Friday night’s game at Suncorp was the nail-biter of Round 23 – a game of cascading turnarounds that saw Canberra dominate the opening half 10-0 before Manly fought their way back to a field goal finish. The Raiders were playing for a spot in the eight, the Sea Eagles to cement their position in the four, and only the Tigers had a more agonising end to their finals hopes by the time this round was over. It was an especially hard night for Jordan Rapana, who lined up, and missed, a two-point field goal right on the siren.
Manly’s win was even more resounding in that Turbo was off the park, bringing Tevita Funa into the fullback role (with Reuben Garrick maintaining his vision on the wing), and placing additional pressure on Daly Cherry-Evans to steer the spine from the halves. He played a hand in most of the key moments and encapsulated his men’s resolve with his final field goal, while he had a great ally in Haumole Olakau’atu, who delivered a watershed game in which he was the best forward on the field for long stretches of the action.
Josh Papalii got the Raiders rolling with a strong charge and the big men followed in his footsteps, before Reuben Garrick took the first kick clean to start the opening Manly set just across his own thirty. Moses Suli got past Joseph Tapine midway through, and would have broken through the line if not for a last-ditch tackle from Josh Hodgson, while Daly Cherry-Evans was unsuccessful in clamouring for six again when Wighton came in hard on the ruck. Already, it felt like this was going to be a closely contested match.
The Raiders still hadn’t reached Manly territory when Wighton made his second kick, while the Sea Eagles got another shot in the opposition half when Sam Williams was pinged for an illegal strip. Josh Schuster didn’t risk an offload at this early stage, instead relying on the big boppers to methodically move his men into the Canberra ten, where he took a second run before Hamuole Olakaua’tu culminated this forward-heavy sequence with a well-weighted grubber that Rapana was forced to bump dead on the right edge.
Toafofoa Sipley proved why Schuster had been so cautious with the offload, opting for second phase play on the first tackle, only for Papalii to collect it as if he’d always been the intended target. Once again, though, the Raiders failed to cross the halfway line, although they managed to somewhat halt the advance of field position this time, starting with big combined hits on Trey Mooney and Taupau – at least until Olaka’atu enterprised again on the right edge, this time with a barnstorming run that almost brought him through the line.
Finally, Tapine carried the footy over halfway, midway through the next set, and Williams took his first kick in Manly territory, although the heightened kick chase didn’t seem to faze Garrick’s consistency under the high ball. For the second time, second phase went awry, when Schuster tried to pop it out to Funa on the left wing, but ricocheted it off the young gun’s head and into touch. Hodgson tried to elasticise with three dummies and a sweep out to the right edge, but they had to shift inside, where Williams kicked from the Manly thirty again.
No sooner had the Sea Eagles received the first restart, off a Wighton error, than Tapine stripped it back from Suli, while the Raiders got six more themselves a second later. It was the kind of sudden reversal that can shape a whole passage of play, especially given what Suli had done with his earlier foray up the middle. For the first time, the Raiders hit the Manly red zone, as Papalii slammed into Kieran Foran on the right side, building momentum for Matt Timoko to embarrass Suli a second time with a mercurial flick offload to Harley Smith-Shields.
This was terrific footwork from Timoko, who pivoted on one boot to bring in Suli and Funa, before bouncing off the other at an unexpected angle to almost hand it to Smith-Shields, who had just enough space to dodge around the two defenders as they regrouped to try and push him into touch. Williams might have missed the kick, but this was still a solid comeback for Canberra, who’d survived a dropout and scored on their first foray into the Manly twenty.
Papalii and Tapine were already at their sixth and seventh runs respectively on the restart, but again Hodgson couldn’t deliver, opting for a 40/20 early in the count, only to boot it out on the full. Manly now had a full set in Canberra territory, and Olakau’atu wasted no time on the right edge, compounding Hodgson’s woes by extracting six again with a barnstorming near-break. DCE was barking out for a Lachlan Croker kick, and had a good chase to match his instructions, but decelerated as soon as he realised the strike was too hard.
Yet just as Tapine had undone a dropout with a strip, Olakau’atu undid this seven tackle set by wresting the ball from Smith-Shields on tackle zero, as if to prove that Croker’s overlong boot hadn’t been the last word on the previous set. The next kick to the right wing was too high even for Jason Saab, but once again the Raiders gave it up early, with a Hudson Young offload into Morgan Harper that they wasted their Captain’s Challenge in an attempt to prove that the Manly no. 3 had stripped with two in the tackle.
The Raiders had one massive turnaround with the Tapine strip, but the Sea Eagles now had two in a row. Back in the ten on tackle one, they felt destined to score here, as Dylan Walker mirrored Papalii’s barnstorming run to the right of the posts, and Olakau’atu capitalised just as Timoko and Smith-Shields had capitalised, but further infield, and with little need for gymnastics. All it took was a short ball from DCE for Haumole to culminate a scintillating opening quarter with a tough putdown, for what seemed to be a critical game-changer.
Instead, Canberra got the best turnaround so far, since the try was all but confirmed when Adam Gee sent it upstairs to reveal a Taupau obstruction on Wighton. It was the perfect point for the Raiders to get a restart, as Jake Trbojevic took out his team’s frustration with a ruck error, and so they finally entered Manly territory after an age defending their line. Williams booted it from the twenty, and Saab was safe with the catch, despite a strong Wighton chase, although the Raiders kept Manly bunched up for their next four tackles.
Four was all they got, since Tapuau’s woes worsened when Elliott Whitehead slammed him to ground at the forty and forced the footy free. The Raiders got a scrum from the same spot, and played it safe for the first half of the set, only to choke as soon as they tried to elasticise, as Whtehead followed his terrific tackle with a cold drop on a wide Hodgson pass. It was becoming a game of turnarounds, and rapid reversals in fortune, reflected by a roughly equal distribution of players on the VB Hard Earned Index, with Tapine (42) and Taupau (35) on top.
Two tackles into the next set, Papalii, Wighton and Young slammed into Garrick for perhaps the most sustained three-man hit so far, while Croker became the next kicker to chance his hand at a 40/20. He came much closer than Hodgson, but Rapana did beautifully to collect the footy on the last bounce before the twenty, while pulling back from the sideline in the same dexterous motion. Sometimes saving a 40/20 can be every bit as epic as executing it, and this was one of those moments, infusing the Raiders with a newfound flow.
They channelled it by invoking the three-man hit on Garrick with an even more impressive defensive effort up the right edge, where Harper was on the verge of breaking through the line when Kris slowed him down with an ankle tap. Simonsson, Wighton and Young cascaded in to drag him into touch, and Schuster followed Trbojevic with a ruck error on the back of a sudden turnover. The stars were aligning for Canberra, who were back in the ten with four tackles, when Tapine dummied and demanded all Croker’s strength to bring him down.
It looked like we might be in for another turnaround when DCE reached out his right arm to intercept a Williams sweep to the left wing, but in a double turnaround Schuster was called offside, and Williams’ error turned into a penalty kick to bring the green machine to a converted try lead. True to the spirit of this game, the kick was a turnaround in itself, swerving away to the left before striking the post at the last second and ricocheting back over the crossbar.
Manly did well to keep the Raiders in their own end for most of the restart, but the green machine had enough flow now to break into space at any moment. With his most soaring bomb so far, Wighton evoked the field position they were on the cusp of glimpsing, as Wighton spearheaded another enormous tackle to prevent DCE making decent metres midway through, forcing him to resort to a spiral bomb on the last – both to make up for the tackle and to cancel out the import of Wighton’s massive boot from the set before.
Rapana was equal to it, sliding to ground to take possession, and while Williams had to kick from his own forty, you couldn’t shake the sense that Canberra had all the momentum now. They just needed to reach the Manly twenty to consolidate, much as their first try had come the instant they arrived in the opposition red zone. Play paused briefly when Funa twisted awkwardly beneath yet another huge combined tackle, spearheaded this time by Dunamis Lui, while DCE had to take his next kick within his own forty, and didn’t get much spin now.
Little by little, the Raiders were recovering field position. Wighton found nobody waiting for him at marker, and made twenty metres midway through the next set, before Garrick finally failed to collect a high ball, leaping up to meet the Steeden at the ten only for the tip to ricochet off his head at an unexpected angle. Finally, the Raiders had their set in the Manly twenty, and then another shot on this same set, as an Emre Guler fumble was folded back into Garrick’s original error for a Canberra scrum feed ten metres out.
This was crunch time, since if the green machine didn’t score here they might just concede the momentum back to Manly. Rapana and Sutton took strong runs at the line on the right, laying a platform for their men to pivot back out to the left with a clean, clinical and economical sweep from the halves – cut-out ball from Williams, cut-out ball from Wighton, and a barnstorming try from Simonsson, who put down his first four against the Sea Eagles. It was a superb sequel to his hat trick against Parra, bringing Canberra to 10-0 with the kick.
Williams’ conversion from the sideline was as seamless as his front-on kick had been clumsy, cresting the Raiders to -72 on the live ladder, sandwiched between Parra at sixth and Newcastle at eighth, with five minutes left to the sheds. Despite a late restart, they wouldn’t put down any more points here, while Manly would commence their comeback as soon as they returned to the park, paving the way for the closest finish of Round 23.
Trbojevic took the first carry back, and Dylan Walker followed with twenty metres up the middle, copping some tough contact that slowed him down, but only after he’d played the ball. Again, Manly did well to keep Canberra trapped in their own end, forcing Williams to kick within the thirty, before we got another flashback to the opening minutes with a superb run from Suli. Receiving the footy from Foran out on the left edge, he carved a dangerous path back in field, palming off Rapana and bringing in three defenders to take him at the ten.
Walker tried to barge over a moment later, and between these two runs – one long, one short – Olakau’atu had enough energy behind him to score off a deft short ball from Croker. All night, big Haumole had been looking for a break on that right edge, so his try had an air of consolidation about it, especially since this was such a show of individual strength. Rapana almost got to Suli, but he never had a chance here, wilting in the face of Olakau’atu’s charge before Garrick added the extras to hit 270, 30 past Adam Reynolds for top points in 2021.
The Sea Eagles didn’t do much with the restart, leaving DCE to boot it inside his forty, while a tough Young run into DCE recalled the restless spirit of the Raiders at the close of the first half. No doubt Canberra had lost some rhythm with Papalii and Tapine both off the field, but they were far from defeated by the previous try, especially since they got the next big turnaround – a lost ball from Suli just as he was breaking up the left wing for the key play Manly needed to parlay their try into another bout of field position.
Timoko delivered some more mercurial footwork on tackle two, effectively repeating his assist pivot halfway up the park, and yet this flashback couldn’t prevent the next turnaround – and possibly the best. Harper came in for an individual steal on Young, who was wise to his move, and just clutched the footy tighter, only to somehow still lose it in the contest. While Guler killed some of the momentum with an awkward but legal tackle on Walker, DCE still booted it all the way to the try line, forcing Canberra to scramble for position yet again.
Hodgson responded with his best kick of the night, sitting the footy up in the right corner, and leaving space for Williams and Whitehead to combine for the best Canberra chase of the night too – a monster hit on Garrick that galvanised Wighton into a massive dragback on DCE to keep Manly in the twenty until play four. At the thirty, DCE booted a decent enough kick, but hardly the long-ranger you’d want in the circumstances. Simonsson was back over the forty on tackle one, and Sutton hit the twenty two plays later, as the Raiders shaped to score.
It all came down to a crossfield chip from Williams that Rapana touched and lost in the air, flicking it forward before Suli reached out both hands to take it on the bounce. Again, the Sea Eagles struggled to work it out of their own end, but this time they had Rapana’s error to steel them, prompting Croker to shoot for another 40/20 early in the count. He got the angle right but didn’t quite clear the twenty, giving Canberra another shot at the twenty, as Williams chipped to the other side, where Harper followed Suli by coming up with the football.
The flipside was that Manly spent the first three tackles in their ten, and the rest in their thirty, as Funa tried and failed to break up the right edge, and Karl Lawton added some fresh blood to the contest. This time DCE’s kick was better, driving the Raiders back to their own ten in turn, where they had to face a wall of maroon and white defenders as they searched in vain for an opening. Their closest shot came off more Timoko footwork, which eluded both Trbojevic and Olakau’atu as Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad joined Lawton off the bench.
Both teams had spent so much time working it out of their own end that they each needed a really enterprising play to break into the next part of the game – or at least some more risk. Schuster provided the first step with a no-look offload early in the next Manly set, before the boys from Brooky settled into their clutchest, riskiest sequence of play in the wake of a CNK cough-up on tackle one. Curtis Sironen was the first man in place, scooping up the Steeden and bringing it to the line, where he poised on all fours to play it as quickly as possible.
From there, Lawton collected it on the ground, and came up with the lowest and latest offload of the night to DCE, who responded with his most eccentric kick – straight off the side of the boot to the right edge, where the footy ricocheted at a crazy angle before Saab tapped it back to Harper, who finally consolidated this splendid sequence with the its really conventional puzzle piece. Clutching the Steeden into his chest, he twist and spun through Kris to plant it down, before Garrick added the extras to bring us to twelve all on the cusp of the final quarter.
For the second time, Garrick’s kick veered left and bounced back off the post, although this time the angle and ricochet were gentler, as if the Sea Eagles had learned to make their luck more seamlessly over the second and third quarter. They were pretty enterprising on the restart too, spreading right on the second tackle before Suli glimpsed space up the left. He didn’t break through but did manage to pop it across to DCE for more metres, before Foran capped it off with a terrific kick – and Simonsson answered with an even better catch.
So emphatic was Bailey’s collect after all this restless Manly exploration that it galvanised Canberra into some of their best defence on the next set, although even that energy couldn’t prevent the Sea Eagles from continuing to capitalise on their post-try high, as DCE became the next visionary with the boot, grubbering it low and hard behind the crossbar, where Williams only just cleaned it up before Foran arrived to plant it down. In just two plays, the Sea Eagles had consolidated, found their flow, as Suli came close to another left edge break.
This was the most dangerous period so far for the Raiders, on both sides of the field, since Taupau came close to breaking through on the left, while Saab showcased some threatening footwork on the right – such a symmetrical division of labour between strength and speed that it felt preordained when DCE reprised his grubber on the last to split the middle open. He was aiming for the left post, but the bounce and boot surprised even him, sitting up on a dime for Sironen to clutch it into his chest for his first try (in only his fourth match) of 2021.
No surprise that Daly was barking out orders at his men while Garrick lined up, and then booted through, the conversion, since his leadership from the halves had cemented this back forty as Manly’s game. The Sea Eagles were now firmly in the four, sitting on 211 and 30 above the Roosters at 141 and 30, so they had to hope the Chooks lost to South Sydney next week. Meanwhile, Funa broke up the left on play one of the restart, booting it at speed as players from both sides converged at Canberra’s ten metre line.
Garrick got there first and probably should have dived on the footy, since his second kick was too hard, careening it over the dead ball line to gift the hosts their biggest letoff so far. Young built on it with a flick offload to Hodgson, and Wighton drove it into the left corner, where he was unable to rival Funa’s kick at speed, instead sending it over the sideline. Simonsson came close to one of the clutch plays of the year as he leaped over the chalk on one boot and tried to toe it back inside with the other, but he didn’t quite nail the gymnastics of it all.
Manly didn’t really capture Funa’s momentum on their next set, giving the Raiders more time to recover from his mad dash up the left edge, although he did respond, in turn, with a massive hit in the same part of the park, that saw Wighton clamouring for a shoulder charge. We were at peak volatility, as Foran and Garrick each dragged a couple of defenders ten metres to almost break through the line, and the Sea Eagles rallied to prevent any Canberra chargers making decent metres after contact on the following set.
DCE invoked Funa’s break, which was fast becoming the reference point for these last ten minutes, with a kick on the run up the left, to end the next Manly bout, and while the Raiders hit back with a left side sweep, Kris mistimed a critical pass that ended up in Jake Trbojevic’s possession. Daly was certainly stepping up in Turbo’s absence as key playmaker, ending the next set with a 40/20 attempt that came nicely off the boot, but sailed over the sideline at the thirty as Whitehead copped a belated report for a crusher on Taupau minutes before.
Whitehead got luckier at the end of the set, when he lost the footy for what looked like a certain loose carry, only to find it somehow heading backwards, before his men got six again, just outside the twenty, off an error from Walker. Papalii flung himself at the line, a man desperate to keep his club’s season alive, as the game seemed to shift subliminally back in the Raiders’ favour once again. Perhaps that’s why DCE opted to pop through a one-point field goal two sets later, after Frawley and Rapana both booted it too hard on the last.
By this late stage the Sea Eagles had wrestled control of the VB Hard Earned Index, with Schuster (75), Trbojevic (70), Suli (68) and Taupau all in the top five, and Sutton (69) the only Raider represented. Meanwhile, DCE’s one-pointer would become the winning point of the game, since the green machine had only one more converted try in them. For a moment, it looked like the Sea Eagles might break up the left again after Daly’s kick, but it was the Manly halfback himself who ended up flicking it back to the opposition.
To their credit, Canberra capitalised here, as Timoko sent Smith-Shields through the line up the right, where he danced along the chalk and eluded an ankle tap from Suli before popping it back inside for CNK to score behind the posts. Rapana booted through the two with 23 seconds to spare, and the game came down to the wire with Schuster binned three seconds from the siren. It would have been a fairytale finish if Rapana had pulled off the two-point field goal right on the eighty, but he sent it wide, and Canberra’s season faded to blank.
Despite that close finish, the final note of the game was the strength, simplicity and assurance of DCE’s second field goal of the year – and the 23rd of his career. In this one play, he embodied the cohesion with which the Sea Eagles had fought back against an early Canberra surge in Turbo’s absence, bringing his men solidly into the four with the calm leadership he’s made his own. Beating the Bulldogs next week shouldn’t be a challenge, while the Raiders will be hoping to pile on the consolation points when they meet New Zealand on Friday night.