SEMI-FINAL: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Sydney Roosters (BB Print Stadium, 17/9/21, 42-6)

Manly decimated the Roosters as thoroughly as they were decimated by Melbourne last week when they rocked up for the first finals clash to be held in Mackay. Put that down, in large part, to a resurgence from Tom Trbojevic, who won the battle of the fullbacks so comprehensively that James Tedesco, who has scored in his last six finals appearances, was silenced almost as completely as Turbo himself was against the Storm. For the last six years, the winner of this game has gone on to the GF – and Manly certainly looked the part here.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was very much the Roosters side that won by a mere field goal over Gold Coast last week. During the first quarter, the three key playmakers in the Manly backline – Teddy, Foran, DCE – all scored off scintillating runs that forced the Sydney City defence to wilt in their wake, and the visitors simply never recovered. They played catch up half-heartedly until the break, but the second stanza was all Manly – eighteen unanswered points that secured Trbojevic an early departure from the field for his first ever finals victory.

The Roosters spread it early through Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for Teddy to take the first run up the middle before Victor Radley added more metres and Sitili Tupouniua plunged into the returning Lachlan Croker. Jason Saab was safe beneath Drew Hutchison’s kick, and the Sea Eagles got the first penalty when Brad Parker fell into high contact from JWH early in the tackle count. Daly Cherry-Evans opted for a parabola ball out to Morgan Harper, but Turbo couldn’t capitalise on this elasticising play on the last, when Josh Morris beat him to the kick.

He did better under Hutchison’s next kick, a wobblier and more challenging boot than his first, while the Sea Eagles got six again on the cusp of the Roosters’ thirty, thanks to a strong carry from Sean Keppie. They were inside the red zone with a full set up their sleeve, and got six more a play later, so it was a big letoff when Josh Aloiai showed his finals inexperience with a loose carry, as Ben Marschke stepped up in Sam Verrills’ absence with a big hit under the ribs.

Yet in the first dramatic turnaround Matt Ikavalu was belatedly pinged for late contact on Turbo – pretty marginal, to be honest – and while the sight of Turbo clutching his chest might have caused some consternation form the Manly fans in the crowd, he delivered a play later, as the hosts compressed all this early position into the first great sweep of the game. Jake started it with a bullet pass to DCE, who dummied into the line and shifted it out for Turbo to barge through Teddy and win the first battle of the fullbacks for a try out in the right corner.

This was another step for both Teddy, who was now only a try behind Phil Blake for the most scored in a single Sea Eagles season, and Reuben Garrick, who continues to creep towards Hazel El Masri’s 342 points in a single year during his 2004 seson. With the conversion, he officially made himself second on the ladder, exceeding Brett Hodgson in 2005 to put his tally at 310. Eight minutes gone and Manly already had six sets – and they got an augmented restart when Parker stuck a boot over the sidelne to catch Hutchison’s kickoff on the chest.  

Despite this brilliant sequence, the Sea Eagles had been pretty lucky to get that penalty from Ikuvalu, who got some joy by holding up Turbo on the left edge, forcing Manly to surge right, where DCE reprised his earlier harbour bridge ball, but sent it even higher and wider this time, covering about half the park in the process. Saab wasn’t up to the Steeden as it sailed over the sideline, and so the Roosters had to start rebuilding their game right now. Teddy got them rolling with a big run up the right, but Turbo caught Lachlan Lam’s kick with no trouble at all.

The ball hadn’t travelled high enough to pose any problems, but the Sydney City chase was decent, meaning DCE had to boot it from his own forty, despite some enterprising play from Turbo up the right edge as a riposte to Teddy’s first big dash. Saab and Harper weren’t going to let the Chooks get very far, though, slamming in to force the footy free from Daniel Tupou, as the Sea Eagles packed the first scrum, and got yet another shot down the Tricolours’ end.

Keppie took his sixth run to lay the platform, and Turbo went from a sublime try to a sublime assist, receiving a beautiful short ball from Jake and running directly into the line before squaring off Tedesco once again. All it took was a right-foot step to defy the man often described as the best fullback in the game, and all it took then was a deft offload for Foran to  curve around behind the posts and guarantee Garrick his second conversion. Try aside, this was silky synergy between the halves, especially since Foran hasn’t played finals since 2014.

Morris, JWH and Tupouniua did a pretty good job of smothering Aloiai early in the restart, but the Sea Eagles were on a roll now, with even Garrick taking the footy into the fray like he was the biggest forward on the park. DCE ended with the best weighted kick so far, forcing Tupou to run back to collect it right on the try line, although the Chooks got their first restart a moment later, thanks to an offside error from Croker. For the second time now, the Roosters followed a boost in field position with a mistake that handed the energy right back to Manly.

This time it was a Saab-on-Keighran tackle on the left side of the park. Saab came in hard, Keighran lost the footy, and knocked it down with his left hand at the end of the subsequent set too, gifting the Sea Eagles six more tackles right on the Sydney City line. These are the kind of mistakes you just can’t make during finals footy, and sure enough DCE became the next member of the Manly spine to make the Roosters’ defensive line look like butter, pivoting off the left boot and dancing over JWH to follow Foran with a quick try right behind the crossbar.

The three key playmakers in the Manly spine had now scored effortlessly in the first quarter, bringing them close to a point per minute as Garrick added his third conversion, and providing them with enough momentum to more or less keep Sydney City out over the next hour. Not even the biggest pack the Roosters could muster was enough to drag Keppie over the sideline on tackle one, but they still came up with their best defence so far, forcing DCE to fumble (and regain) the footy on tackle two before he finally got a messy boot away on the last play.

Teddy needed to elasticise quickly, and this time he did it up the left, getting outside Saab and shaping to pass it back inside to Keigran, only for Turbo to win the early battle of the fullbacks in defence as well, forcing a knock-on from his Tedesco as he slammed him onto the turf. Manly used this set to regain some field position, finishing with a good hard Foran kick down the middle, while the Roosters fed it out to Teddy again on the left, as if to correct the last error. He didn’t drop it again, but he didn’t do that much either – just a stock-standard run.

Meanwhile, Manly came back fully from their field position lag when Turbo – who else – reached a boot back over the try line to take an overlong Hutchison bomb on the full. Yet the Roosters got their chance when a forward pass from DCE to Turbo was absorbed into a Haumole Olakau’atu obstruction, which in turn segued into their second six again of the night. They looked dangerous on the left, but Manly rallied to hold up Tupou and only just keep him in play, while Tedesco finally delivered his one critical touch of the set on the closing tackle.

After two aborted wide balls from DCE out to his own right wing, Teddy nailed the arc of the footy here, building on a long ball from Lam with an ever wider and more relaxed harbour bridge pass to Ikuvalu. Even then, this wasn’t the most seamless linkup, since Ikuvalu juggled it from hand to hand before getting it down without a single Sea Eagle in sight, which said something about how well Tedesco had assisted him. Keighran missed the kick, but at least the Roosters were on the board, while Teddy had finally come up with a response to Turbo.

This was the only time when the game felt like it might be a genuine contest – thirteen minutes out from the sheds – as JWH muscled his way into the defence to commence the restart, grim determination written across his face. Angus Crichton followed him on the left, and Tupouniua up the middle, but the Roosters still didn’t escape their thirty, while Turbo almost broke through the line on play one of the next set, getting a restart for his troubles when Marschke slipped and infringed the ruck while trying to contain him on the humid turf.

DCE kicked before the last, and Dylan Walker came up with two terrific defensive plays – almost trapping Teddy with it behind the line, and spearheading a pack effort to drag Tupou back to the line a tackle later. Again, the Roosters couldn’t break the halfway line, as Manly continued to gradually drag the game back towards the Sydney City chalk. Marty Taupau and Parker both glimpsed breaks on the next set, so it was a big moment when Parker fumbled the play-the-ball, especially since Sam Walker was waiting in the wings for his time to shine.

Keighran now got some joy after his back-to-back errors by bringing his men over the halfway line, yet his run was gone in an instant, entirely absorbed into a poor Hutchison kick that Garrick took on the full like he was in the middle of a training run. DCE found metres up the right, and lobbed a cut-out to Saab, who broke into space, and shifted it back inside for Harper to put it down without even seeming to register Tedesco storming up behind him. The very moment the Roosters got out of their own end, the Sea Eagles had scored another four points.

Garrick continued his perfect kicking night to make it six a moment later, and just like that Manly had a twenty-point lead, while their spine’s scoring synergy had now started to extend to the backline. Taupau’s run on play one of the restart said it all, especially since he was celebrating his 200th milestone, and he made more metres on the fourth, bringing his men to the halfway line, where DCE responded with a high kick that sat up pretty nicely for Ikuvalu.

Walker came onto the park just as the Roosters got their first real accumulation of field position, thanks to an offside error from Harper and a hand in the ruck from Taupau. Although Morris coughed up the footy while trying to rescue a right sweep that went awry, Kapow’s enthusiasm started to get the better of him during these dying minutes, culminating with a second penalty, for an early hit, that set up Keighran to take the two as the siren pealed out.

These would be the last points that Sydney scored all night, meaning that they were closest to catching Manly in the second stanza when they were a quarter of their tally, at 24-6.  The Sea Eagles have ten wins and no losses when they’ve led at half time this year, so the Chooks had to hit back big as Kapow took the opening carry, determined to put his penality well and truly behind him, before DCE booted it deep to force Sydney to work it back from their line.

Teddy stepped up, attempting his first break up the middle, and yet the Sea Eagles barely seemed to notice it, while Turbo won the battle of the thin men as well, trampling over Walker early in the next set. Kapow continued to stay staunch by standing in his next tackle for a good couple of seconds, and play paused as the other Walker was downed on the left edge, although he returned to his feet soon enough to field the next Sydney City run up the middle.

Yet the Roosters just couldn’t make their combinations work, as Crichton forced a terrific incursion into the Manly end and flicked away an offload that Radley really should have been able to take cleanly. The Sea Eagles got the scrum, and Taupau took yet another hit, cementing himself as the workhorse of the night as he closed in on a hundred run metres. A beat later, Jake broke through the line, and Turbo crossed again, but now their linkup was mediated by Walker, who took the footy from Jake and got on the outside of Radley to boot.

He set his eyes on the corner, where he was brought down by a Walker-on-Walker tackle, but he’d cleared up enough space, and established a sufficient slipstream, for Turbo to smash over in his wake, and so rival Phil Blake’s 1983 halcyon days for the most ever tries in a season from a Sea Eagle. This has been Turbo’s best run in 2021 – taking the footy one off the ruck and just slicing into the line – while Garrick made it 5/5 with a well-placed boot from the left.

We’ve already seen some optical illusions in Mackay this year, and this was the same, looking like a miss from side on even as the flags were raised and the two points were cleared. Kapow was always going to take the first hit of the restart, while Turbo withstood a big Roosters pack on the left, and Walker got his try after all, breaking through the line off a short assist from Taupau, deceiving Teddy with a dummy, and getting the footy down with Keighran round his legs. Garrick added two, and Manly had two tries from two sets, to sextuple Sydney at 36-6.

This set completed Taupau’s comeback since he leaked the penalty kick at the end of the first stanza, while also cementing Walker as one of the most dangerous and propulsive bench players in this back end of the season. Taupau looked fresh on the field as he took the first hit-up of the restart, while you had to wonder whether Manly would consider resting Turbo for what looked like a certain match against Souths next week, even though there was a full half hour on the clock – until the Roosters got a rare chance by bunding Garrick into touch.

They had to hit back strong and fast now, since the Sea Eagles weren’t showing any signs of slowing down, and still had Taniela Paseka waiting to join the fray. Instead, Tupouniua made the seventh error of the night, putting down a Walker ball on tackle two, as Joey Manu looked on from the sideline, possibly wondering what kind of difference he would have made if he hadn’t copped Latrell Mitchell’s shoulder charge. This looked like the Roosters side that had only won over Gold Coast by a field goal, as DCE came up with another great kick to the right.

Taupau now came off for a well-earned break, and Paseka subbed on, leading to a bit of a dent in the pointscoring – not because Paseka was poor, but because Marty had been such a force of nature during his time on the park. Keppie lost the ball on the ground a moment later, but only after an Egan Butcher flop, and so the Sea Eagles got yet another full set inside the Roosters’ twenty. DCE experimented with a no-look flick to Olakau’atu, and it paid off, laying a platform for a pivot out to the left, where Garrick managed to stay in field this time around.

Keppie tried to steady himself after his lost ball with a crash play up the middle, and Jake followed in his wake, but the Roosters stayed strong here, summoning their goal line defence as Teddy came up with the footy and ushered his men into a much-needed restart when Foran infringed the ruck. It was agonising, then, when Tedesco became the next Tricolour to make an error early in the count, with a forward pass that felt so uncharacteristic that it was almost as if he’d absorbed Gold Coast weakest moments last round, instead of surpassing that game.

That said, the Roosters did show some enterprise when Schuster coughed up a Foran pass just as quickly – especially the young guns, who gave us a glimpse of eyes-up footy as Walker scooped it up and flicked it on for Marschke to shape for a Tupouniua linebreak on the wing. Turbo tried to intercept it, and knocked on instead, but all this energy was quickly quelled when Tupou put a boot on the line under pressure from a big Manly pack up the right wing.

This was getting painful to watch, as the once-mighty Roosters were descending into bottom eight territory, and Teddy was getting desperate too, clamouring the referees to reconsider the Tupou call while refraining to send it upstairs for a challenge that would have easily come back in Manly’s favour. He only just contained DCE’s next bomb, and while Paseka was pinged for dangerous contact a moment later, the Chooks just didn’t do anything with the extra field position, despite an offload from Teddy to Radley for their best second phase play in a while.

By this stage, Tupou was actually on top of the run metres (155), but not by much, since Turbo was at 153, while Teddy was significantly lower on 110. All that would work now was for Sydney City to dramatically change the rhythm of the game, and Walker made a decent effort by forcing the first dropout of the night with an elegantly weighted kick that DCE was forced to boot into touch. He sent the dropout long as Croker was taken from the field, presumably to address the back spasms he’s suffered in 2021, while JWH rammed into Manly for play one.

The Roosters lost some momentum with a messy right sweep that Teddy cleaned up, and yet Walker consolidated further with his second terrific kick, forcing a second straight dropout when Turbo was forced to ground it in goal. This was certainly a potential rhythm-changer, not least because it was Sydney’s most sustained position since the break, but Olakau’atu had the bulk needed for a rhythm-breaker, bringing the most punishing contact of the night to slam Fletcher Baker on the turf before Keighran coughed up the footy on the following play.

This was the sign for Turbo to leave the park, fifteen minutes out from the final siren, in preparation for an all-but-guaranteed showdown against the Bunnies next week. Teddy took advantage of his absence immediately, coming up with a terrific one-man performance on the left a set later – a brilliant well-weighted grubber that eluded Harper and found Saab, as Teddy chased it down for the low tackle he’d been searching for all night, to force the dropout.

Yet this paved the way for the nadir of the Roosters’ game, as Crichton took the first carry, and offloaded so poorly out of an Olakau’atu hit that it looked as if he’d always intended to pass it back to the big second-rower. On the other side of the Steeden, DCE was apparently inexhaustible with the kick options, driving it hard and low this time, and setting up the Chooks for another battle for field position, compounded by two hard hits from Olakau’atu.

For the briefest of moments, Walker’s next bomb looked like it might cause some havoc on the Roosters’ right edge, but it just set up the most triumphant Manly try of the night. Tupou leaped up to tap it back to Keighran, who lost it just as quickly into a tough tackle from DCE. Harper then took it on the bounce and offloaded through a last-ditch Crichton hit to Saab – a beautiful one-handed flick that Saab responded to in kind, gaining so much headway up the right edge that he was able to make direct eye contact with his team mates on the sideline.

Nobody was going to take Saab at this pace, and the last chance of contact was a slide from Marschke that he simply danced past before scoring untouched behind the crossbar. Garrick added the extras, and this was the sign for DCE to join Turbo back on the bench. Manly wouldn’t score again, and their exhaustion would start to show over these last eight mintues, which saw them leak multiple penalties and errors with their two key playmakers off the park.

Even more importantly, though, they managed to prevent the Roosters scoring again with Turbo and DCE off the park, while Sydney City’s last indignity was their inability to capitalise on any of the errors and penalties that Manly handed to them here. Even with Turbo on the sideline, his spectre haunted the field, and had the last word in the battle with Tedesco – a pretty disappointing ending to what initially looked like a promising year for the injury-racked Roosters, and a farewell for Josh Morris that was just as drab, in its way, as for brother Brett.

That said, both teams have to look forward now – the Roosters to regather with Sam Walker and Joseph Suaalii coming up through the ranks, and the Sea Eagles in preparation for their clash against South Sydney, which is now locked in for next Friday night at Suncorp. There’s been a real synergy beween Manly and the Rabbitohs this year, with Garrick and Adam Reynolds both exceeding records with their kicking game, so you can be sure that this clash will be even more loaded than tonight’s, as we wait for Parra-Panthers to come around next.  

About Billy Stevenson (628 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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