ROUND 20: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Suncorp Stadium, 2/8/21, 22-40)

Manly were sixth on the live ladder, and Cronulla eighth, when they met at Suncorp Stadium for a rare stint of Monday football in the wake of Brisbane’s COVID-19 lockdown. The Sharkies rallied heroically with Shaun Johnson off the park, and did well to bounce back with a pair of tries in the final quarter, when Toby Rudolf was sent to the bin. Braydon Trindall also led well from the halves, while Will Kennedy had some of his deftest moments at fullback this year, and for a while Will Chambers provided some good aggro, although it eventually turned sour.

Nevertheless, this was Manly’s game through-and-through – not just because of the quantity of tries (they put down forty) but the quality of the tryscoring sequences. They started with a superb trilogy of tries that all involved Tom Trbojevic in some capacity, and they bounced back from a second quarter Cronulla comeback with another trilogy after the break – except that all three of these were put down by Turbo, who finds a new way to demonstrate that’s he’s the best player in the NRL with each fresh game, and in a more emphatic way each time.

This may have been the best game of Turbo’s career for Manly to date, or at least equal to his best games, while the second stanza tryscoring bonanza was very likely his best single passage of play. He came away with three tries, three try assists (now equalling 2019 as his best season for assists after only eleven games), 217 run metres, 14 tackle busts, three linebreaks, and 4 linebreak assists. This was a football team in the shape of a man – and a man capable of leading his team, and remotivating them for finals, more than any other in the NRL right now.

Turbo caught the kickoff right on the line, and Toafofoa Sipley took the first hit, before Turbo had his first carry on play four, and Daly Cherry-Evans ended with a deep bomb to Ronaldo Mulitalo’s corner. The Sharkies didn’t make quite as much field position, forcing Braydon Trindall to kick on his own forty, while the Sea Eagles got the first burst of field position on their next set, following a ruck error from Blayke Brailey and then marginal high contact from Briton Nikora on Marty Taupau, before Turbo delivered his first visionary play of the evening.

It was a potential assist out to the left wing – a soaring harbour bridge ball that Reuben Garrick caught low, stumbling just enough to render himself vulnerable to Trindall, who slammed into slide him over the sideline. Will Kennedy did the same at the end of the next Sea Eagles set, when Jason Saab chased down an enormous DCE kick, and arrived five metres out from the line, where the Cronulla fullback made the ankle tap. For a moment, Manly kept the play alive, playing hot potato with the footy until Jake Trbojevic lost it into a big tackle from Sione Katoa.

Still, Manly continued their momentum on the next set, spreading it left for Josh Schuster to collect an offload from Garrick, follow DCE with a big kick at speed, and chase it down to force the first dropout from Katoa, who had no option but to pop it dead behind the line. He came close to an equally good play midway through the repeat set, when he received the Steeden off a subliminal Foran dummy, and showed it even more dramatically in turn, drawing in Katoa only to leave himself open to a monster tackle from Siosifa Talakai, who rattled the footy free.

The Sharks had the scrum feed, and the game hung in the balance over the next few sets, as we entered a more volatile period of play. Garrick took Trindall’s next bomb on the full, Morgan Harper busted through tackles from Conor Tracey and Will Chambers, and Kennedy survived a big fullback-on-fullback effort from Turbo to take the high ball. The Sharkies got six again on tackle one, off a ruck error from Sipley, so they effectively had a seven tackle set to play with, but Garrick returned the favour by letting Trindall’s next kick bounce over the line.

The next six again did the magic, as the Sea Eagles now scored a try that was every bit as precarious as this last passage of play. It came off a DCE error that Harper missed on the right wing, but not without pulling back from the footy just in time to avoid a knock-on, leaving it live for possibly the most gymnastic try of Saab’s career. Pivoting off his right boot, a millimetre inside the park, he cantilevered over the tip of the Steeden, which he planted in goal, as he careened over the side, handstanding and somersaulting all in one fluid motion.

In normal speed, it looked like he threw it back inside, but the replay confirmed it as a putdown. The right winger scored the try, the left winger added the extras, and Mulitalo spilled the bomb at the end of the restart. After such a freakish opening try, the Sea Eagles used this repeat set as an opportunity to consolidate, as Turbo and Foran tried to send Bradley Parker across twice on the left edge, before shifting the play back to the right, where Saab scored a double, this time untouched, off a pair of clinical passes from halfback and fullback.

Garrick was kicking at 80% so far this season, and he slotted it through from the sideline here, while Saab had now surpassed Maika Sivo with 18 tries, behind Josh Ado-Carr at 21, and Alex Johnston at 24. For the moment, he felt like a genuinely promising contender for top tryscorer of 2021, since the Foxx hadn’t managed to put down a try during the Storm’s enormous win over Penrith, while Johnston is only halfway through his month on the South Sydney sideline.

The Sea Eagles moved fluidly through the restart, building field position quickly as DCE floated a harbour bridge ball out to Saab on the first, and Harper offloaded to Lachlan Croker to send Taupau over the halfway line on the second. Foran and Parker now repeated their combo from the last set, but twenty metres out, while Manly reprised their right-side linkup too – a well-timed pass from DCE to Turbo, who palmed off Tracey, bumped into Mulitalo, and withstood Chambers for long enough to offload and assist Harper for a third try on the wing.

There were only three players in the tackle, but Chambers is a big unit, so it looked like Turbo was dragging the whole Cronulla pack along the ground with him – a terrific contrast to the simplicity of Harper popping over without any resistance. As with Saab, this was a significant stat for Trbojebic, who’d equalled his best ever season tally for try assists – 21 in 2019 – in only his eleventh game. If Garrick hadn’t stumbled he would have had three in 21 minutes.

With three successive tries, the Sharks needed a momentum-stopper here, and they got it – or rather, the Sea Eagles got unlucky when Schuster was pinged for a forward pass while offloading to Sipley out of a Toby Rudolf tackle. The pass looked fine in real time, but Manly didn’t have time to dwell on it, since DCE conceded six again on the very next play, as he scrambled to contain the ruck, while Cronulla showed they could orchestrate a right edge sweep of their own, starting with a wide, low ball from Brailey to Trindall out of dummy half.

Trindall showed it just enough to slightly wrong-foot Foran, throwing the Manly line out of balance and creating room for Kennedy to get on the outside of Parker, who couldn’t secure the low tackle as the Cronulla fullback curved around to set up an easy conversion for Trindall. This could have been a real game-changer for the Sharkies, but Talakai cost them their momentum with a messy escort a few minutes later, giving the Sea Eagles a chance to flex their muscles again, as they delivered a set that really should have ended in another putdown.

The play started with another harbour bridge ball from DCE out to Saab, who reprised his earlier dexterity on the sideline with an aerial catch-and-pass just above the chalk. Harper took it, and started a rapid right sweep, setting up the Sea Eagles to drive it deep into the left corner on the very next play. They  were effectively claiming the whole field as their own here, so it was pretty deflating when the set came apart beneath DCE’s chip, especially since Aiden Tolman had to ground it in goal. Yet with a Saab knock-on, the dropout became a turnover.

This error put a pin in Manly’s momentum over the last few minutes, when they seemed to grow complacent, or exhausted, not unlike the Bunnies during their second quarter against St. George the day before. A DCE linebreak gave way to a Parker error, while Turbo had a rare moment of self-doubt under the high ball, where he was spooked into a knock-on by an oncoming Hamlin-Uele tackle. It was a big let-off, then, when Jack Williams fumbled a play-the-ball while trying to feed it as rapidly as possible early in the subsequent close-range set.

To their credit, the Sea Eagles built up some speed here, as Harper offloaded to DCE, Haumole Olakau’atu laid space for Foran to make the halfway line, and Harper mirrored Saab by knocking the footy back inside on the right sideline. Tracey intercepted it as Sipley was preparing to receive it, and Manly got lucky now, since the call came back as a knock-on from the Cronulla five-eighth, meaning there was no scrutiny of whether Harper went into touch.

Yet the final four minutes were all Cronulla, thanks to a pair of big encounters between Parker and Nikora, and a pair of spectacular kicks from Trindall. Parker lost the footy while getting up from a Nikora tackle, and Trindall followed with his best boot of the night so far – a spiralling bomb that produced a rare moment of miscommunication between Saab and Turbo. Too late, Saab realised his fullback wasn’t going for it, and spilled it in goal, where Turbo saved the play by jamming his right hand onto it just in time to prevent Tracey scoring.

In its own way this was a let-off, but the Sea Eagles couldn’t survive the second showdown between Parker and Nikora, which now occurred in attack. In a potentially rhythm-shifting play, Parker intercepted a Trindall-Talakai pass on the last, only to juggle it three times before Kennedy stole it back from him. Everything consolidated from here, as the Sharkies got a pair of restarts, which bookended a tough run across the Manly defence, and a super sequence of palm-offs from Andrew Fifita, before we finally arrived at Trindall’s second spectacular kick.

This kick was as freakish as the last one had been organised, but it was no less exciting. At first it looked like a regulation grubber, but when Schuster stuck out a boot to deflect it the trajectory became less predictable. It ricocheted off a few Sea Eagles, and then came off Nikora, who accidentally ran Trindall onside to make his putdown legal. Trindall may have missed the conversion, but a six-point lead was nothing to scoff at given Manly’s opening tro of points. Once again, there were echoes of St. George’s second quarter against the Bunnies.  

Yet the Sea Eagles would bounce back immediately after the break with another trilogy of tries. The first three had all involved Turbo in some capacity, and the next three were all scored by Turbo – another milestone as he continues to exceed all expectations of what a fullback can and should do in the NRL. Taniela Paskea might have found his feet tangled up in a Tolman play-the-ball on the first set back, and Hamlin-Uele and Kennedy might have responded with two deft offloads, but it all changed when Garrick took a poor Trindall kick.

After this brief flashback to the second quarter, the next fifteen minutes entered the Manly history books, as Turbo got his men rolling with a sublime sequence on the left edge that fused Latrell’s second-half run and his last-minute try from the day before. Foran fed it nine metres out, and Turbo eluded Talakai, got away from Katoa, and jumped over a Nikora tackle to offload to Croker, before curving back around Cronulla to collect Croker’s offload in turn.

As if that wasn’t enough, Turbo concluded this sublime third-phase play with an abrupt shift in direction, pivoting back in field to split Tolman and Hamlin-Uele. Kennedy was last line of defence, but Turbo disposed of him as if he was the smallest man on the park, carrying him in goal at the death and then hurling him into the left post. The padding barely seemed to register, as Kennedy got up gingerly as Tommy’s team mates surged in to congratulate him. 

The Sea Eagles weren’t wasting any time on the restart either, as Croker took it hard and straight up the middle, and Schuster kept the momentum alive with a deft offload to Foran on the left edge. Turbo followed with two big plays on the same side, where he started by giving Garrick some joy after his missed conversion with a linebreak assist that drew in Talakai’s most ambitious tackle so far. The Cronulla second-rower winced in pain as his leg twisted beneath the pile-on, but Turbo had already offloaded back in field for Dylan Walker.

Walker almost put Foran across the line, but the Sharks scrambled to hold up the try. Even so, the writing was on the wall three tackles into their next set, when Olakau’atu dragged Chambers back inside Cronulla’s ten metre line. In fact, this barely felt like an attacking set, since the Sharkies were doing little more than defending field position, which they continued as the Sea Eagles got the ball back and commenced this insatiable and interminable assault.

Perhaps that’s why Cronulla seemed to pre-emptively concede the try as soon as Turbo received the footy, since he looked as if he were playing in slow-motion in real time, making for an especially languorous and leisurely replay once he put it down. He barely had to dummy, and almost came to a complete halt as he pivoted away from Tracey and Mulitalo on the right edge, before jogging past Brailey, and skipping over an ankle tap from Fifita and then an ankle brush from Kennedy, to stroll over untouched, setting up an easy Garrick conversion.

The ruck melted so smoothly that Turbo didn’t even have to slice through – he just glided through. Things went from bad to worse for the Sharkies over the next few sets, as Parker broke through the line, Trindall was put on report for a dangerous tackle, Aaron Woods made an error, and they conceded a dropout. They needed a big aggressive effort – an Origin-like strut – to get back in the frame, and Chambers was the man to deliver it, slamming in on Walker for the hit of the night and then spraying invective for a good couple of minutes after.

Chambers’ eyes looked wild during this sequence, as if he was trying to stare the Manly defence into submission, and yet this ultimately worked against him – or at least he took it too far, continuing to throw salt deep into the dropout, when he should have been focusing to prevent the next Manly try. As it was, his words fell on deaf ears, as Parker made a hard run into the line on the left, and Turbo parlayed it into arguably his best personal running option – right off the ruck, into the big men, using his speed and footwork to get the job done.

That’s just what happened here, as Turbo showed Chambers what tough footy looked like, twisting and spinning into Brailey and Rudolf, but moving too fast for Woodsy to offer much support in defence. Perhaps that’s why Chambers jammed in to disrupt the celebration, in an effort to continue the conversation (or monologue) unleashed by his hit on Walker. It was a bad look by this stage, and just debilitated the Sharks, and made them seem more vulnerable, as Garrick lined up another seamless conversion from right in front and the Sea Eagles hit 34.

Williams was in the starting side for only the third time this year, and was having a tough night of it, losing the footy into a Sipley-Harper combined tackle as soon as the Sharks got ball in hand again. No surprise that Turbo was still in his sublime state of flow, running the Steeden crossfield straight out of the scrum, and then parlaying a terrific no-look pass from Harper into an assist on the wing for Garrick, who dove past Katoa to put down the last Manly try.

This was arguably the apex of Turbo’s career to date – a SuperCoach landslide of 15 runs, 107 metres, 11 tackle busts, 5 offloads, 3 linebreaks, 6 linebreak assists and 6 try assists, all with a full quarter of football to go. Garrick added his third sideline conversion, and his most mercurial kick of the night, sailing the Steeden just past the left post, and yet these would be the last points for Manly, as the Sharkies mounted a comeback of sorts over the last twenty.

It didn’t happen immediately, since a forward pass from Trindall denied Talakai a try, while the Sea Eagles kept rolling with two decent set openings. On the first, DCE floated it wide to Saab on tackle two, only for Morgan to lose it a second later, as Chambers got up in Morgan’s face to rub it in, even though the Sharks were down 40-10. Early in the next set Walker glimpsed a break in the line, and Taupau made his best offload of the night – on the ground to Sipley – but while the Sea Eagles made it to the last tackle, Cronulla still stayed strong here.

Garrick was almost as worked up as Chambers when Rudolf flopped on him beneath the next high ball, but Toby quickly outdid him with aggression, compounding his penalty with a sinbin and report when he came in for a mild headbutt. Even though Turbo was taken off the park for a rest, it felt as if Manly must score again soon, and they built into their next close-range attack pretty quickly, only for Talakai to clean up Schuster with a superb sequel to Chambers’ hit on Walker, flicking the footy a good ten metres perpendicular, as Kennedy scooped it up.

Manly got the scrum feed again immediately, though, off an error from Luke Metcalf, who’d replaced Chambers on debut. Once again, they shaped for a try, coming even closer, but losing even more momentum when it fell apart. DCE opted for a harbour bridge ball to the right wing, soaring the Steeden over three players to Saab, who dropped it cold with open space all the way to the line. If he’d scored here, it might well have unleashed another trilogy of Manly tries, but Cronulla quickly absorbed all Manly’s momentum and went back-to-back.

They got six again off a Sipley ruck error, clearing up space for Kennedy to pull in a Trindall pass with one hand, tuck it under his arm, get on the outside of Foran, and swerve away from Walker, as Garrick realised he was never going to get there as last line of defence. Kennedy had shown real dexterity picking up Schuster’s lost ball, and he continued it with this scintillating play. Trindall converted, and Manly got stuck in on the restart, as Sironen, Taupau and Schuster combined to stop Nikora making any decent post-contact metres on tackle two. 

Still, Briton managed a quick play-the-ball, and Brailey took advantage of a momentarily exhausted Manly front row to plunge out of dummy half and into open space, making it all the way to the Sea Eagles’ forty before he flicked it inside for Metcalf to make ten more. A Schuster offside later, Williams got some joy after a tough night by burrowing into the Manly pack on the left, turning himself into the fulcrum for a rapid sweep back to the right, where Trindall culminated his leadership across the park by putting down the closing four-pointer.

Brailey sent the Steeden through Woodsy for Trindall to received it at the ten, where he delivered the most deceptive and dramatic dummy of the game to totally wrong-foot Taupau, before adding the final kick of the night. For a moment the Sea Eagles looked slightly worried – Cronulla were now only three converted tries behind after scoring back-to-back – and things got worse when Taniela Paseka was packed off to the bin after deliberately tripping Metcalf.

Yet they restored the balance in the final five minutes, thanks to a cascade of Cronulla errors – a poor read from Kennedy, followed by an illegal strip and a hand in the ruck from Brailey. By the time Rudolf returned, the Sharkies were spent, although they’d done well to fight back with twelve men, while reducing their loss margin improves their chances on the ladder too. Nevertheless, this was Manly’s night – and Turbo’s night, proof that he is indeed the best in the NRL right now, the motivator the Sea Eagles need as they prepare to take on the Storm.

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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