ROUND 18: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Cbus Super Stadium, 16/7/21, 32-18)

Manly have come a long way since their 38-12 Round 3 loss to the Dragons – one of the pivotal early season games that genuinely made them seem like wooden spoon contenders in 2021. This time it was sixth against seventh, and even with DCE and both Trbojevics off the park the Sea Eagles dominated here, thanks in part to Kieran Foran, who really stepped up in his leadership from the halves, bolstered by some terrific vision from Josh Schuster at no. 7.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was the first St. George game since the Paul Vaughan house party, and while the impact of that infraction was somewhat dissolved into the turbulence of the COVID-19 relocations, it still felt like we were watching a side struggling for belief at key moments, despite a terrific match from Ben Hunt, who was clearly keen to reprise his sublime Origin stint at Cbus three nights before. Adding to that St. George gravity was Gerald Beale’s 200th, and Jack De Belin’s first game starting in the front row in six years.

Ben Hunt followed his heroic Origin double by taking the kickoff, passing it to De Belin, who slammed into Marty Taupau’s swinging arm to gain his men an immediate penalty. They were inside Manly territory in the first thirty seconds, and within the ten by tackle three, where Hunt shifted it right on the last, and Jack Bird grubbered into the right corner. Brad Parker had no option but to put it down, so the Dragons also had the first dropout, two minutes in.

They got even more field position on the repeat set, when De Belin took his fourth carry and Morgan Harper conceded the first penalty with a hand in the ruck. De Belin had yet another run three tackles later, crashing into a couple of defenders beside the left post, but Tariq Sims couldn’t hold onto the footy when he followed in his wake, and so Manly had their first carry. Karl Lawton got them rolling with a deft offload to Foran, who kicked for field position on the fourth tackle – a long, low, skidding effort that Sloan collected ten metres out from his line.

The Dragons were just starting to slump when Josh Kerr got them into first gear by mirroring Lawton with an offload early in the tackle count. This second-phase play paid more dividends, as Hunt received the footy, and channelled Wednesday night’s game at Cbus, shaping as if to pass it inside only to pop it out to Jack Bird, who surged up the right wing, fended off Parker right on the sideline, and lobbed it one-handed back into his fullback. Sloan took it at the thirty, curved inside, brushed off Reuben Garrick at the twenty, and crossed over untouched.

It was Sloan’s second try in his second NRL game, bringing St. George to six when Bird took the conversion. Manly survived the restart, and got the next bout of field position when Sloan was pinged for a high shot on Garrick two sets later. This was the most dynamic Manly set so far, as Harper looked for an offload on the first, Parker hit a potential forward pass at speed, Taupau brought it up to the ten, and the Sea Eagles got their first restart off a Blake Lawrie ruck error, before they scored their first try with a spectacular sequence of third-phase play.

It started with a Taupau offload to Lachlan Croker, opening up space for a sweep out to the right, where Haumole Olakau’atu found himself with the footy. He pivoted off the right boot to elude a low tackle from Corey Norman, and then stepped gingerly and delicately away from the St. George five-eighth as he lay prostrate on the ground, belying the burliness with which he slammed off Tariq Sims and the gymnastic dexterity with which he spun around and twisted a freakish offload out to Harper, who in turn spiralled over Jackson Ford to score four.

Garrick added the extras, and the Sea Eagles did better on their restart than St. George, from a near-linebreak from Moses Suli up the middle to a terrific tap-back from Jason Saab that set up Harper for a dropout assist – a damaging grubber that Sloan was forced to bump into touch. Yet Schuster got too tricky three tackles into the repeat set, soaring a harbour bridge pass out to the right that Cody Ramsey took as cleanly on the chest as if he were the target.

Still, the Sea Eagles got both a restart and a penalty on their next set, both of them from Ford, who infringed the ruck and then took out his frustration with a high tackle on Lawton. This was a consolidation moment, as Manly accelerated on their right wing, where Olakau’atu collected a wide ball from Schuster, with Morgan running the decoy. He went it alone, bumping off a low tackle from Brayden Williame and plunging through Norman right on the line. Garrick converted again from the right sideline, and Manly were ahead for the first time.

For a moment, the Sea Eagles looked destined to go back-to-back, starting with an elastic play out to the left edge, midway through the count, that only came apart with a shattering Beale-on-Lawton tackle. They then let the high ball bounce, and had to contend with a fresh set in their red zone when Parker recovered it and offloaded out to Taupau, but got the biggest let-off so far when Sean Keppie put down a Dylan Walker ball on tackle two. This was tantamount to a momentum shift, especially when St. George got six again off Lawton on their next set.

Sure enough, Josh McGuire crashed over on the last play, collecting a short ball from Andrew McCullough beside the right post, and simply slamming through Garrick, Keppie and Lawton to restore the equilibrium once Bird booted it through from right in front. It wasn’t a fancy try, and Bird’s kick wasn’t especially convincing – but the Dragons just needed direct play now, and in some ways the no-frills quality of it all was more of an indictment on Manly’s defence.

The Dragons didn’t do much with the restart, and Norman’s kick wasn’t all that special, and yet somehow the bounce disoriented Saab, who managed to collect it in the end, but not without Bird and Ramsey both tumbling over him, forcing the Sea Eagles to start the next set right on their line. Foran had to boot it long and hard to restore some field position, and Parker resumed their rhythm by forcing the footy free from Billy Burns as Beale was shaping for a try down the right wing. Manly had the upper hand again, and had to capitalise upon it.

Parker leaped up high to volleyball Foran’s next kick back, but Sims scrambled to contain it, while the Dragons got six again on tackle one, when Foran infringed the ruck. Burns got some joy now, taking two touches of the footy on the penultimate play for a near-tryscoring sequence on the left, including a spectacular offload from Kerr, on his back, up to Sloan, before Walker illegally stripped the ball from Bird, who took the penalty kick to make it 14.

By this stage Taupau was just ahead of De Belin on the VB Hard Earned Index, but the Sea Eagles didn’t do much with their forwards before the break, as the game started to fragment for both sides. Hunt’s next kick ricocheted off the defence, Kerr went for it, and came down hard on his right elbow while fending off Kurt De Luis. He stayed on the field, but play paused for a while, giving Manly some time to regather before their last big burst of the first stanza.

It came off a Dylan Walker chip to the right edge, where Bird leaped up to receive the ball and only just landed in the field of play, before Ramsey was nearly dragged back over the line on tackle two, and Hunt lost the footy a second later. Hunt sent it upstairs, and was denied, while the Sea Eagles wasted their own Captain’s Challenge next time they had ball in hand, as Foran tried to claim that Hunt had touched the ball, and knocked it forward, after it left his palms. 

Manly glimpsed a try ten seconds out from the sheds, when Schuster broke through the line, and popped it over the top to Walker, who flicked it on for Cade Cust to roll it on to De Luis. Sims scrambled to clean up the play as the siren rang out, so the Sea Eagles came back to the park two behind, and with something to prove. They had a further blow when Lawton was rushed to hospital with severe back pain, but they didn’t have to wait long for some joy, since Schuster’s next linebreak, fifty seconds into the second stanza, was much more remunerative.

This was another consolidation moment for Manly, as  trio of wide balls from Croker, Walker and Foran set up Schuster to send Suli up the left sideline. Seeing that he wasn’t going to break through Hunt’s tackle, Suli offloaded on the ground back in to Schuster, who caught it in one hand and effected a no-look pass in the same instant, popping it back inside for Foran to speed towards the line, slam into Ramsey and tuck the footy into his chest for another try. Garrick added his third conversion, and Manly had retaken the lead before a minute passed.

This whole sequence was a scintillating fusion of speed, strength and sheer daring, ushering in the most dominant period of the game for the Sea Eagles – from a Bird error to another dropout, as Sloan was forced to ground a Foran grubber behind the line. They scored again on the repeat set, when Cust responded to McGuire’s try from the front row with an even more muscular effort. Receiving the footy ten metres out, he carried it eight, and then disposed of a five-pack maelstrom of St. George defenders for the toughest try of the evening.

First, Cust had to contend with Sims and McCullough, so he went low, barely seeming to notice Sloan, Ramsey and Norman as they came in for a combined legs tackle, in a desperate effort to prevent him from making even more metres. That would have been enough to set up a potential crash try on the next play with a rapid play-the-ball, but instead Cust pivoted perfectly off this sea of St. George players, reaching his right arm around McCullough’s boots for a try so freaky – redolent of Tom Burgess against the Tigers – that it was denied on field.

The replay showed how brilliantly Cust had maintained control, using the full length of his body, from toes to fingertips, to score the very definition of a one-man try, or a full-man try. Garrick converted again, and the Sea Eagles continued to build field position when Poasa Faamausili was put on report for a crusher tackle on De Luis. Meanwhile, the Dragons had only completed a single set since the break, ten minutes in – and their luck took another downturn when Hunt knocked on while contesting the footy with Olakau’atu a moment later.

This was crunch time for the Red V, who had to survive this set to avoid losing control of the game. The spine stepped up, leading one of St. George’s best defensive sets since the sheds, as Hunt and Sloan took care of a Walker run and grubber respectively. Still, the stats were pretty damning for the Dragons – 36 run metres in the second half to Manly’s 340, and 17-0 tackles in the twenty. They had to make territory now, and Norman got them going with a soaring kick, before Walker conceded a bit more field position with an accidental obstruction.

No sooner had the Dragons glimpsed a shift in their favour than Manly redoubled, as Foran showed he could command the spine just as well as any St. George player. He put in his best defence on the very next set, coming in low on Bird to force a knock-on off a Hunt pass, just as the Red V were shaping a sweep out to the right edge. Manly now got a restart off a Lawrie ruck error, and Foran led again with the kick, booting it to the right edge while barking out orders to Saab, who did well to collect it in a sea of St. George jerseys, but couldn’t get it down.

Nevertheless, the Sea Eagles effected a pair of rapid reversals here – first, when Harper stole the Steeden from McGuire as soon as the Manly pack retreated from the tackle, and then just after Schuster flicked it over the left sideline, when Taniela Paseka came in for an enormous shot on Sims to rattle the footy free. Foran now crystallised his best period of the night into a sublime try assist, dummying subliminally out to the left, and forcing Hunt to commit to Schuster. By the time Kerr came in for the tackle, Foran had already flicked it back in to Parker.

Parker read the play perfectly, hitting the footy at speed, and storming over for the four points – six points once Garrick added the extras, bringing the Sea Eagles to a clean forty. This was the last try they would score, with a full quarter of the game left, but it was so dominant, aggressive and dextrous – and came off such an incredible resurgence of field position – that it overshadowed a very spotty ten minutes for Manly. This felt like complacency more than disorganisation, part of a general realisation the team didn’t need to do much more tonight.

If anything, it clarified how comfortable the Sea Eagles were in attack, since the Dragons really should have scored over this passage of play, which included errors from Harper, Saab, Walker and Taupau, ruck infringements from Taupau, Sipley and Schuster, a dangerous tackle from Keppie, and a goal line dropout for St. George at the 64th minute. During this time, the Sea Eagles were still dominating the VB Hard Earned Index, with Suli now eclipsing De Belin (who had come off the bench at the 57th minute) at first place, clocking up an impressive 58 points.

De Belin actually made a pair of errors as the last ten minutes arrived, shooting the footy a metre forward to Kerr on the line, and then allowing Sipley to rip it out of his hands just after Beale had intercepted a Taupau offload. It felt like we were on the verge of another St. George downturn, especially when Manly got six again off a Lawrie ruck error, and yet even a forward pass from Olakau’atu didn’t feel that fatal, given how many errors the Sea Eagles had now casually survived – the last being a mistimed kick from Walker, who booted it out on the full.

Yet Hunt now channelled Queensland’s sublime right edge acceleration at Cbus on Wednesday night, booting it to the sideline straight out of the scrum, where Sloan accelerated spectacularly to pop it back into the field of play a millisecond before Garrick bundled him into touch. Beale was just as good, dancing along the left edge and eluding Parker to put down the first Dragons try since the twenty-fifth minute. The Red V were now only twelve points behind, with six minutes to go, as Bird sent the conversion careening away from the uprights.

Garrick had the last say though, booting through a penalty kick off an illegal strip from Lawrie two minutes later, bringing us to the final scoreline of 32-18. That final try helped St. George to recover some pride, but there was no doubt that this was a dominant Manly performance – much better than you’d expect from two adjacent teams on the ladder, especially with DCE and Turbo off the park. They’ve come a long way since Round 3, and they’ll looking to make the most of their superstars when they meet the Tigers for a technical home game at Suncorp.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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