ROUND 24: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Moreton Daily Stadium, 29/8/21, 36-18)

The first game of Sunday’s double-header at Redcliffe was a surprisingly suspenseful affair given what was at stake –  the current cellar dwellers pitched against a Manly oufit who were keen to secure a top four berth. Canterbury had a particularly strong first stanza, thanks to bombed tries from Haumole Olaka’atu and Jason Saab, along with a superb period of flow in the second quarter, ushered in by a sublime individual effort from Matt Doorey that lifted the whole game – but made it doubly dispiriting when he left the park with an ACL a beat later.

Despite only enjoying about 35% of the football, Canterbury took the lead at this early stage, and continued to stay staunch for the first twenty back from the break, only for Manly to put down a (relative) torrent of twenty points in the last quarter – one per minute – to come away with a eighteen-point win. Turbo made up for a quiet first forty with a hat trick here (even if the first try was pretty contentious) but the highlight reel was dominated by Jackson Topine, who put down his debut four in the NRL with an incredible play at speed on  the restart kickoff.

Ava Seumanufagai took the first hit-up and Jack Hetherington followed with a strong run, but the Dogs still found it hard to crack the halfway line, forcing Kyle Flanagan to take the first kick within his forty. He got a decent bounce, and garnered some time to get the Canterbury defensive line in place when Turbo let it spill over the sideline, hand over his face to block the glaring Redcliffe sun. Even so, Manly were inside the red zone by their last tackle, only for Morgan Harper to execute a fairly underwhelming kick that Corey Allan cleaned up with ease.

Put that down, in part, to Daly Cherry-Evans’ decision to run it on the last – and this galvanised Flanagan into kicking early on the next set, trapping the Sea Eagles on their line and forcing them to fight for field position on their second touch of the footy. Nevertheless, Flanagan undid it all with a ruck infringement midway through the count, meaning that Manly went from their own try line to a full set on the Canterbury chalk. In yet another twist, Reuben Garrick came to ground a metre out on the left, where he swivelled the footy behind his head.

He didn’t quite get it down before he lost it into Nick Meaney’s boot, begging the question of whether the Canterbury fullback had made contact as an incidental part of the tackle, or as a more cynical effort to knock the Steeden free. The Bunker deemed that it was all legit, but this could easily have gone the way of penalty try, so all in all the Dogs were pretty lucky to get the ball back – and their first decent field position to boot, with a full set on the Manly line. They shifted left on the last, but Turbo was in place to collect Brandon Wakeham’s kick.

Hetherington still seemed galvanised by this set when he rushed out of the line and clipped Harper on the chin, conceding an early penalty and giving the Sea Eagles another bump up the park. They elasticised accordingly, spreading it left for Turbo to add twenty up the middle, while brother Jake set up a couple of good runs later in the count as well, before taking a big charge himself on the penultimate play. Finally, Kieran Foran culminated the earlier left edge attack with a grubber to the wing that Jayden Okunbor had no choice but to kick into touch.

Wakeham sent it over the halfway line, Marty Taupau took it back to the thirty, and the Bulldogs had a serious challenge on their hands here, given their track record in defending back-to-back sets. Foran was at the ten midway through the count, the Sea Eagles got six again off a Josh Jackson error, Hetherington had some fleeting joy by (just) holding up Turbo beside the right post, and the Manly machine ran like clockwork from there – a beautiful cut-out effort from DCE to Harper, whose assist was just as elegant for Jason Saab on the wing.

Garrick missed his first conversion attempt, but this was still a pretty resounding statement from the Sea Eagles, even against the lowest ranked team in the comp. Again, they spread it left early in the set, resetting their rhythm with a strong Tapau run up the middle, before trying their hand on the other wing, where Doorey did well to drag Turbo a couple of metres backwards. In the end, DCE booted it deep within his own end. Encouraged by this aborted restart, the Dogs poured up the left on the next set, clearing room for a great Flanagan bomb.

This was the most dangerous kick so far from Canterbury, and while Turbo lost it, the playwent against them, since in the most marginal call so far, Chris Sutton deemed that Corey Allan had tackled him in the air. They could have conceivably gone for a Captain’s Challenge here, since you could make a case that the ex-Rabbitoh was simply competing for it in the air, but they chose to weather the next set, which started with Turbo channelling the speed of the last Canterbury effort, only for Haumole Olakau’atu to put down a DCE ball on the chalk.

This was a fortuitous moments for the Dogs – possibly a turning-point – since while Flanagan had come in low and hard on Olakau’atu, he probably wouldn’t have been able to stop him slamming over if he’d caught Daly’s pass clean. The Sea Eagles got another burst of field position when Wakeham prevented DCE from collecting the play-the-ball, and Taupau became the next frontrower to put the footy down a few tackles later. The game was entering one of its messier periods, and beginning to open wide for the team that could organise first. 

After all, the Dogs had only conceded four points with almost a quarter of football gone – not a bad result from the bottom ranked team against a top four contender, although this was a bigger margin than it looked on paper given Canterbury’s issues with scoring in 2021, their more innovative second stanzas notwithstanding. DCE tried to reset the rhythm with a 40/20, and missed out by a metre, while Sione Katoa did better with the boot on the following set, opting for a chip with a grubber-like bounce that Garrick had to clean up behind his try line.

DCE didn’t go too long with the dropout, only sending it about thirty-five metres, meaning Hetherington was in place to play it quickly at the ten by tackle two. Jackson almost plunged through beneath the crossbar a play later, Flanagan tried a twist-and-spin through Lachlan Croker on the left, and it felt like the Dogs were really building something here, so it was frustrating when Wakeham wasn’t able to follow Katoa’s brilliance with the boot. All he had in the arsenal was an average kick that Saab took quickly enough to set up a terrific DCE run.

So rapidly did Daly move up the park that Wakeham compounded his last tackle blunder with a second effort, as the Sea Eagles effectively absorbed all the escalating momentum of this last Canterbury surge. Turbo and Garrick looked to be shaping something promising on the left wing, only for Turbo to accidentally run behind his no. 5, so the hosts headed out to the right to steady their spirits before they returned to the wing once more, where Schuster withstood an Okunbor-led pack on the side before popping a trademark no-looker to Turbo.

This was good pressure from Manly, and they continued it through one of the most volatile sequences in the game so far – Harper tapping the kick back to DCE, who grubbered again ten metres out, prompting a career highlight for Seumanufagai, who dove to collect it beside the right post, but so precariously that Dylan Walker was able to bundle his massive bulk back into touch. The rest was pure Manly efficiency – a decimating right sweep that concluded with Turbo shifting it out for what initially looked like a certain Saab double out on the wing.

The replay told a different story, however, showing the wiry backliner had lost possession just as he got it to ground – a remarkable letoff for the Bulldogs, especially since Olakau’atu had also bombed a certain try ten minutes before. Even better, Canterbury got six again early in the next set, off a ruck infringement from Toafofoa Sipley, and got stuck in to resolve only a four-point deficit with a mere 32% of possession under their belts. Manly needed a bold flex here – and they got it when Schuster took Flanno’s kick and offloaded to Brad Parker in goal.

The gamble paid off, as Parker just got an elbow back into the field of play, despite Joe Stimson’s best efforts – a good outcome for Manly in more ways than one, since the Sea Eagles probably wouldn’t have survived another Canterbury dropout now, given the recent shift in momentum. While they’d had less footy, the Dogs hadn’t made an error yet, with 11/11 completions, so that consistency could well be an asset here if they managed to capitalise on the next Manly error, which came in the form of a Saab knock-on a beat after.

Capitalise they did, as Doorey galvanised them with precisely the one-man effort they needed to consolidate this recent resurgence – a brilliant individual try under the posts, straight off the scrum, to set up Flanagan for the conversion that put Canterbury in front for the first time. Even better, they got a restart on the restart, thanks to an offside from Jake Turbo, and then seamlessly parlayed Doorey’s sublime run into another burst of speed, starting with a linebreak assist from Ofahiki Ogden that put Wakeham into open space with metres to burn.

At the last minute he shifted it across to Meaney, who didn’t make it to the line, but was able to set up a rapid right sweep – so fast that the stunning acceleration of this last sequence almost overtook the Doggies, as the Steeden missed its final mark to bounce chaotically on the sideline. Yet in an individual play that was every bit as spectacular as Doorey’s run, Okunbor scooped it up, pivoted back inside, and slammed down four that became six when Flanno added a terrific sideline conversion. Just like that, Canterbury were eight in the blue.

Last night Parramatta had showed what an attitude and culture reset looks like, so you had to wonder whether the Bulldogs had taken a lesson from their western neighbours here. Certainly, there was a stark contrast between Saab’s botched putdown, which had a certain complacency written on it, and the way that Okunbor had saved a try out on his own right wing. Nevertheless, DCE resumed the challenge with a terrific grubber that forced the next Canterbury dropout – a big statement to an outfit that have struggled to defend back-to-back.

This was the time for Manly to hit back, then, and they did so by drawing on Doorey’s speed themselves, fusing and resolving the last two Canterbury tries into their own power move before the break. Again, the vision came from DCE, who built off a rousing Foran run by heading deep into the line, breaking through it, shaping for a cut-out sweep to the wing, and then popping a deceptively short pass across to Olakau’atu, who put his botched try behind him by crossing over untouched, narrowing the deficit to two once Garrick added the extras.

DCE’s dexterity was all the more important in that Turbo had been pretty quiet during this first half as well – and came at just the right time to also consign Saab’s poor putdown to a spotty opening stanza, as both teams headed to the sheds. The next forty would unfold as a more predictable scoreline – only six more points for the Bulldogs, and 26 for the Sea Eagles, who got back into finals footy mode, playing more like their top four berth was on the line.

It felt symbolic, then, that Doorey was taken off the park for a leg injury three minutes before the siren – the final death knell of that splendid burst of momentum he’d galvanised with the best run of his career. Still, Canterbury did well to hang on for the final Manly set, which saw Turbo make a pretty convincing break at the line, before the Sea Eagles tried to reprise that right play once more, only for Saab to put it down off a Walker ball that was forward anyway.

Manly laid down the metres on their return from the sheds, culminating with a nice play from Olakau’atu, who almost broke through a Wakeham tackle, and still spun enough to offload to Harper for a secondary run up the middle. With Meaney forced to tap the kick into touch, this was a strong start from the Sea Eagles, especially since Wakeham went relatively short with the dropout, meaning DCE was in place to nearly put Croker over on the left by tackle two.

Flanagan infringed the ruck a moment later, Hetherington conceded another restart for being inside the ten, and in the end the pressure of four repeat sets was (supposedly) too much for the Dogs, as staunch as their defence had been during this period. The last great save was from Will Hopoate, who shut down a left sweep and forced Manly back to the middle – or at least the last save the Bunker recognised as such. For while Manly were insatiable in returning to the left, where Foran assisted Turbo, this was one of the most contentious tries of the year.

In slow motion, this clearly looked like the pinnacle of Canterbury’s superb goal line defence, as Hetherington grabbed Turbo by the back of the jersey, reached his right hand under the tip of the Steeden, and prevented the cult fullback from getting it down on the first shot. As Turbo writhed and twisted in the tackle, he dropped more than planted the footy on the other side of his body, making the call of try quite confounding here – and especially frustrating for Hetherington, who got fired up and roused a fracas a mere tackle after Garrick added the kick.

The fight ostensibly began with Aloiai lashing out at Jackson with his feet, but the energy all came from the disappointment and incredulity of this last try. You couldn’t begrudge the Bulldogs getting some joy here, even if sending Aloiai to the bin may have been a bridge too far, since the blue and white had been much harder done by over the last five minutes. They had to capitalise quickly now, build a run of possession to take advantage of the twelve man opposition, since Manly were more than capable of defending single sets with a player down.

Once again, though, Turbo was in place to clean up the grubber before it landed in goal, while DCE steadied the ship with a long, low kick from the forty that travelled all the way to the Canterbury ten, forcing the Dogs to work it the entire length of the field. Okunbor got them rolling with a strong run up the middle, and Meaney and Hetherington combined to channel that energy to the right edge, where it was in danger of dissipating – and did dissipate when Hoppa found himself slammed to ground, and lost the ball back for Garrick to scoop up again.

Play paused as Harper struggled to get up from an Aaron Schoupp sideline tackle, struggling to regain his balance even when he returned to his feet. He didn’t get a penalty out of it, though, while the best DCE could do was a soaring kick to make sure that the Bulldogs didn’t get too much position on the back of this Manly deflation. Flanagan went bomb-for-bomb at the end of the subsequent set, but there was no kick chase to make it worthwhile, meaning Turbo was able to clean it up on the line just as he’d effectively disposed of the last grubber.

Both teams were searching for vision now – but especially the Dogs, who had to score their next try with Aloiai in the bin or else concede a fresh burst of momentum back to Manly as the last quarter of the game loomed on the distant horizon. Yet Flanno didn’t have anything in the tank except another regulation bomb –to the other side of the park now, but equivalent in shape and speed to his last effort, meaning that Turbo was able to collect it just as cleanly.

This lack of imagination from the Canterbury kicker spurred an abbreviated and accelerated right sweep from the Sea Eagles on their next set, as DCE burst into space and shifted it right for Turbo, who very nearly got Saab his double after all. At another point in the game, the dropped ball could have been the death knell for Manly, but here it was a reminder of just how much more speed the visitors could muster, and how well they could rally with a player in the bin, while it boded well that Saab didn’t exude a shred of complacency this time either.

Bailey Biondi-Odo had given his all in terms of energy since trotting onto the field, but his inexperience showed with a cough-up that gifted Manly a scrum feed as Aloiai returned from the bin. Again, Turbo chanced his hand with a cut-out ball to Saab on the wing, and again the play didn’t come together, thanks to a three-man tackle from Canterbury. Turbo also took the kick beautifully, right between the two aerial defenders, coming to ground beside the left padding. Meaney saved the day though, forcing him to put down and lose the footy just short.

Flanagan also did his part here – a salient reminder of just how much the Dogs could achieve if they actually bothered to challenge Turbo for their kicks. Meanwhile, Manly got a restart on their next carry, while another three-man Canterbury pack prevented what initially looked like a certain wing try, this time from Parker on the left. Despite these big individual surges, it felt like the game was starting to dissipate for both teams, so you would never have guessed that Manly would go on to put down a point per minute during the final quarter of the match.

In fact, with only a four-point difference, it felt like Canterbury might just come away with the chocolates here – stranger things have happened at this late point in the season. Yet after a game of rough penalties, Stimson got the toughest yet, briefly grabbing Taupau’s hair before letting go just as quickly – so rapidly that this felt entirely inadvertent. It was utterly astounding he found himself put on report for it as Garrick made the only penalty kick of the night, bringing his men to a six point lead, while the Dogs had to use this indignity to fire up.

They couldn’t do much to stop Walker on the restart, when he dragged a clutch of defenders a good four or five metres, although Hoppa was staunch on Foran, while Okunbor dove on the footy to prevent the Sea Eagles getting it then and there when Meaney let it it sail straight through his hands. Still, this was a small consolation, while this sequence was a tribute to what a great kick chase (from Turbo) can get you. Manly didn’t waste any time reaching the line either, as Olakau’atu barged up on the right, and Lawton nearly poured over in his wake.  

For a moment, it looked like the Dogs might get a let-off now, with an apparent forward pass from Turbo, but the call was a knock-down from Okunbor, whose right arm had come into contact with the footy at just the wrong moment. By this stage, Manly needed to grind in and treat it like a war of attrition, and so DCE sent Turbo towards the line in the same spot as Olakau’atu and Lawton, while Walker followed with a near break further out on the wing. With that grunt behind them, they headed left, only for Schuster to shift inside just as quickly.

This was one of the strongest runs of Schuster’s career – fresh and deft enough in its passage across the defence that he didn’t even have to rely on one of his trademark no-lookers, instead popping it straight and true across for Turbo to cement the right-side momentum that had driven this entire set. Crossing and scoring, he became the third highest tryscorer of 2021, after Alex Johnston and Josh Ado-Carr – a pretty remarkable result given he was out for the first part – while Garrick’s kick got him 282  points, six behind Hazel El Masri’s 2004 record.

Combined with the frustrations of Manly on the right edge, and Turbo’s own relatively quiet first half, these factors all meant that this was the consolation try of the evening, even if it only put the Sea Eagles twelve ahead with ten on the clock. History repeated itself now, when Allan followed Meaney with a similar cough-up on the other side of the field, but under considerably less pressure here, even if Saab did muster a valiant response to Turbo’s chase.

With a scrum to augment their restart, it was hard to believe that the Sea Eagles wouldn’t score now – and Walker was almost the man for the job, slamming the Steeden into the left post with such fury that Sutton sent it upstairs just to confirm that Jackson had indeed made the superhuman effort to insert himself between ball and ground. With that collision, Manly effectively exhausted the possibility of this set, and Lawton was called offside a tackle later.

The Dogs didn’t look bad on the following set, building speed up the right side, as Hoppa mimicked one of Schuster’s no-look passes only to send it soaring past Okunbor and over the sideline. Taupau chose this moment to show how hard and fast he could make metres up the middle third, getting his men to the Canterbury red zone with four tackles left. The shifted left, and Turbo finally, fully, reasserted himself as the best player on the ground by slicing through the defence to score a hat trick in the second half, which Garrick converted clinically.

Yet the Bulldogs now got one of their best tries in years – or at least one of their most spectacular. After his team had failed to deal with the kick convincingly throughout this second half, Jackson Topine chased down the kickoff, took it at speed, and plunged over the line, pulling the rug out from under Manly so efficiently that this would have been a genuine game-changer if there were even ten minutes more play. On top of that, it was his debut try – and few NRL players have put down their first four in such an unusual and flamboyant way.

Still, Manly had the last word here, surviving the restart, and a set restart, before Saab bookended the game with a double in the very last second – and ran the length of the field to boot, as if putting the messier moments of this game, and his early complacency on the wing, behind him for good. Manly are in strong shape to take on the Cowboys next week, (although they need to make sure they don’t get too relaxed on the cusp of finals footy) while the Dogs were good enough to make them a threat for the Wests Tigers on Sunday afternoon. 

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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