ROUND 25: North Queensland Cowboys v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (QCB Stadium, 4/9/21, 18-46)

Manly have become the first team since the St. George-Illawarra outfit of 2005 to lose the first four games of the season and still make the top four, while Reuben Garrick also became the top NRL pointscorer in a single season during Saturday’s incredible match against the Cowboys in Townsville. This was the Hammer’s fourth game at fullback, and another dress rehearsal for his role in the no. 1 jersey, but he was injured early on, after a terrific long-range try, as Valentine Holmes shifted to custodian and the Cows battled with a depleted backline.

For long periods, this wasn’t such a bad game for North Queensland – a surprisingly close contest during middle periods of both halves, when the Sea Eagles struggled to make some of their regular set pieces and combinations come together. Yet this just turned out to be a residue of their more lacklustre game against the Bulldogs the week before, since they ended both stanzas with a Turbocharged torrent of points, and ended the second with a sequence that recapitulated this capacity for self-correction in sublime miniature, in the last seconds.

This was one of the greatest NRL sequences I have ever seen, and certainly the greatest on the cusp of finals – a 125-metre try that saw the Sea Eagles recover from a near-dropout with one of the best team tries they’ve ever scored. Turbo was the man who put it down, and while he was only the last ingredient, this kind of daring and dexterity would never have been imaginable without him on the park. Just minutes before, he’d made arguably the best run of his career, disposing of nine Cowboys as he danced along the North Queensland line to score.

In the end, then, this was a more intense version of the last clash between these two sides, when the Cows led 12-0 only to end up conceding 50 points. Manly didn’t quite reach the half-century here, but their tries were even more compressed and assured, while Turbo reached a new level, as he does every game. Alone, he scored nearly as much as North Queensland, while in tandem with Jake’s two tries (one of which he assisted), he bested them. With his try in the final second of the game, he literally had the last word on every single play.

Never have the brothers felt quite as galvanising as Brett and Glenn Stewart as they did during this combination at the end of the first stanza, and yet it was just one of many incredible plays Turbo made during the night. Roosters supporters would have been looking on anxiously, since a Manly win here propelled them out of the top four, but a deeper concern must have emerged too, as there’s no doubt that Turbo is now the best fullback in the world, capable of prodigiously unbelievable plays that exceed what even Tedesco can orchestrate at his best.

Tofofoa Sipley took the first carry, Daly Cherry-Evans made the first kick from his forty, and the Hammer responded with a strong return to get his men to the halfway line by tackle three, where Val Holmes fumbled the play-the-ball – a bad harbinger for his ongoing stint in the centres. Meanwhile, Haumole Olakau’atu made up for the limited field position of the first Manly set, breaking through the line and laying the platform for a deft Turbo run on the left.

Manly were inside the Cowboys’ ten by the fourth play, but it all came apart from there, as Taupau mistimed a pass to Turbo, who coughed it up on the line. The Hammer now channelled his previous return into a barnstorming run, scooping up the footy just as it hit the ground, tucking it under his right arm, and making eighty metres by the time Saab got to him. Even though he’d decelerated to third gear, he was still able to dance over Saab, and ricochet off Garrick to get the ball down, before Holmes made up for his error with a great conversion.

Morgan Harper slowed down the restart with a huge hit on Ben Condon, and Saab got some joy by taking Tom Dearden’s kick on the full, but the Hammer did one better at the back of DCE’s next last tackle effort, scooping up the Steeden right on his try line and splitting the defence for a third terrific run. Dearden’s net kick was a bomb from thirty out, and Garrick only just took it in the face of a tough chase spearheaded by Kyle Feldt. Again, Turbo found edge space – this time on the left – and again the Cows contained him, thanks to Daejarn Asi.

Tabuai-Fidow had been the star player of these opening ten minutes, so it was heartbreaking to see him head off the park with a hamstring issue, forcing Holmes to shift back into the custodian role and Jake Granville out to right centre. This was a big challenge, defensively, for Granville, who got his first threat immediately when Garrick broke into space up the left edge off a deft Turbo pass. North Queensland survived this time, but this mad run galvanised Manly, especially once DCE built on it with an offload to Harper early in their subsequent set.

Sure enough, Garrick targeted the left edge, dancing from boot to boot, and busting through a trio of tackles from Feldt, Dearden and Jeremiah Nanai, before making twenty metres back in field, where he bumped off Holmes once before the ex-Shark finally got him to ground. Harper continued that trajectory into the right corner a tackle later, but this time the North Queensland defence clicked on, thanks to Murray Taulagi, who led a pack to put him in touch.

Dearden mirrored DCE with an offload back to Nanai late in the next set, but the Cows conceded seven tackles when Scott Drinkwater booted it too hard. Taupau followed with the latest offload so far – right off the ground to Kieran Foran – and Turbo did the same for Lachlan Croker, breaking the offload-for-offload rhythm for a potential consolidation moment. DCE seized that moment, concluding the set with a chip to the right wing that perfectly pre-empted just how high Saab would be able to leap above Taulagi to take it square on the chest.

All Saab had to do, once he’d cleared his opposing winger, was grab the footy out of the air, before curving around behind the posts to set up Garrick for a simple conversion. Manly got an augmented restart, thanks to a strip from Mitch Dunn, and DCE got away with a forward pass a moment later, meaning they had three tackles to play with in the Cowboys’ red zone. DCE chose to pass instead of kick on the last, and while Sipley crossed over the line, the refs weren’t going to miss a second forward pass from Daly, turning a near-assist into a turnover.

A bit of a chaotic period now ensued, on the cusp of the second quarter, while Manly started to lose control of the game in the wake of a ruck error from Josh Schuster. Reece Robson made another argument for best Cowboy of 2021 with a near-break up the middle, and while Condon knocked on Dearden’s kick, he was able to take the full brunt of Turbo slipping into his tackle a few plays later. DCE tried to settle his men with one of his biggest bombs so far, but Holmes took it clean, even if he almost concussed himself on the padding in the process.

This was Holmes’ first really courageous play at no.1 since the Hammer left the field, and it was especially important now that news had come down from the sheds that the first-choice custodian was going to be out for the whole night. No surprise, then, that the Cows consolidated from here, starting with a series of bullocking runs from the big men up the middle third. Feldt followed with one of their best defensive plays so far, silencing Turbo on the left and momentarily considering whether to rally a pack to bump him over the sideline.

Seeing Turbo so vulnerable seemed to spook the Sea Eagles, and Harper put down a DCE pass a tackle later. Three plays after that, Dunn took the first tackle in the Manly twenty, and Coen Hess the first in the Manly ten, ushering in North Queensland’s first goal line attack of the night. It all came down to a Drinkwater chip to the right – a kick that painfully clarified his difference from DCE. Holmes took it on the chest, but if it it had been placed just a metre or two back he would have been able to withstand the Sea Eagles’ chase and slam it to ground.

As it was, he lost it back to Jake Trbojevic, who shifted it on to Turbo, who in turn tempted a second effort from Jason Taumalolo. This was an optimal point for Manly to hit back after a spotty few sets, but a North Queensland Captain’s Challenge quickly drained their momentum. The Cows actually lost this one – an attempt to prove that Dunn hadn’t knocked on after stripping the footy from Schuster – but the Bunker took so long to scrutinise the footage that the critical consolidation moment came and went by the time Manly got started. 

Two tackles out of the scrum, Dylan Walker made another dent in the Sea Eagles’ completion rate, losing the footy into a Taumalolo tackle to put his men at 9/14 against the Cows at 10/11. Still, he made up for it with one of the biggest defensive plays so far, catching Hess at the vulnerable millisecond just after he’d receieved the footy, as he was shaping to run, and coming in under the ribs to drive him a good fifteen metres back with the help of Olakau’atu.

DCE was just as ballsy a play later, holding up Asi in the tackle until he lost the footy, confident he could even get a covert fingertip to it now that the Cows didn’t have a challenge left in their arsenal. It was paramount that Manly complete this next set, especially since they got their first two restarts in quick succession, off ruck errors from Hess and Feldt. In between, Granville showed some genuine mettle to hold up Turbo on the left edge, and yet this just forced the Sea Eagles to extemporise into their first really compelling sweep from side to side. 

Nevertheless, this wasn’t a seamless sweep, as Saab was forced to save a DCE pass that slid through Harper’s fingertips on the right, while DCE was presented with a mistimed Croker ball on the last. To his credit, he had to stop dead in his tracks to reach around and collect it, but even then he got a decent grubber away, and would have produced a dropout, or maybe even a try, if it had been slightly less weighted, since Taulagi had both hands down to bump it into touch, only to pull them away at the last second when he saw it was going to go dead anyway.

The game was starting to get messy again, as the Cows stumbled in turn midway through their next set, when Drinkwater lost the ball back to Condon, who rose slowly from the ground on the next tackle, before Griffin Meane had to contend with an awkward bouncing ball. No surprise, then, that Drinkwater coughed it up a tackle later, but the error came off some Croker crowding. For a moment, the Cows seemed to consolidate through the sheer gesture of not taking the penalty kick, setting up Holmes for his best run in the no. 1 jersey all night.

It was a tough drive deep into the right corner – a run that cried out for a quick try out of whoever received the footy from dummy half. Asi was the man, and got a hand clean out of the defensive maelstrom, only to lost it in the ground, thanks to some desperate goal line defence from Harper, who read the play perfectly. Manly needed a big one-man effort to hit back now, and Walker provided it, receiving the Steeden from Jake Trbojevic at the halfway line, breaking into space, and only just succumbing to a last-ditch jersey tackle from Holmes.

Turbo absorbed this speed into a dummy-half kick, and Dearden very nearly absorbed it straight back again with a heroic effort to burst out of dummy half, until Croker got some joy after his botched pass to DCE by operating as last line of defence now. The park was pockmarked with divots, and Turbo had his second slide two tackles into the dropout, decentring the flow of the set, which concluded with Brad Parker knocking on a Foran chip.

Meanwhile, the Cows made it 2/2 early in the next set, and both halfbacks got away with a forward pass as Dearden now lobbed it ahead to Asi. Saab might have taken it on the full, but Holmes ensured that DCE’s next 40/20 effort didn’t have the slightest chance of reaching the sideline. With five minutes on the clock, North Queensland were looking at a genuine first half victory – heading to the sheds with six apiece – while Manly seemed like the outfit outside the eight, as Saab became the next man to slip, right as he was chasing down Dearden’s kick.

The Sea Eagles didn’t concede what would have been one of the most embarrassing tries of their whole season here, but they still had to work it back from their own line for the second straight set. They needed a superhuman display before the break, and they got it with the Trbjeovic show, as Jake and Tom scored in quick succession, and Garrick converted both tries, to skyrocket Manly to triple the Cowboys, who were starting to grow a little complacent now, as Drinkwater sent his next kick over the edge intstead of bothering to challenge the Eagles.

Forcing Manly to play it from their line for a third time might have forestalled the following deluge of points, but as it was the visitors got a restart early in the count, and Turbo broke through the line two tackles later. To be honest, he could have probably crossed himself here, since he was travelling fast enough to bump off Holmes, but he chose to assist Jake’s second try of the year. Booting the two, Garrick exceeded Hazem El Masri’s 2004 tally to make it 290.

The restart was just a rarefied and refined version of the same sequence, as Turbo broke up the middle and dummied subliminally at the thirty. He covered more distance with the break, so he had more speed behind him to contend with Holmes, whose ankle tap he eluded like it was a training run, before smashing to ground on the left edge of the park. Watching this sublime sequence, you couldn’t doubt that he’d had enough control the first time around to score too, but had chosen to assist brother Jake as a rallying-point for the entire Manly side.

This was the kind of synergy that Brett and Glenn Stewart showcased at their best, bringing Turbo equal with Saab and Josh Ado-Carr for second most tries of the season at 23, just four behind Alex Johnston on top. Sometimes a slump is worth it for the comeback, and so it was here – a pair of Trbojevic tries, a Turbo assist for Jake, and a momentous second conversion for Garrick. After holding off Manly for so long, the Cows had to come back big after the break, while the Sea Eagles had to keep flexing in the second forty in preparation for finals football.

Jordan McLean took a rollicking run to get the second act underway, and Manly got an augmented first set back after Nanai was pinged for lifting Sean Keppie above the horizontal. Keppie was fine, taking a DCE ball a tackle later to bring his men into the North Queensland twenty, but the set came apart on the left wing, where Feldt jammed in hard on Turbo as he was receiving a no-look ball from Schuster, forcing him to extemporise an even clutchier no-look catch-and-pass that spilled over the sideline to give the Cowboys possession once again.

From here, North Queensland really stuck in to quell the cascade of Manly points, showing signs of life up their right edge, and forcing DCE to make his next kick from his own forty. Daly’s aim was good, and trapped Holmes right on the line, but even so Val passed to Feldt on play one – a gesture of confidence and flamboyance that galvanised the Cows into a really strong set, culminating with Drinkwater’s deftest deception so far. Shaping to kick, he ran it up the left edge, and then got in place to pass, only to grubber it deep at the very last second.

Turbo got some joy after his handling error by sliding in and scooping up the Steeden right on the line, but no sooner had Croker broken into open space a few plays later than he was called back for a Jake Trbojevic fumble. The Cowboys had the scrum, and got a call of six again on the first tackle, right as McLean was hanging over the line. He made sure that they didn’t need the extra plays, condensing this North Queensland resurgence into one of the biggest individual efforts of the 2021 season, and easily the most contorted and brutal twist-and-spin.

McLean received the footy about nine metres out, and basically barnstormed his way through Schuster and Foran, managing to twist his torso a full ninety degrees as Croker and Keppie stormed in to hold him up in front. Not only did he slam to ground at this tortured angle, but was still able to get the Steeden away and hit the turf as Parker arrived too late to get his hand under it. In real time it looked like he might have come just short, but you couldn’t categorically deny that the sheer weight of the five Sea Eagles hadn’t pushed it over the line.

This was McLean’s first try in 57 games, and breaking that drought seemed to breathe new life into the Cowboys, who might have enjoyed a tryscoring torrent of their own if DCE hadn’t come up with an absolutely diabolical kickoff – the shortest grubber of the game – that Harper leapt on to turn a North Queensland restart into fresh bout of goal line attack for Manly. Yet the Cowboys survived, thanks to a pair of linkups – first between Dearden and Granville, who cleaned up Turbo as he drove it deep into the left corner, and then from Drinkwater and Asi.

Drinkwater leaped up to collect the kick, but only got fingertips to it, meaning Asi had to operate as his backup, clutching the Steeden into his chest as Schuster was pinged for a pretty messy offside. The Cowboys had the scrum again, and yet Neame now fumbled the footy into Keppie for yet another shift in possession, as the hosts started to lose some of the momentum they’d accrued just before and after McLean’s mad burst. Harper now busted through two tackles, Keppie dragged Neame a couple of metres, and Olakau’atu landed just shy of the line.

Manly continued to reabsorb the North Queensland momentum on the next play, when Turbo received another no-look pass from Schuster right on the line, and hovered over the chalk for a few seconds, invoking and mirroring McLean’s effort as he faced down the biggest North Queensland pack so far. He couldn’t match the big front-rower for brute strength, but the fact that he tried spoke volumes about Manly’s determination at this point in the game, while Roosters supporters watched with bated breath, their top four position on the line now.

Again, the set came down to Foran’s kick – this time a grubber that Drinkwater had to ricochet into touch. He followed with the worst dropout since Luke Brooks against the Warriors, so for a moment it seemed like Feldt had wasted his most gymnastic display of the game to leap over the sideline and bat it back inside, especially since this accelerated Manly into one of their crispest right sweeps of the night. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Taulagi now converged McLean’s one-man effort and the Hammer’s first-half run into a sublime display.

This may have been the slickest intercept of the season – so quick, fast and clinical that you could almost believe that DCE’s wide ball had been destined for the North Queensland winger all along. It looked even better in slow motion, as Taulagi pulled in the footy with his left hand, pivoted off the right boot and carved up the sideline for what could have been the tipping-point in the game if Saab hadn’t responded with the best defensive run of the year to bring him down ten metres out from the line, despite starting ten metres behind him downfield.

The aerial view showed just how incredibly Saab had accelerated in those last few metres, for what may be the best single sequence of his entire career. No surprise, then, that he remained in the spotlight for the next few minutes, knocking down a Drinkwater ball to prevent a try, and then jamming in after the scrum to ensure that Drinkwater’s next wide ball cut out the Cowboys’ entire left edge on its way to the sideline. Finally, Saab copped Holmes’ boots in the face for a heroic take under the next bomb, when he had eyes for nothing but the ball.

Holmes came up with it, but the sheer force of Saab’s presence now steeled the Sea Eagles into two superb acts of self-correction a set later. First, Foran fumbled a Walker pass, but somehow reined it back in, amidst a sea of North Queensland defenders, and offloaded out to Turbo. Even better, DCE ended with an overlong grubber that looked so certain to go dead that Drinkwater pulled back from the play a good metre and half before it headed into touch.

That left room for Olakau’atu to parlay all six feet and five inches of his massive frame into one of the most balletic moves of the season – leaping with both feet over the back line, and popping the football back in goal, where Jake Turbo slid to ground, took it on the bounce and scored his second try of the evening. Garrick added the extras, and the Sea Eagles were double North Queensland, as Saab finally came off the park for an HIA, though Holmes remained on.

Manly doubled down on defence again on their next set, meaning that Dearden was forced to run the footy, but that created a pretext for one of the more unusual moments of the game – Nanai breaking through the line, and taking the kick while he was held in the tackle. He came up with a pretty good angle too, forcing Garrick to collect it right on the chalk, effectively keeping the Sea Eagles in their own end for the next set, when DCE booted it within the forty.

North Queensland now started their set halfway down the park, as Taumalolo tried to make up for a pretty quiet game – a pretty quiet season – with a decent offload to Drinkwater. Holmes grubbered on the last, DCE played at it, the footy ricocheted off Holmes for a second time, and the stand-in fullback managed to remain onside so that Condon could culminate a tough night by reaching out his left hand to ground the Steeden just before Garrick got there.

Holmes added the extras, and we were back to a six point game with seventeen minutes on the clock. If the Cowboys could consolidate now, they might come away with an even bigger upset than Brisbane’s win over Newcastle, but there were a few fumbles early in the set, until the killer came from the tryscorer himself, who lost the ball backwards to Karl Lawton. Turbo took a big run out of dummy half, and threw caution to the wind as he struggled with a big Condon tackle, while DCE booted it hard, fast and low on the last, straight towards the posts.

This was one of the most challenging kicks so far, so it was a tribute to Holmes that he took it just as cleanly and clinically, a metre behind the line, for the most important pickup of the match, since the Cowboys probably wouldn’t have survived a dropout here. They didn’t do any better at the end of the next set either, when Foran booted it too hard on the last, leaving space for Feldt to do what he does best – leap a metre above the grass and collect it in goal.

Nevertheless, the Cows had their last chance when Walker collected a poor offload from Mitch Dunn a few tackles later. Turbo had spearheaded the late resurgence in the first half, and you could tell he was just as restless here, searching for options and elasticising the play in the middle of the park, before DCE got the kick option right – a soaring bomb to the right edge that caught Taulagi napping as Garrick took it on the volley and sailed just past him. Garrick missed the sideline conversion, but he’d get his chance to make history soon enough.

Holmes went short with the kick, Garrick came up with it on the left edge, the Sea Eagles got an augmented restart when Heilum Luki was put on report for a high shot, and Olakau’atu racked up some of his best ever post-contact metres. Yet that was all the mere entrée to one of the best runs of Turbo’s career, as he took it from Foran in the middle of the field and simply worked his way across the North Queensland line, disposing of an astonishing nine players before he finally slammed over on the right corner as if the Grand Final hung on it all.

Here was a man disposing of an entire team – Turbo’s riposte to McLean, who he’d tried to mirror for strength on the line earlier, but now exceeded in terms of the sheer number of players he disposed of. Turbo himself barely seemed to believe what was easily the best individual play of the entire season, and perhaps the starkest and most literal example that we’ve yet seen of how the game’s greatest fullback can demolish the opposition when the occasion calls for it. Watching the Cows fall like dominoes, this year’s Dally M seemed a lock.

Yet this play, which already felt writ in the Manly history books, turned out to be the entrée for an even more historical moment in turn – and it was worth Garrick missing the previous conversion to make it 300 points for the year now. He’s four ahead of Jarrod Croker in 2016, and just behind Brett Hodgson in 2005 and Hazem El Masri in 2004, but none of those players ever hit 300 during regular games. Between Turbo’s run and Garrick’s kick, Manly’s resurgence felt even more unquestionable and invincible than at the end of the first stanza.

Holmes went short again with the kickoff, but the bounce was so unpredictable that everyone had to wait for it to tumble over the sideline, making this a penalty for Manly and yet another enhanced restart. By this stage Turbo and Jake were beating the Cowboys on their own with two tries apiece, and yet the best part of the game hadn’t even arrived yet. North Queensland got their last possession with a scrum, after Harper put down a DCE ball while trying to take it at speed on the right wing, but didn’t complete after Luki lost the footy late in the count.

Manly had two more sets and two more tries. On the first, Turbo broke up the middle, and passed back inside for DCE, who only had to inflect his trajectory slightly away from Feldt to score. This was Turbo’s 30th try assist for the season, an easy conversion for Garrick, and the kind of effortless try that often closes out a game. Indeed, the match seemed over as the Sea Eagles got the restart rolling with only fifty-eight seconds on the clock, as Holmes wisely chose to go long with the kickoff, meaning that the visitors had to face the whole length of the field.

As it turned out, they’d run even farther than goal line to goal line to score their next try, but you wouldn’t know it from the start of this set, which was a bit messy, as Keppie dropped the footy backwards for Lawton to scoop it up, and Taupau mistimed a pass that Granville booted on the bounce down towards the Manly line. Yet the Sea Eagles now reprised their resurgent passages at the end of each stanza in sublime miniature, bouncing back from this pair of messy plays with the most spectacular sequence I have ever seen on the cusp of finals footy.

Granville’s aim was true, meaning that Garrick had to showcase some Saab-like speed to chase the ball down, curve around behind the crossbar, keep a boot off the dead ball line, and bring it back into the field of play. With that curve propelling him, he just kept on going, dancing over a Dearden ankle tap, pivoting away from Feldt, and making it to the halfway line, where he flicked it across to DCE to elude a Hess ankle tap, and boot it at speed at the ten.

Turbo was in place to collect it and score, as he always had to be, since this 125-metre try felt preordained as soon as it was put down – proof positive that Turbo is the best fullback of the game, even if he just added the last touch here, since his sheer presence fuels the Sea Eagles into plays unlike anything else we’ve seen in the NRL this year. They’ve secured a top four berth, and they ended this match with the most flamboyant challenge for the Storm – the literal last word of the evening, which they’ll be drawing on when they play finals next week.

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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