobbly moment with the boot, setting up a grubber for Saab but instead sending it bouncing over the back line as the clouds opened and it started to drizzle over Glen Willow. A set later, it was raining steadily, compounding a dewy field with a slippery Steeden. The Titans really started to falter now, as Pearson left the next high ball to Brimson, who couldn’t quite contain it, losing it, but losing it backwards.

Corey Thompson did well to resume their rhythm with a seventy-metre run up the middle of the park on the next set but it all came apart on the last tackle, when Erin Clark chose to run the footy only to careen off the Manly wall and dump it on the ground. Aware that his men were also waning, Foran slid it into touch on the next set to wind down some of the clock – there were five minutes left – with another scrum.

Keppie had two great tackles on the next set – the second, on Moeaki Fotuaika, was especially good – as the game sunk into a slog for the last few minutes before the break. Garrick had a bit of a rough patch, losing the footy for the first Manly mistake of the game, and then infringing the ruck to grant six more on the back of a strong Kevin Proctor run on the right edge. Yet Jolliffe made an error in the play-the-ball on the very last tackle – the final event of note before both teams headed to the sheds. 

The Titans were heading into the wind during the second half, but it didn’t seem to bother Fifita, who got them rolling with a linebreak on his very first carry. It all came apart a play later, as a wayward Fotuaika pass bounced through Proctor’s hands on the right edge and straight into Jake Trbojevic’s grasp, although not without Jake conceding a penalty for holding back the Gold Coast second-rower. The Titans once again got some early field position, and then the first dropout at the end of this set.

It came off a deft grubber from Fogarty, who threaded the footy past an outstretched leg from Jake Trbojevic, forcing DCE to slide to ground to tap it into touch, as the Titans got ready for their most sustained field position so far. With the wind at his back, DCE managed to sail it two-thirds of the way down the park, although Gold Coast had no trouble getting within the Manly twenty with a restart off a Croker ruck error. This was the moment when they had to score to have any realistic chance of a comeback.

Instead, the set faltered, never quite coming apart, but never getting into first gear either, until Kelly lost the footy on the left edge. Harper scooped it up and made his way along the right wing, following Turbo by popping it out to Saab, who was able to decelerate and curve back towards the posts even more leisurely than when Turbo had assisted him. In a single moment, the Sea Eagles had absorbed the Titans’ first real glimpse of momentum, so they now seemed destined to win – and to win unanswered.

It was powerful, too, that most of the tries had seemed to echo and expand upon the previous tries – a vivid illustration of how quickly the team had consolidated and synced up with Turbo back on the park. Garrick had been kicking with the wind in his face during the first half, perhaps explaining why this one conversion sailed metres away from the sideline, but even with this miss, and even with a Saab knock-on during play one of the restart, the Sea Eagles were still sitting pretty at a 30-0 lead.

Amazingly, however, Saab sent this knock-on upstairs as well, and just as amazingly the Bunker also ratified his perspective this time around. Even Saab’s judgement in requesting a Challenge spoke to the Sea Eagles’ clinical precision during this match, especially given the dubious perspective of wingers and front-rowers when it comes to these kinds of decisions. Meanwhile, the sky turned dark over Mudgee, promising more rain, and casting a gloom over Gold Coast’s limited playmaking options.

Ten minutes in Gold Coast got a brief respite when Marty Taupau fumbled the play-the-ball and Tino got ready on the sideline. The Titans surged out of the scrum, moving it through Fogarty and Brimson to put Pearson into open space on the right wing, but even this brief burst of daylight was immediately aborted and absorbed by the Sea Eagles, thanks to a halfback-like trajectory from Turbo as he came over with Garrick to drag the Gold Coast no. 2 into touch – one of the lowest moments for Justin Holbrook.

Even worse for Gold Coast, Manly got a repeat set in their twenty when Herbert was pinged for an escort on Parker – and even more position when Proctor was called offside. Garrick had his second shot on the wing, and actually made it over the line, but Brimson came up with an even better trysaver this time around, bundling him up, ball and all, just before he could get the Steeden down, while ensuring that his legs pivoted over the sideline to give Gold Coast another touch of the Steeden.

Brimson’s two saves were one of several indications that the Gold Coast had a decent arsenal if they could just use it – as was a terrific right-foot grubber from Peachey that Saab was forced to bump into touch for the second dropout of the match. Once again DCE sent it long, and this time the Titans didn’t have a restart to get them back up the park. In fact, they didn’t even have a second tackle, as Fotuaika became the next player to succumb to the slippery conditions with a opening fumble in the play-the-ball.

Yet Turbo followed in his footsteps, coming to ground under a legs tackle, and keeping the Steeden secured under his right arm until the very last second, when he lost the football while returning to his field. The rain was really pelting down now, making the next ten minutes genuine wet-weather footy. That raised the pressure on Manly next time the Titans got ball in hand, especially since the visitors settled into a punishing repeat set in the twenty off a ruck mistake from Haumole Olakau’atu.

This just gave Manly a chance to show they could grind as well as elasticize, holding up big hit after big hit until Proctor put down a slightly low Peachey ball at the end of the set. Things got really dire for Gold Coast on the next set, when a Fifita offload to Peachey was immediately contained by DCE and Harper. Peachey fumbled the play-the-ball, and then sent it upstairs for a Challenge that was always going to be denied – a stark contrast to Saab’s two judicious efforts throughout the match.

DCE followed with arguably his best short-range kick of the game – a grubber at speed that defied even Brimson right on the Gold Coast line. Turbo drove it into the right side of the field, the big men took three tackles, the Sea Eagles got six again, and scored off the same formation that had worked for them all afternoon. This was the most elegant left sweep – a wide ball from DCE, a harbour bridge from Foran, and a somersault putdown from Garrick, who got his try after being stopped twice by Brimson.

Garrick converted it from out wide – the last points of the afternoon, with fifteen minutes left on the clock. Both teams went mistake for mistake over this last part of the game, but the Manly errors couldn’t take away from this astonishing result – a testament in large part to Turbo, who left the park after the final try to a standing ovation. They’ll be up for a big one against the Tigers next week, while the Titans will be looking to make the most of their home ground advantage when they host Souths.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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