ROUND 15: Gold Coast Titans v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Cbus Super Stadium, 20/6/21, 24-56)

Manly’s win over Gold Coast at Mudgee signalled the return of Tom Trbojevic as a force to be reckoned with in the 2021 season. Nine weeks later, the rematch showed just how far Turbo has come in the interim, since he’s now outstripped James Tedesco as the best fullback in the game, and he’s a genuine contender for the best player in the game – an amazing achievement given Nathan Cleary’s sublime form over the last two months. Origin is next week, but in every way Turbo’s presence here continued his work for the Blues in Townsville.

Whereas the Sea Eagles cruised to a 36-0 victory over Gold Coast at Glen Willow, they were down 24-8 at the break here, as the Titans dug in hard after their agonising one-point loss to the Roosters last week. Yet that made it even more incredible when Turbo steered his men to the best comeback of the 2021 season so far – forty-eight unanswered points in the second half, including a double for Saab, a hat-trick for himself, and a quadruple for Garrick. Jake might have been out for a rare injury, but it still felt there were two Trbojevics on the park.

Daly Cherry-Evans collected the kickoff, feeding it to Taniela Paseka for the first carry, and then took the ball again on the last, popping it across to Morgan Harper, who sent it over the sideline. The Titans were fast on their first set, and more convincing than Manly, right down to Ash Taylor’s first kick – a long one that Turbo nevertheless managed to take on the chest. Keen to restore Manly’s kicking game, DCE booted it on the third tackle of the subsequent set, only to concede an escort penalty as Gold Coast started to elasticise on their left edge.

The Titans now had the first repeat set, starting just outside the Manly ten, and moving through the big men, as Jarrod Wallace came up with a late offload to Erin Clark, and Tino Faasuamaleaui almost twist and spun over beside the left post. With more men in place the Titans would have likely scored off a Tyrone Peachey grubber to the left corner, but even so Turbo conceded the dropout after Jason Saab failed to clean it up in goal on the first attempt.

David Fifita took a huge run on the second play, and got his men six again when Harper infringed the ruck, while Gold Coast got an additional burst of field position when Lachlan Croker was pinged for holding down. They opted to tap and go, as Peachey experimented with a few options in front of the posts, before ending with another grubber – this time to the right side of the park, where Jayden Campbell did Preston proud by chasing it down for his first try in the NRL. Jamal Fogarty converted, and just like that Gold Coast were six ahead.

The Titans had lost all five games this year when conceding the first try, so this was a significant start. They got more field position on the restart, when Croker leaked his second penalty with a dangerous tackle on Campbell, but Haumole Olakau’atu shifted the momentum with a huge hit on Tino, and Saab did better with the grubber this time around. At first, it looked like Saab had ground the footy, but the replay showed he’d done one better, forcing Brian Kelly to pop it into touch, turning a potential dropout into a 20-metre restart.

This was Manly’s first touch of the football in some time, so it was critical they do something special here, especially once Kelly took out his frustration with a high tackle on Harper. All it took was a cut-out pass from Kieran Foran for Turbo to start reprising his magic against the Titans. Receiving it a few metres in from the left edge, he dummied continually out to the wing, beating Patrick Herbert and then Campbell on his way to the line. Garrick sent the kick just shy of the post, however, so Gold Coast still had the advantage as Manly got their restart.

That didn’t last for long, however, as Turbo followed his first try with an even more spectacular second try. Again, it came off Foran, but a kick this time, as Turbo leaped up beneath the high ball, and somehow managed to steal the footy from Campbell, despite the fact that the Gold Coast fullback had timed the jump to perfection. From there, all Turbo had to do was spin around to cross over untouched, giving Manly the lead for the first time, but only by two points, since Garrick’s next kick ricocheted off the left upright.

The Sea Eagles had one of their toughest set so far on the restart, as the big men cleared up space for a soaring bomb from DCE – and an equally courageous take from Campbell, who was determined not to let the football be stolen away from him this time around. He ran fifteen metres on top of it, reversing the momentum so quickly that Saab effectively found himself in Campbell’s position at the end of the set, spilling the high ball for an opposition try.

It didn’t come as quickly as Turbo’s second four points, but it did usher in a sustained period of Gold Coast possession, thanks to a DCE offside penalty, and then a dropout when Saab just failed to bring the footy back in the field of play – or just brought it back into the field of play, as DCE claimed in a heated exchange with Grant Atkins that saw him formally warned for disputing too many decisions over the first quarter of the match. It was the kind of backchat that fuels the opposing team, and sure enough the Titans scored on the very next set.

Campbell was just as strong on the first play, collecting a bouncing pass like he was Giannis and making another fifteen metres to bring Fifita right onto the line on tackle two. Harper did well to hold up Kelly on the left edge two plays later, forcing the Titans to shift right for the final tackle, which came together beautifully – a chip from Taylor, a tap-back from Sam Stone, a wide ball from Fogarty, and the second try in three NRL games from Greg Marzhew.

Fogarty was looking directly into the sun for the conversion, and missed it for the first time, but this was still a resounding statement from Gold Coast after Turbo’s sublime pair of tries. The Sea Eagles survived the restart, thanks in part to a good take from Saab under the high ball, and DCE looked slightly frantic for the first time as he bombed at speed on the next set, although his nervy energy gave him good pace and momentum to lead the chase downfield.

The Titans had struggled, in the early stages of the game, to really capitalise on Fifita, but he stepped up now, bursting into space on the left edge, and accelerating the pace of the game as DCE’s nervy energy started to galvanise – and unsettle –  the Sea Eagles more generally. In the most dramatic contest under the high ball so far, Herbert, Garrick and Brad Parker leaped a metre off the ground as the sunlight turned golden behind Cbus, only for Manly to waste their Captain’s Challenge to contest a Garrick knock-on after Herbert knocked it backwards.

Manly weren’t happy with the decision, and pushed pretty hard in the subsequent scrum, but their frustration was costing them discipline (Toafofoa Sipley gave away a fresh set a tackle later) even if their goal line defence was still pretty staunch. They got six again – again – when Karl Lawton knocked on Peachey’s next grubber, so this was crunch time for Manly, whose defence had to stay strong to prevent Gold Coast taking control of the last twelve minutes of this first stanza. Instead, Campbell went from tryscorer to assister a couple of tackles later.

This was a Lachlan Lewis-like play from Campbell, who seemed to wait an age, and slow down the game around him, as he grubbered to the right wing, where Marzhew had time to decelerate, catch it in both hands, and still score untouched. The sun was lower when Fogarty set up the tee, making for a spectacular burst of light that seemed destined to guide the ball home, but there was no fade on it, keeping it a converted try game with eleven minutes left.

Manly now only had seven completed sets compared to Gold Coast’s eighteen, so it was a win for them when Taylor sent it over the sideline at the end of the restart. It seemed to rejuvenate the Titans more than the Eagles, however, as Herbert stormed in to force an error from Turbo, whose two tries now seemed an age ago. Campbell got them rolling with a dazzling dash across the field – his best footwork of the game – imbuing the set with a dexterity and agility that continued through the big men and into yet another Gold Coast try.

Campbell was the assister once again, with a beautifully placed grubber that ricocheted off Foran’s left ankle and back behind the posts, where Herbert arrived first and bookended the field position he’d set up by forcing the error from Turbo. Fogarty was always going to add the extras from this angle, booting it straight and true to skyrocket the Titans to a twelve point lead. Sean Keppie got a good offload away to Croker on the next Manly set, but Campbell defied Turbo under the high ball, and the rest of this stanza belong to the Titans.

The death knell came with two contrasting plays – a controlled kick from Taylor at the end of the next set, and a lost ball from Harper early in the following Manly tackle count. If Campbell had seemed to challenge Lewis’ slo-mo plays with his assist, then Peachey took it to the next level now, virtually walking across the ruck, weighing his options without an Eagle in sight, before executing a grubber that Fifita, like Marzhew, was able to approach and put down by decelerating, but this time mid-field, where there should have been a swathe of defenders. 

Fogarty’s kick ricocheted off the post, but this was still a resounding end to the first half for Gold Coast, who were quadruple Manly at 24-8 when the siren rang out. Still, the match wasn’t over, as Manly used the second stanza to prove why the Titans have struggled so much with defence over the full eighty in 2021. In fact, this brief Manly slump just allowed Turbo to shine brighter after the break, when he led his men to an astonishing 48 unanswered points, bookending his first match back against Gold Coast to cement himself as the NRL’s best player.

Turbo was safe under the first high ball back, although a deft Kelly tackle prevented him making much headway. Saab had a similar experience, taking a second soaring bomb from Taylor without managing to put much of a return on it. He made up for it two tackles later, recovering a poor pass from DCE to Harper by collecting it on the bounce, speeding up the sideline and showcasing some of the best balance of the game by swerving back inside just as Campbell reached him, without losing pace, before beating Kelly to the line for a superb try.

This was the fastest sequence so far – fast enough to completely reset the game even if Garrick failed to boot a near-sideline conversion into a purple sunset. Sure enough, Manly got their first call of six again on the restart, off a ruck error from Fogarty, who got too eager as he tried to somersault over Lawton. A moment later, Foran reprised his cut-out pass to Turbo on the left edge, and this time the Manly fullback went for a catch-and-pass instead of taking it himself, setting up Garrick for a try on the wing, and another botched conversion attempt.

They would have been level with Gold Coast if Garrick had been 4/4 – it was five tries to four but eight points the difference at 24-16 – and yet there was no doubt that Manly had decisively reversed the rhythm of the game over the last eight minutes, enough to get them through an eccentric Parker penalty early in the restart. On the next set, Foran collected a deft inside ball from Turbo and fed it back over him – and several other players – to Olakau’atu, who drew on this superb spine energy for the first brilliant kick of his NRL career.

It was good enough to garner a dropout, as Dylan Walker came onto the park, Turbo made a mad dash on the left edge, and Saab nabbed a double on the other side of the field, thanks to some sober thinking from DCE. If he’d been nervy in the first half, DCE was ice cold here, collecting a wide ball from Walker, bouncing off Kelly, and taking a second to dummy and assess his options before booting through the next great grubber of the game. Full credit to Saab, too, for the speed of his chase, so redolent of his incredible performance at Glen Willow.

Finally, Garrick added his first conversion, from one of his hardest angles, garnering a standing ovation from the Manly supporters in the crowd – the final piece of the puzzle needed to galvanise his men into taking the lead again, and from there cascading into arguably their best quarter of footy all year. They got a penalty on play one of the restart, when Wallace crowded Marty Taupau, while Walker celebrated his 150th milestone by laying the foundation for yet another left edge sweep – a bullet ball from Turbo to send Garrick over for his own double.

After four missed conversions, this was a cathartic moment for Garrick, who roared in victory as he got to his feet. Manly now had three doubles – Turbo, Saab, Garrick – while Turbo had demonstrated his brilliance on the left edge with three superb options – dummy and score, cut-out pass, bullet ball – with this last option arguably the toughest and most dynamic of the three. On the other side of the Steeden, the Titans were now at their defensive average for the season, meaning they had to get to thirty and accelerate rapidly to have a shot at winning.

Instead, the Sea Eagles came up with their most spectacular sequence yet – a sublime run from Taniela Paskea, who took the kickoff, trampled over a couple of defenders, broke into space, and followed Olakau’atu by kicking from the front row. Walker got it, and would have scored the try of the decade if Mitch Rein hadn’t caught him up, but a quick play-the-ball was all it took for Turbo to crash over. If the big men had been playing like halves, Tommy showed the courage of a forward here, smashing into half of the Gold Coast defence right on the line.

It was agonising to see Turbo lose the Steeden into Campbell in slow motion, but this Manly outfit were always going to regather immediately – and so they did, when they got an offside from Sami. Walker and Foran seemed to be floating with the footy across the field as they fed it to Turbo, so perfectly did they have this particular play under wraps, and Turbo responded in kind, catching-and-passing out for Garrick to put down a hat trick. Garrick even had time to curve around casually behind the posts, setting himself up for his easiest conversion so far.  

Manly were all flow now, as Turbo made up for Jake’s absence by scoring enough for two Trbojevics, executing a simplified and streamlined version of his almost-try on the restart. Collecting a short ball from Croker, he jumped over Rein, who was still on the ground, and then leaped over a pair of defenders, reaching out his arm to make contact with the turf as Fifita slid in for a last-ditch effort. Both Turbo and Garrick now had hat tricks, while Garrick had another easy conversion from right in front, making the second half 30-0 in 22 minutes.

Paseka was keen to break into space again on tackle one of the restart, but this time the Titans contained him, only for Herbert to take the full brunt of a Lawton charge, and Marzhew concede a penalty for holding down. Surviving a restart was now the goal for the Titans,  and yet Manly scored again, off yet another iteration of the sublime left sweep that had served them so well. Garrick might have been spotty with goals, but he had four now off a Walker dummy, a Foran catch-and-pass, more great timing from Turbo and a deft assist from Parker.

Akuila Uate was the last Sea Eagle to score four tries in a game, against the Bunnies in 2017  and Manly were now only two points shy of that 46-point shellacking with fifteen minutes left on the clock. Turbo nearly busted through a Kelly tackle on play three of the restart, DCE almost found space as well, and then, after what seemed like an aeon, the Titans finally got the footy again. They completed, but Saab was safe, withstanding a big hit from Fifita, as Ben Trbojevic came onto the field and Foran booted it over the side to give his men a breather.

Gold Coast now had their second set in about half an hour, so they had to do something special here – it wasn’t enough to simply complete. Fifita paused and squared up the Manly defence for something special, Fogarty’s final grubber was decent, and yet the Sea Eagles contained them, and got rolling again, thanks to a strong run from Saab up the right on the third that laid the platform for a rapid shift to the left. Garrick grubbered at speed on the sideline, Campbell got a hand to it, and Manly had a repeat set right on the Gold Coast line.

Walker didn’t get the pass out to Ben Trbojevic on the left edge, but he did make decent post-contact metres, steeling the Sea Eagles for another spectacular try. Right when Gold Coast should have been opting for desperation plays, Olakau’atu came up with the clutchiest effort of the night, parlaying his earlier dexterity with the boot into a superb chase and putdown, off a DCE grubber. It looked spectacular in slow motion, as a the big second-rower ground the Steeden right on the dead ball line with a sea of Eagles and Titans storming up behind him.

This sequence culminated a night when the Manly spine’s silky skill set had percolated through even the biggest and toughest players in their forward pack – exactly how leadership from the spine is supposed to look – so this would have been a poetic ending to the game.  The halves had the last word though – specifically, DCE, who deserved a try of his own, and got it two minutes later, wheh Waker sliced through the line and flicked the footy across for his fullback at the twenty. Daly was flying, crossing untouched for the final try of the game.

Garrick added the final conversion – a cathartic end in itself given his spottiness early on – and the Sea Eagles had arguably their most resounding win of the 2021 season so far. With each new week they look more like premiership contenders, so they’ll be relishing the week off for Origin, along with the prospect of any easy win over the Bulldogs. And it’s incredible to think what Turbo might do for the Blues when he’s got the weight of the New South Wales legacy behind him, since tonight’s game was Origin-worthy in every single way.

About Billy Stevenson (589 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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