Manly were coming off a nine day turnaround, three straight wins and another huge Mudgee match when they rocked up to host Gold Coast at Brooky on Saturday afternoon. They ended up victorious here too, but perhaps not quite as predictably, or as easily, as the stats would have suggested. Over a to-and-fro game, both sides put down four tries, and if Toby Sexton had made it more than 1/4 with the kicks it might have been a very different outcome, especially once the score hit 24-18 with his one and only conversion at the 64th minute.
That ebb and flow crystallised around Jamayne Isaako, who had a rough patch in the middle of the first stanza, but bookended it with superb shutdowns on Andrew Davey and Hamole Olaku’atu for two of the three denied tries that put a pin in Manly’s momentum. From there, the ex-Bronco scored the Titans’ first four on the brink of half time, only to put it down early in the restart, and make room for Kieran Foran to have the last word before he hit the sheds.
Nevertheless, this was a resilient game from the Titans, who showed how well they could orchestrate their defence around their big boppers, with David Fifita and Tino Fa’asumaleaui both racking up tries and providing pummelling metres to get many of the key Gold Coast playmaking options in place. At the end of the day, though, even that front-loaded energy was no match for Daly Cherry-Evans’ leadership with the boot, and his vision more generally, right down to the captain’s challenge and contested Titans try that secured his men the game.
Gold Coast didn’t quite break the halfway line on their first carry, while Brian Kelly marked his return from Covid isolation to come in hard and prevent Jason Saab doing too much with his first kick return. Play paused for a moment midway through this first Manly set as Josh Aloiai took a beat to get back to his feet, but even so DCE booted it just outside the thirty, targeting the right corner where Phillip Sami leaped half a metre off the turf to take it on the full. Haumole Olakau’atu hit Sami three tackles later, and conceded a slow peel in the process.
Tolu Koula made his first big statement of the night to prevent Kelly from making inroads into the thirty, while the set ended with a whimper when Patrick Herbert launched himself on a deft Toby Sexton chip to the right wing but ended up losing it. Manly had conceded a penalty, Gold Coast had made an error, and the roundabout continued when Toafofoa Sipley followed Olakau’atu with a slow peel on the following set. The Titans only made ten metres on the first three tackles off the penalty, and once again relied on a Sexton chip to the right corner.
Brad Parker came up with the footy this time, although he was unable to prevent Herbert wrapping him into touch, as the sky turned pink over Gold Coast’s first dropout of the game. DCE booted it straight and hard down the middle, Tino took a big charge to counter it on the first, Saab prevented Kelly from plunging through a hole up the left, and the Titans finally let this sudden acceleration overtake them. AJ Brimson did well to take the late offload from Kelly on the ground, only to flick it past his winger and over the sideline.
Now it was Tino’s turn to concede a slow peel, as Aloiai drove it into the red zone on tackle one, DCE maintained precarious possession in the midst of a tough multi-Titan hit up the left, and Morgan Harper just remained in the field of play at the back of the first big left sweep of the night, in the face of a Gold Coast pack that was determined to bump him into touch. Tino made a valiant effort to make up for his penalty by bringing the kick back from in goal, but with DCE and Olakau’atu crowding him on the dead line it was always going to be a dropout.
Three tackles later, Andrew Davey charged over on the left, where the replay confirmed that Jamayne Isaako had done well to wrap himself around his quarry, and spin him around as Moeika Fotuaika came in to finish the job. Davey actually got the footy down, but back in the field of play, although the whole sequence was quickly eclipsed by a superb drive on the other side of the park, where Koula barged at the line and played the footy quick enough for DCE to drop it onto his right foot for a mercurial grubber that Olakau’atu read perfectly for four.
The try was all the more spectacular in that big Haumole almost fumbled it, only to regather it at the last minute. Garrick added a clinical sideline kick, and the Sea Eagles were six with thirteen on the clock. Now a deep purple, the sunset beautifully complemented the maroon and white colour scheme of the stadium, as DCE barked out orders to the troops, and a full moon rose over the Brookvale trees. Sipley delivered an absolutely barnstorming run on tackle one, and Aloiai followed in his foosteps, before Jake Turbo made it a trio of big charges.
Again, DCE showed his brilliance with the boot, hoisting it high for a bomb that bounced straight through Isaako’s outstretched arms before Sami dove on it. It was crisis on the Gold Coast line, as a big Manly pack almost dragged Jamayne back beneath the posts when he took the carry on play one, so the visitors couldn’t have asked for a better time to get their next penalty, which came with an offside from Davey. Kelly wasn’t done on the left, barging through DCE and Koula for some good post-contacts before Sexton delivered with the boot.
The chip was the best of the night, forcing Saab to toe it into touch as Kelly slid to ground behind him. This was a pretty good comeback from the Manly try, even if DCE did bang it all the way back to his own forty, as Gold Coast showed the spirit of both the Broncos and Dogs this week with a surprise surge midway through the first quarter. Herbert flicked it out to Greg Marzhew on tackle three, but even he couldn’t hold his own against a Harper-led pack that was committied to tumbling him into touch ten metres out from the Manly chalk.
Daly steadied the ship with an enormous boot to Isaako’s corner, forcing the Titans to really battle for field position after their repeat set. The visitors didn’t even get a chance to break the halfway line, since Sexton put it down before infringing the ruck a few plays later, ushering in the biggest accumulation of field position so far, as a dangerous hit from Fifita and another ruck infringement from Fotuaika got Manly in place for a sinuous left sweep that ended with Kieran Foran taking it deep into the line and flicking it out for a clean Reuben Garrick cross.
With Garrick showing how well he could boot it through from both sides of the park, Gold Coast were staring down twelve unanswered points, and had to come up with a big individual play soon to prevent this becoming an unchecked flow of Manly power. Even worse for the Titans, Dylan Walker was now on the field, and made an immediate impact on the restart with two tough runs, the second of which forced Tino to draw on all his strength to muscle him to ground. The Sea Eagles were accelerating, and almost got their next try beneath DCE’s kick.
Isaako had a real scare earlier in the game, first when he missed Daly’s bounce, and then when he was almost dragged back into touch on tackle one. His night got worse now, since while he leaped up to take this high ball clean, he lost it on the ground, under a shuddering Foran hit, leaving the Steeden free for Saab scoop up and slam over the line. After extensive Bunker scrutiny, however, the try was denied – not due to the contact on Isaako, but because Saab had bumped off Brimson in backplay while the footy was still careening through the air.
This was a huge letoff for Gold Coast, although Manly were galvanised by losing the six into some of their most brutal defence so far, making it really hard for the visitors to break their forty, let alone make any inroads into opposition territory. Luckily, Sexton’s kicking game didn’t falter, although Kelly undercut the best territory it provided with a leg pull on Olakau’atu that the Titans contested with one of the most desperate and ill-advised challenges of 2022. With Sam Lisone infringing the ruck soon after, they were in real danger.
Sure enough, Olakau’atu poured over on the right edge two tackles into the repeat set, in what might have been the pivotal try if Isaako hadn’t held him up every bit as brilliantly as he’d shut down Davey on the other side of the park. This was a redemption moment for the future Dolphin, drawing on his stronger start to the game, and had the potential to be a momentum-killer for Manly, who now had three botched putdowns. The only way they could bounce back categorically here was to repeat the try sequence, and make it work.
That’s just what they did, as Walker drew in three defenders on the right and played it quick enough for Croker to put Olakau’atu through Croker too quickly for Lisone to offer any real support to Isaako, who barely registered as the big second rower finally got his four points. Garrick booted through the two, but Isaako had the next word, off a barnstorming run from Fifita, who bumped off Parker and sent a huge palm Davey’s way, before Jamayne received the footy and delivered a flamboyant show-and-go to dispose of three Eagles right on the line.
No sooner had Isaako got some joy (and Sexton missed the conversion) than his rocks and diamonds night continued with a cough-up on play one of the restart, producing the sudden and drastic shift in momentum (and ten decibels more from the crowd) that can unleash torrents of opposition points. Sensing he had to lean on that mercurial volatility, DCE grubbered three tackles in, and Olakau’atu came very close to a hat trick on the dead ball line, only for Brimson to reach out an arm and shepherd the footy into touch at very last second.
Even so, Manly had a dropout to cap off the most volatile part of the game, and got a restart for a full stint right on the Gold Coast line, where they elasticised so effortlessly that a Foran try on play one of the repeat set felt inevitable. The Titans just seemed to dissolve as DCE sent a wide one out to his five-eighth, who showed it mercurially to the left, and then bumped off three players off the left boot and curved round behind the posts to set up Garrick for an easy kick. It was the fiftieth try of his NRL career, and a sublime way to celebrate the half century.
This was also, in its own way, a testament to the Foran comeback story, his ability to come full circle at Manly, ending the first stanza on a rousing note as DCE took a trick kick on tackle one of the restart and the Titans headed to the sheds starting down a 24-4 deficit. Both teams went set-for-set when they returned to the park, but the Titans were clearly struggling more, with two players failing to get properly onside for their first three tackles. Manly may not have broken halfway on their first two sets either, but they compensated with two big closing runs.
The first came from Garrick, towards the end of the first set, when he managed to make a couple more metres as he fell to ground; the second from Christian Tuipulotu, who set his whole body against the defence, getting Croker in place for an eyes-up kick to the right corner, where the Steeden sat up perfectly five metres out from the chalk. It was only a matter of time, then, before Gold Coast broke, as a Marzhew error gave way to an absolutely brutal close-range set from Manly that ended (how else?) with another scintillating DCE grubber.
Any chance of avoiding the dropout was shut down by the toughest Sea Eagles pack effort so far, so it was surprising when Marzhew disrupted the rhythm with a left edge tackle on Parker that rippled out into a Koulu error across the other side of the park. Fifita continued this mini-surge with an offload early in the next set, and Will Smith was over the halfway line by tackle four, while Kelly came up with a decent chase to make sure Saab couldn’t deliver a return when he took Sexton’s kick clean at his ten. In a modest way, Gold Coast had held their own.
For a moment it looked like they might be back on their line when Tuipulotu took an age to rise to his feet early in the next count, but no penalty was forthcoming, while Isaako busted all the way to the halfway line when Sexton’s next kick caught Walker napping. Gold Coast now had some of their best position of the game, as Sexton toed it at the ten, and Saab had no option but to reach out an arm to help it into touch at the last minute thanks to a tough Sami chase. Meanwhile, Walker was down in backplay as the Titans dug into their dropout.
Brimson was inside the ten by tackle three, while Fifita had one of his best runs of the night on the other side of the park a play later, where he commandeered his unrivalled strength to withstand a Manly pack set on dragging him into touch. That side-to-side rhythm paid dividends at the back end of Sexton’s kick, a chip across to the left that saw Koula cough it up, Sami tap it back, and Brimson shape for Kelly, who crossed over untouched to make it 24-8 after Sexton was unable to bend the footy back in time to add the extras from the sideline.
Still, this had been a great sequence overall for Sexton, who’d led with the boot, and injected a new energy into the Gold Coast side. Jarrod Wallace almost plunged through the middle midway through the restart, and Davey infringed the ruck to give the visitors a real chance at back-to-back tries, so it was agonising when Sexton himself made an unforced error, with a cold drop that let Manly off the hook. Sean Keppie got the big men rolling with five post-contacts on tackle three, and this time Foran took the bomb, soaring it high over the defence.
Isaako was up to it, but he was right on the line when he took it, and so vulnerable to a four-man pack that dragged him back over the chalk like it was just another Brooky training run. As soon as it emerged, the Gold Coast flow around that Kelly try had receded, since the crowd were now chanting as loud as they had all night, so it was a weirdly deflating moment when Davey made an obstruction just as Garrick was pouring into a rapidly closing hole up the left. He wouldn’t have scored on this play, but a try on the next tackle had felt pretty likely here.
Instead, the Titans brought it together four tackles into the next Gold Coast set, starting with a big run from Herbert to the right edge, where he seemed all but cleaned up by Parker only to break free and slam into Jake Turbo further back in field. Determined not to let his quarry get away this time, Jake came in low and lifted him clean off the ground, only for Herbert to parlay this motion into one of the best and latest offloads of the seasons – an arcing ball straight back to Erin Clark, who flicked it on for Fifita to do what he does best and just run it.
Summoning all the frustrated energy of Gold Coast this evening, Fifita was strong enough to barge through Tuipulotu, and fast enough to prevent Foran ever getting a hand to him, slamming down the Steeden to bring his men to only a two converted try deficit after Sexton’s second kick ricocheted off the upright, putting him at 0/3 with the extras. Manly now slumped into their weirdest end to a set all night, as Daly found himself with the footy up the right edge, and subliminally shaped for a grubber, aware there was no real run option right now.
Still, he chose to run it, leaving Foran to dab an unconvincing one back in field, where Aloiai tapped it back after briefly considering whether to boot it himself, resulting in a chaotic passage back towards the right edge that ended with Olakau’atu taking the second kick. He may be prodigious in every part of his game, and his skill sets may extend well beyond the NRL to union and basketball, but he’s no kicker, and his effort ushered in a dangerous burst from Sami up the left edge that only DCE had the speed and foresight to slam in and contain.
Gold Coast had rattled the Sea Eagles, who needed a second stint from Walker now more than ever. He came on after a slow peel from Karl Lawton and a ruck error from Jake, and wasn’t on the park long enough to prevent another Robina big man from smashing over the chalk. This time it was Tino, who took a shot ball from Smith, sliced through the line, tucked the footy under his right arm and sailed over untouched, mullet streaming in his wake, in a mirror image of Fifita’s crossover on the other wing. Finally, Sexton got a kick to make it 18.
With fourteen minutes on the clock, then, and after a 24-4 opening stanza, the Titans were now only a converted try behind, making it a trio of Round 6 games when the underdogs had glimpsed an upset win. Unlike the Bulldogs and Broncos, however, Gold Coast were peaking at just the right moment, while the Sea Eagles looked fatigued midway through the restart, in need of a big individual play. They got it from Koula, who delivered arguably the best defensive read of his first-grade career with a low effort to knock the footy free from Fermor.
True to the volatile spirit of this last part of the match, however, Keppie coughed it up almost as quickly, off an equally committed tackle from Clark, who didn’t come in quite as low, but wrapped himself around the big no. 16 and held on for dear life, eventually getting him to ground where an awkward richocet off the turf led to an HIA interchange as Davey came off the bench. Meanwhile, Manly were really starting to falter, unable to secure repeat sets or to even make really convincing plays off their line, while Olakau’atu was cramped in both calves.
Sexton encapsulated this massive momentum shift with his most towering bomb of the night, and although Garrick was up to it, he wasn’t able to move an inch with one of the best Gold Coast chases converging on him. Olakau’atu was off the park a second later, replaced by Taniela Paseka, while even a perfect DCE boot to the left edge couldn’t save the day on this set, as the bounce proved almost too good, defying the defence but turning Harper inside out as well. The Titans had to just exhaust Manly now, and Tino got them rolling on play two.
Fifita took up the baton on play four with a compressed charge and offload to Sexton, so it was a big letoff when Isaac Liu failed to make it a trio of big bopper bursts, losing the footy up the left as DCE got ready to steer his men towards another try. He had the ball on the third, where he built space for a Koula consolidator, before Garrick received a short one from Walker and nearly plunged over beside the left posts. Daly was just getting in position for the one-pointer when Lawton was held to have knocked on, and sent up a challenge immediately.
His judgement was as good as his aim, since the replay, while initially seeming to show that Lawton had simply lost the footy while scooping it up in front of Tino, proved that the Gold Coast enforcer had rolled over and interfered in the play from an offside position, in what might well be the critical penalty of the game. No surprise that DCE took the two, in what was itself a sign of respect to Gold Coast’s late surge, as was his leisurely determination to wind down as much of the clock as possible. With a try on the next set, it’d be over for the Titans.
Koula came close to his first NRL putdown four tackles in, with a great low burst on the right edge, where only the most committed of trysavers from Isaako prevented Manly from sealing the deal now. Yet in one final twist, Fifita managed to bring the kick back into the field of the play, before a Manly penalty, and a big Sexton boot, got Gold Coast one more stint down the other end of the park, as Koula left the park for an HIA on the back of that last collision on the line. Sipley came off the bench, Walker headed to centres, and there were three minutes left.
Fifita tried to build space up the right, but there was nothing doing, and yet the Titans got one last chance with a Manly touch on the other side of the park. Tino was as plosive as ever, the visitors got six again with sixty seconds on the clock, and twenty seconds later Fermor toed it, Sexton toed it, the footy ricocheted off Walker, and Fermor bookended the sequence by slamming it down. In a heart-in-mouth moment for the away crowd, the Bunker examined the play to check whether Fermor was onside, and determined, agonisingly, that he wasn’t.
The call came down as Sexton was shaping to convert, in an utterly heartbreaking game for the Titans, who really deserved to end on a closer note after the heroic fight they’d showed in this final quarter. Full credit to DCE, though, for both the captain’s challenge and the final challenge to the ref that got Fermor’s position examined to bein with. No captain in the NRL is quite so powerful or prescient as Daly, and his command flow over this superb home performance will be critical when they rock up to take on the Sharkies to kick off Round 7.