It was a battle between 15th and 16th when the Roosters hosted Manly at the SCG on Saturday night after a frustrated first round for two of the most promising grand final contenders last year. It was also the battle of the game’s best fullbacks, as James Tedesco set himself against the reigning Dally M medallist in Tom Trbojevic, and came away the decisive victor. Manly have gone on to make finals the last four times they started 0/2, and they’ll need to hold onto that statistic over the coming weeks, since this was a masterclass in Sydney City dominance.
The loss was all the more agonising in that Manly needed a big game to bounce back from a Penrith outfit that trounced them at the foot of the mountains without Nathan Cleary. Instead, the Roosters delivered forty minutes of football that condensed all the most painful parts of that defeat, making up for not achieving a single linebreak against Newcastle last week by bending and thwarting the Manly defence at every turn. By halftime, they had 22 unanswered points, while Turbo felt more adrift than ever, as absent as at the start of 2021.
To their credit, Manly won the second stanza, but even then they got their first try on the back of a pretty questionable penalty for Victor Radley, and were unable to capitalise further on a massive surge of field position between the third and fourth quarters. For a ten minute stretch, the Chooks only had 18% possession and 0-24 tackles in the opposition half, yet didn’t concede a second try until the dying moments of the game. As a result, what should have been Manly’s chance to restore their flow turned into a defensive masterclass for the hosts.
The Sea Eagles summoned a huge pack to drag Lindsay Collins back on the first carry, and then prevented Angus Crichton from making too many metres on tackle three, before Turbo took his first run of the night to smash into a Tricoloured wall at the Sea Eagles’ twenty. The visitors lost fifteen metres with a bludger of a pass from Marty Taupau, forcing DCE to take the kick just outside his twenty, meaning Manly didn’t make more than a metre, overall, this set. Tedesco sensed the vulnerability immediately, and roused his men with a run up the left.
Three tackles later, Hutchison barged over on the same side of the field, as Sam Walker, who had set up Teddy’s run, shaped for another shift to the wing, setting his eyes on the outside backs before pivoting off the left boot for a drastic change in direction. It completely wrong-footed Haumole Olakau’atu, while giving Walker just enough space to shrug off Sean Keppie, before he bookended the try by slotting through the first conversion – a pretty good start for a Sydney City outfit who hadn’t made a single linebreak against the Knights last week.
The Sea Eagles got a much-needed penalty early in their next set, and while they struggled to make headway for the first couple of tackles, Lachlan Croker injected some adrenalin with a break up the right edge, laying the platform for a deft DCE grubber that Kieran Foran looked set to ground, only for Walker to scoot in and scoop it up at the very last second. Sydney got a penalty of their own at the start of the next set, when Jake Trbojevic was pinged for working on the ground, and Walker struck it beautifully to get his men six tackles down Manly’s end.
Teddy now had his first really scintillating play with a chip-and-chase on the last, coming so close to the Steeden that Reuben Garrick had no choice but to toe it into touch. The dropout was as clinical as you’d expect, culminating with an efficient left sweep that saw Jason Saab caught out of position, as Teddy fed a superb assist out to Daniel Tupou, who was now only three tries from Shaun Kenny-Dowall, and 21 from Anthony Minichiello, as the Chooks’ top tryscorer. Walker couldn’t nail the sideline conversion, but this was still a stunning start.
Manly needed a momentum shift, and they almost got it when Tupou coughed up the ball on play one of the restart. It went backwards, so Keppie was determined to force the error three tackles later, when he set his sights on Tupouniua to smash the footy free. The visitors now had their first really aggressive attacking set of the night, driving the Steeden deep into both wings, and ending up on the right, where Turbo took his first decisive run, and glimpsed a break in the defence, only for Momirovski to slam in and bring him down ten metres out.
A set later, Taupau was pinged for not clearing the ruck, and Keary ended a fast set with a dangerous chip to the right edge, where Saab and Tupou contested it in the air, and Momorivski got it down when neither winger contained it. For a brief moment, it looked like this might be a Sydney try, since in slow motion it was pretty clear that Saab had knocked on into Tupou, rather than vice versa, but the later part of the replay also showed that Momirovski had made slight contact with his shins before finally grounding the footy.
This was a big letoff for Manly, but they still had to contend with a repeat set from close range off the back of the Saab handling error. Again, Teddy ended with a dangerous chip kick, but the Sea Eagles got lucky when the bounce proved to be almost too good for Foran, who reached out both hands to bang it into touch, but not without Hutchison getting there first. By this stage, the Steeden was travelling so fast, and at such a crazy angle, that the Sydney hooker was never going to scoop it up, so Manly had seven tackles to get their house in order.
Yet the set ended with a whimper, as Joey Manu scooped up a limp Foran grubber like it was a training run, before Keary booted it hard and fast on the fourth to recoup the lost field position. Turbo did pretty well to rein it in from the touchline and avoid being trapped on his own try line, but Manly were on the rack now, as play paused on the fourth for Morgan Harper, who clutched his head on the turf, but didn’t get a crusher call out of it. DCE showed Keary he could boot it from long distance too, but Sydney absorbed his effort immediately.
Towards the end of their next set, they got the first six again of the night, off a ruck error from Dylan Walker, and settled into the first sustained stint on the try line for either team. They made the most of it, accelerating through three sublime plays into what almost became one of their best tries of the year – a late offload from Teddy on the right edge, an incredibly late offload from Butcher on the left, and then a Walker play that split the difference between offload and chip, while defying the most experienced halfback on the park in the process.
DCE wrapped himself around Walker on the left wing, yet the young half still managed to get the chip away, booting it so stealthily that it felt more like an offload. Tupouniua read the trajectory beautifully, but Saab was even more desperate in defence, flicking the footy away from Sitili at the last millisecond, denying him even a fingertip putdown, and robbing the Roosters of one of the best tries of their season. By this stage, though, Sydney City had built up enough momentum to make good on the restart with a try that condensed this last set.
Again, Teddy and Butcher were the key playmakers – Teddy with a tough run into the left wing, where he gathered in enough defenders for Connor Watson to send Butcher across with a short sharp assist. To move from the mercurial playmaking of the last set to this blunter consolidation was the mark of a team operating at the height of their powers. Walker added the extras, the Roosters were six ahead, and Manly now started to look down the barrel of a genuinely catastrophic defeat if they couldn’t manage to score their first try before the break.
The next set, in particular, was crucial, and to their credit Manly accelerated into their best back half – a Saab break and rapid sweep to the right, followed by a brilliant final play from DCE, who threaded the footy through the narrowest of gaps to find Turbo right on the dead ball line. Tommy landed and got both hands around the ball in the same propulsive instant, but couldn’t manage the ricochet off the turf, losing rather than grounding it backwards, and reaching out an arm in a futile attempt to regain control of the Steeden as it found touch.
It’s rare to see Turbo look this ungainly, while the clinical efficiency of DCE’s kick just threw his subpar form into even uglier relief. No surprise, then, that the Sea Eagles slumped on the next defensive set, as Croker got pinged for a slow peel, Olakau’atu took out his frustration with a crusher, and only a Billy Smith error prevented the Chooks from scoring then and then. Similarly, while Teddy looked monstrous on the left a set after, the Sea Eagles got lucky when Walker slightly over-weighted the kick, leaving Momirovski no time to ground it on the wing.
Not only did Manly fail to capitalise on these two errors, but they ushered in the nadir of the Sea Eagles’ night. Midway through the next set, DCE shaped a standard short pass to Harper, only to find his backliner totally unprepared for it, jettisoning the Steeden to careen into touch. You could tell Daly was enraged at this amateur moment, but he didn’t have time to reflect on it, since Tupouniua responded by busting through Harper for the best run so far.
Shrugging off a Foran ankle tap, he barged Turbo, the last line of defence, deep into the ten before he was finally held up. The Chooks continued that splendid momentum by shifting the footy out to the right, where Manu played havoc with the defence with a masterclass in footwork. This seemed to discombobulate the Sea Eagles enough for the Tricolours to relax into a more languorous sweep back to the left, where Tupounoia completed his mad charge by smashing over untouched to bring his men to a 22-0 lead once Walker added the extras.
By this stage, the Roosters felt like a team of immortals, playing dice with the fate of the Sea Eagles as massive crashes of thunder rang out over the SCG. They wouldn’t score again before the break, despite a string of Manly errors, along with a DCE dropout and a ruck error from Walker. Surviving this litany of mistakes was the Sea Eagles’ first tentative step in curbing the flow of Sydney City points, paving the way for a more evenly balanced back forty in which the visitors would actually come away with a 4-12 win, and keep the Chooks more in check.
The rain torrented down during the last few minutes and into the break, leaving the SCG strewn with puddles as the players returned to the park. Four Roosters swarmed Taniela Paseka on the first set back, much as the Sea Eagles had smothered Collins’ opening run, except that the big Manly prop was dishevelled into losing the footy when he rose to play it. In doing so, he became the first casualty of the wet conditions, although Jared Waerea-Hargreaves wasn’t far behind, putting down a Victor Radley ball one play out of the scrum.
In effect, then, Manly got a chance to redo their opening set, as Paseka carried it securely on the second tackle, and Walker almost cracked the defence a play later, while getting his men six again by tempting a Tupouniua ruck infringement. DCE was pummelling it into the right corner by the second play, before the Sea Eagles pivoted out to the left edge, where Garrick was forced to take the tackle, sending his men back inside, and forcing them to rely on a DCE chip to the right wing that Tupou leaped up to take on the full without any genuine contest.
Climbing a metre and a half above Saab to reach the footy with both hands, he felt more like a Swan than a Rooster, injecting the game with an AFL-like agility that might have paid dividends on this set if Momirovski hadn’t followed JWH by putting the ball down early in the count. The Sea Eagles had failed to capitalised on two straight errors in the first forty, and so it was here, as Tupou simply allowed an overlong DCE grubber to sail over the sideline.
The final stage in this recovery was a sublime offload from JWH, who twisted 270 degrees in the tackle, reached out his arm a foot from the ground and lobbed it back to Walker. It was agonising, then, when Tupouniua was not only dragged into touch, but taken from the field for an HIA following his contact on Paseka a few plays before. Manly were settling into their best accumulation of field position so far, while Paseka was leading the defence, almost rattling the footy from Billy Smith’s gasp with an enormous hit-up early in the following set.
As the rain intensified over the SCG, the game reached a new level of volatility, while Manly found new ways to build momentum, and the Chooks found new ways to maintain their edge. After all, Smith did retain possession, while Walker steadied the ship with a spiralling torpedo bomb, only for Turbo to inject himself up the left wing, before brother Jake lost the footy to grant Sydney a much-needed scrum. Keary booted it end-over-end, ball handling became harder, Manly struggled to make metres, and Manu got done for a high tackle on play four.
After these chaotic shifts in possession, this penalty had the potential to consolidate Manly, especially when Walker took another shot at the line, and Olakau’atu followed in his slipstream twenty metres upfield. Manly had made good inroads in the middle third, so DCE stayed in that part of the park for the kick, booting through a replica of the grubber that Turbo almost got down on the dead ball line, but with a more dangerous bounce on it this time. Keary wasn’t taking any chances, and bashed it dead as the Chooks lined up for the dropout.
For the first time all night, Manly now well and truly had the momentum behind them, as an Andrew Davey knock-on was annulled by the barest of late shots from Radley, and Walker made it a trio of terrific charges up the middle, this time directly beneath the crossbar. He didn’t quite make the chalk, but a quick play-the-ball set up Karl Lawton to smash over in his wake and secure the Sea Eagles their first four-pointer. From Walker’s mercurial footwork to the brute strength of this sequence, Manly were (tentatively) back, as Garrick made it six.
It was a nice moment for Lawton after leaving the park concussed one minute into last week’s opener against the Panthers, while Davey also got some joy following his knock-on by bringing the ball to the thirty metre line two tackles into the restart. Taupau had been quiet with the carries before this Manly resurgence, but made up for it with two charges now, and while Tupou took DCE’s kick clean in the corner, there was no doubt that this had been a superb consolidator from the Sea Eagles, who now kept Sydney City bunched up on their own line.
That pressure spilled over into a Smith knock-on early in the count, and with Keary pinged for lying in the ruck, the visitors were back at the peak flow they’d glimpsed in the wake of Radley’s “late” tackle. Sensing he had to step up and maintain this flow above all else, DCE booted it into the right corner on play two, where Tupou put just enough pressure on Harper to make it a dropout, rather than a second try. In a surprise twist, however, Ash Klein paused the play to check whether Harper had made a touch, only to confirm it as a dropout after all.
This brief respite for the Roosters only galvanised Manly further, as Radley copped another tackle penalty, more legitimately this time, and in the same part of the park, midway through the count. A Radley penalty had worked wonders for the Sea Eagles last time, and while Smith cleaned up the Steeden a moment later, the conditions of that sole tryscoring set also repeated themselves when a Manly turnover gave way to a Sydney error, this time an escort for Keary. Surely, on the cusp of the final quarter, the Brooky boys were going to score now.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Tupou dove on an uninspired DCE grubber to bring this dangerous period to an end, before Keary booted it long and hard to reset the balance of position as quick as possible, as word returned from the sheds that Tupouniua wouldn’t be returning to the park. Turbo was up to the kick, and made good metres to set his men up for a big incursion into Sydney’s half of the park, where Smith prevented Keppie from offloading, and DCE now aimed at the left side of the field, shafting it as far away from Tupou as possible.
By this stage, it felt like the Eagles had been camped out on the Roosters’ line for most of the second stanza, to the point where this whole period was transforming into a masterclass of Sydney City defence more than a testament to Manly’s attacking prowess. They’d only had 18% of possession in the last ten minutes, only made 0-24 tackles in the opposition half, and copped another big blow when Watson was taken from the park after damaging his shoulder in an ankle tap on Turbo, while Manly came close to bundling Smith into touch a set later.
In fact, some Sea Eagles supporters in the crowd clamoured that Smith had found the sideline, but they were silenced when the Chooks got a much-needed turnover off a loose carry from Harper, a significant enough turning-point for Manly to send it upstairs in a vain attempt to prove that Momirovski had stripped it. Fletcher Baker was five metres out by tackle four, only for Manu to become the next Rooster to succumb to injury, clutching his left leg as it bent back at an awkward angle under the impact of a last-ditch ankle tap from Foran.
Luckily, Manu was able to return to his feet – not least because we all want to see him playing against Latrell in next week’s Roosters-Rabbitohs clash. The game accelerated again from here, as Saab and Walker chased down an enormous kick, with Walker eventually sliding to ground to take it, and making the most of the slippery turf, with Saab tumbling over the top. This superb individual play steeled the Chooks into their last tryscoring set of the night, while Walker set up the critical sequence with a rapid left sweep that ended with a Keary assist.
The star five-eighth read the line beautifully, flicking the footy at just the right moment to Butcher, who looked more like Turbo than Turbo himself as he pivoted from boot to boot to elude the Manly fullback, before tumbling through Olakau’atu at the death. It was a play that split the difference between a forward and a backliner, cementing Sydney’s control of the game, while marking a new leadership threshold for Walker, who had wrested organisation from Radley, and glimpsed the right play in an instant, at this critical moment in the match.
It didn’t much matter, then, that Walker missed the kick, since this was a watershed sequence in other ways. With nine minutes to go, any Manly try was destined to be a consolation (and small consolation at that), since the Roosters had well and truly shut down what could have been a redemptive flow of points at the cusp between the last two quarters. Just to add insult to injury, Hutchison booted through a 40/20 at the end of the next Sydney set, and Saab didn’t come close to collecting it. Seven minutes left, and the Chooks were back on the Manly line.
They didn’t quite sparkle as they had earlier in the game, relying instead on a couple of bullocking charges that ended with Collins losing the footy beside the right post. The subsequent scrum might well be Manly’s last chance of the night, so Turbo wasted no time in surging up the right wing, only for Brad Parker to slip on the sodden turf while trying to replicate that rhyhm out on the left. Yet the Sea Eagles recouped that loss on the left with one final showpiece, as Foran, DCE and Garrick combined for one of the best tries of the night.
DCE bookended this sequence, starting with a short ball to Foran, who grubbered at an oblique enough angle that Garrick had to enterprise with a second chip back infield. Reading the play perfectly, DCE chased it down, translating the sequence’s fusion of clutchiness and inspiration into a vision of pure strength and determination, before Garrick booted through the two to bring his men to a relatively respectable 26-12 – an important late motivator as they steel themselves for a Dogs outfit desperate to draw on their new guns next Sunday.