Both Cronulla and Manly were coming off four wins and two losses when they met under the wires for the first match of Round 7, in what almost became one of the greatest comebacks and most mismatched halves of footy in years. Led by Nicho Hynes in his first stint at Cronulla captain, the Sharkies caused a crisis for the Sea Eagles’ right edge, with Siosifa Talakai and then Ronaldo Mulitalo both putting down doubles off a theme and variations that saw Hynes, Matt Moylan and Will Kennedy rotating through a series of sublime attacking permutations.
Talakai, in particular, had a career high game, and one of the best ever first half performances in the modern NRL – nearly 200 run metres, 2 tries, 3 assists, 5 tackle busts and 3 linebreak assists – making him a virtual lock for Origin this year. Yet that just made it all the more remarkable when Manly hit back at a 32-0 lead to score four unanswered tries after the break, narrowing the scoreline to ten points in one of the best momentum swings in years, until Cronulla finally recovered and had the last word with a Hynes penalty kick at the 78th minute.
DCE fumbled the kickoff back behind the line, and found a swathe of Sharks pushing in to keep him there, giving Cronulla a dropout off Nicho Hynes’ boot for their first possession of the game. Toby Rudolf took the opening carry thirty metres out from the Manly line, and the hosts wasted no time shifting it right, where Sione Katoa tried to plunge over from dummy half, before a rapid sweep to the other side of the park saw Siosifa Talakai slice through the line on tackle four, thanks to a clinical assist from Matty Moylan fifteen metres out.
Even then, Talakai had a job on his hands to outpace Jason Saab, and was on the verge of getting on his outside shoulder when he rapidly pivoted back in field to turn Morgan Harper inside out as well. Full credit, too, to Blayke Brailey for the efficient crossfield run that set up the change in direction to begin with. The only blemish was Hynes missing the conversion from a relatively gettable angle, but even so this was a dominant opening for the Sharks, especially when Royce Hunt earned a penalty on play one of the restart.
It came off a high shot from Andrew Davey, and yet Cronulla didn’t get a chance to capitalise on another augmented set since Briton Nikora flicked the footy forward when Brailey spun out a slightly over-high pass one play later. Finally, four and a half minutes into the game, Manly got a touch, as Toafofoa Sipley got them running with some post-contacts, and DCE read the breeze well to boot it into the left corner, where the Sharks managed to clean it up, but not without having to work it back from their own try line.
Sipley complemented his opening run with a tough hit on Teig Wilton early in the count, and Hynes took advantage of the breeze at his back to aim for an early 40/20. While he didn’t make it, the Sharks still limited Manly’s field position enough to ensure that DCE only got a boot over the halfway line by the start of the fourth play. He only kicked it five metres further forward than that, as Will Kennedy became the next Shark to wrest order from chaos after Daly’s ball combined with the breeze to challenge the Cronulla backline.
Rudolf got them rolling with an offload early in the count, and Jesse Ramien parlayed that energy into a touch run up the right followed by a kick at speed for Kennedy, who tumbled along the turf, got hands to the footy, and knocked it on so obviously that there was no need to resort to the Bunker. This was the first major reverse in momentum after that opening Sharks stint, and sure enough DCE drove it into the Cronulla twenty with a fresh focus, so it was frustrating when Saab knocked on Foran’s kick to the right corner.
Hynes was keen to exploit the same right edge momentum on the next set, and while he glimpsed space, the Sharks never got to build on it, since Ramien knocked on as Foran wrestled him to ground. Manly had the first scrum feed, thirty-five metres out from the Cronulla line, as Hynes stepped back into the leadership role with a rhythm-killing tackle on Davey on play two. The Sea Eagles tried to restore their flow out on the right, where Reuben Garrick had a shot at dummy half, but found a four-man pack there to stop the four points.
For a brief moment, Manly had the upper hand, but the Sharks had regained it now, as Rudolf and Hunt poured at the line to lay a platform for Talakai to glimpse another break up the left. The gap that opened up was pretty worrying for the Sea Eagles, who didn’t offer anything decisive to counter it on their next carry, forcing DCE to just boot it hard and long to forestall Cronulla, who nevertheless got the first restart early in their next set, off a ruck error from Sipley. No surprise, then, that the same space opened late in the repeat for a Talakai double.
For a moment, it looked like Croker had shut down the set with a tough tackle on Hunt, but Brailey and Moylan promptly repeated their previous combo for Talakai, who played a theme and variations with the footwork on the left edge. This time, Saab was totally disoriented, forcing Harper to come in for a legs tackle that Talakai was always going to trample. DCE was also there at the death, and launched his body at full force on the tough backliner, but Talakai still got to ground, and nestled the Steeden down, as both Daly and Saab tumbled on top.
Hynes sent the second conversion attempt through, bringing the Sharkies to ten unanswered points as the Sea Eagles conceded another penalty early in the restart with a Haumole Olakau’atu offside in the ten, and Daly barked out orders to the troops, momentarily thwarted by Hynes’ first stint as Cronulla captain. They got a letoff when the hosts failed to find Talakai at the end of this set, although the metres didn’t come easily, and DCE ultimately booted it just inside his own forty, while a big Ramien run got the Sharks back there on tackle two.
By this stage, on the cusp of the second quarter, the Manly defence had dissolved to a worrying degree, and the Sharks capitalised quickly. Hynes got the same left edge movement going, shooting it out to Moylan to set up Kennedy for a short ball to Talakai, but this time big Sifa did something considerably more impressive than a mere try. Harper and Saab got to him in time, but he locked the Steeden under his left arm and used the arc of their combined tackle to lob a prodigious offload back for Ronaldo Mulitalo to take on the full.
Even then, the try was no sure thing, but Mulitalo read the park immediately, ducking under Garrick and slamming over Olakau’atu for the fifth try of his career and the second conversion of Hynes’ night. The Sharks were sitting at 16-0 and had their first real setback on tackle three of the restart, when Nicho was just starting to elasticse only to lob a mistimed bouncer across to the left edge that destined his men to spend the entire count in their own end. It was a small setback, though, and with Kennedy taking DCE’s bomb there was no net loss.
For the first half of the next set it looked like the Sea Eagles might keep Cronulla in their own end for a second time, but Rudolf revitalised the count with a late low offload to Aiden Tolman, before another Talakai run up the left and a long Hynes kick added more metres. Even so, DCE booted his next one just outside the twenty, where Manly got a much-needed six again off a Cronulla touch, and their first close-range attack of the night, which Foran promptly dissolved with a misplaced pass that Talakai scooped up to almost break the line.
The Cronulla flow continued when a Hynes forward pass was swallowed up by a Foran offside, as the hosts got a close-range attack of their own, but only needed a single tackle to make good on it. Talakai had a double, and now he assisted Mulitalo, off the same left sweep that had worked all night – Brailey to Moylan to Kennedy – while Saab was caught so awkwardly between the Cronulla no. 4 and 5 that he never had a chance to bumping Mulitalo into touch. Even if Hynes missed another conversion, the Sharkies were sitting at 20 unanswered points.
Already, twenty-eight minutes in, Talakai was sitting at 134 run metres, and he added to them with an extraordinary victory lap midway through the restart that cemented this game as his consideration reel for the 2022 Blues. It started, again, with Hynes, who drifted across field for Moylan to shoot a no-looker out to Kennedy, who in turn popped it across to Talakai. Receiving it at the halfway line, Sifa bumped off Harper, accelerated into space, and dropped it on the boot at the ten, grubbering in goal where Kennedy took it on the bounce and scored.
In other words, this was a career high point for Talakai, while the Sea Eagles had to stare down a 26-0 led with twelve men on the park when Olakau’atu was sent to the bin for high contact on Tolman earlier in the restart. A Ramien error got Manly an unexpected shot on the Sharkies’ line, and while Foran tried to match Talakai’s grubber from the left edge, Kennedy came up with the bounce this time as well, but in front of the line. Andrew Fifita shaped for an offload early in the count, but did better to pull it back in the face of a near knock-on.
For the first time all night, Manly got a win on their right edge, as Saab bumped Mulitalo into touch as he was preparing to pass it back in field. Moylan was called offside within the ten a play later, as the Sea Eagles settled into what would probably be their last tryscoring opportunity before the break, which was five minutes away, especially when Fifita was pinged for a second effort a moment later. Yet their own left edge eloquence couldn’t have been more lacking, as Ramien slammed in to ricochet a Foran ball straight over the sideline.
The Sharks responded with a methodical set, before Hynes hoisted it high and the chase prevented Garrick from working it back over the twenty. DCE was already looking for big options on tackle two, but had to content himself with a standard bomb on the last that Mulitalo was always going to take easily once he got down on the ground. Finally, after searching for a break all night, Hynes burst into space up the right, and while Garrick stopped him in his tracks, he knocked the footy on too, giving the Sharks the set they needed to score.
No surprise that they shifted left once again, where Wilton would have smashed over if he hadn’t slipped a metre out from the line. Nevertheless, this Cronulla outfit was good enough to self-correct, and when they returned in the same direction they got it right – another no-looker for Moylan, and such a mercurial catch-and-pass assist from Hynes that Wilton was barely able to brush Talakai as he sliced past him to channel his last-minute try against Parra in Round 2. Hynes booted through the two, and the Sharks were 32-0 heading to the sheds.
Manly had the breeze at their back when they returned to the park, and had to stay strong in both defence and attack, since no team has yet made the grand final after conceding fifty points. Olakau’atu came back twenty seconds later, and the Sea Eagles were at full force for their first attacking set after Garrick took Hynes’ kick on the full. They got a penalty early in the count, with a Moylan offside, to experiment with how Tolu Koula would go replacing Harper on the right, but didn’t finish the sweep when a Foran-Parker pass drifted forward.
Apart from that error, the last note of this set was a tough combined tackle from Talakai and Mulitalo to shut down Garrick in the corner, so Cronulla’s dominance with their left edge combo stayed strong. They weren’t as strong on the right, however, as Katoa came up with a cold drop just when he had room to burst into space up the sideline, gifting Manly their first close-range attack of the second stanza once Garrick brought it inside the ten on tackle two. Two plays later, the game paused when Walker came down beneath a twisting Moylan hit.
This wasn’t quite a hip drop, but a continuation of Walker’s ongoing issues with the left leg. Ethan Bullemor got to his feet on the sideline, but Walker was good for the moment, while the Sea Eagles finally got some joy with a pivot back to the left edge, off their silkiest synergy of the night so far. Foran drifted across the park, showing it a couple of times to set up space for DCE to drive it into the line and then pop it out for Garrick to lob a harbour bridge ball across a jamming Katoa run for Christian Tuipulotu to smash past Kennedy for the first four.
Garrick bent the ball away from the left sideline to keep the score at 32-4 as the rain started to fall gently over Shark Park, before Mulitalo popped back a short kickoff to get his men a full set in the red zone in place of a Manly restart. Hynes set up Ramien for a tough run up the right, Wilton steaded the ship, and the Sharks went for a variation on their left edge attack when Moylan booted it through the defence – too hard, as it turned out, as the Sea Eagles got their restart after all with seven tackles, and then a penalty off a Brailey second effort.
Two plays later, Paseka became the next Sea Eagle to bust through on the left, thanks to some superb vision from DCE, who took a survey of the field, gathered the footy of dummy half, and subliminally shifted for a wide ball or run to the right, only to flick a short one across for his big no. 10 to smash through from close range. Garrick added the extras and Manly were only 22 in the red with half an hour of football to go, while the Sharkies had to plug this complacency fast. They took the first step when Kennedy took DCE’s bomb on the full, although Ramien had to contend with a big pack that kept him in the twenty on tackle two.
This marked the start of some of Manly’s most muscular defence so far, and Hynes wisely chose to boot it long and hard outside his own red zone, prescient that his men weren’t likely to make many more metres on this particular stint. The visitors were back in the same part of the park by tackle five, when play stopped for Paseka to get some medical attention after his knee bent awkwardly in a standard Nikora legs tackle. With Keppie, Kapow and Aloiai already on the sideline, it was dispiriting to see Taniela hobbling to join them a minute later.
Yet this pause only galvanised the Sea Eagles, who got six again off a Cronulla touch, although it was unclear if DCE heard the call, since he chipped to the left edge of the park at the same instant. Luckily, Parker got the footy and withstood the chase, injecting just the right amount of precarity to motivate Manly even more, especially once they garnered six again off high contact from Hynes. Sure enough, Croker plunged over out of dummy half on tackle four, scooping up the Steeden and taking on an enormous combined hit from Kennedy and Tolman.
The two defenders managed to wrap him up, but even so Croker landed hard enough to slide the footy down Kennedy’s leg while maintaining possession, narrowing the deficit to only sixteen points once Garrick booted through the two. For the second time, however, the Sharkies got the ball back from the restart kickoff, and sent it out to the left as soon as possible, where Koula drove Talakai backwards for the first time this evening, forcing Hynes to return it to the right, where Harper cleaned up a Katoa tackle on the final play.
This was the first time that a Cronulla set had really fragmented in the wake of a left edge attack, so it had the potential to be a tipping-point if Manly could score another try now. DCE set up Koula for good post-contacts up the right edge, and then sent a clinical chip to the same corner, where a big Saab chase ensured that Kennedy couldn’t make a single metre back over the ten. Still, the Sharkies got some position soon enough, off a Sipley strip early in the count, while Nikora got them rolling by trampling straight over Croker two tackles after.
Hynes, like DCE, booted it to the right corner, while Katoa got some joy by chasing down Harper much as Saab had chased him down. The difference, here, was that Harper was trapped right on the try line, while the Sharks had their best set of the second stanza behind them, making this an important enough tipping point for the Sea Eagles to send a subsequent Parker mistake upstairs – and get some joy, since the replay showed that Brad had indeed fumbled the footy, but without it ever making contact with the ground or with a defender.
Despite that advantage, DCE didn’t drive the ball very deep on the last, giving Mulitalo space to put on twenty metres before Talakai brought it over the halfway line and got six again off a Jake Trbojevic ruck infringement on tackle two. Rudolf made a half-break a play later to reach the ten, Wilton did the same on the left edge, and Foran made up for his lacklustre kick with a terrific desperation play in the face of Hynes’ kick – first charging it down, and then slamming through Kennedy to clean it up before any of the Sharks could get to it first.
Koula’s next pass found a Shark, but the Sea Eagles got another burst in position when Rudolf was pinged for dangerous contact a set later, and followed with their clutchiest piece of play when both Foran and Tuipulotu both fumbled and regathered the footy on the left edge. Again, this slightly precarious play brought the pressure Manly needed, as Croker finished with a mecurial chip that landed a metre over the try line behind the posts to concede the dropout that propelled Manly into their fourth unanswered try since the sheds.
It came on the right side of the park, as DCE lobbed it over the top for Saab, Garrick almost broke through the line, and Daly finally split the difference between those two plays by flicking out a short one for Olakau’atu to smash over for four more. Big Haumole’s absence had been part of the reason for Manly’s deceleration before the break, and so his run and try now encapsulated all the acceleration the Sea Eagles had brought to this back forty, narrowing the score to only ten points as Garrick booted the two in the intensifying rain.
Wet weather footy turned out to be a liability for Manly on the restart, when Croker fumbled a pass from dummy half – and this time they didn’t get any joy from the challenge, which clearly showed the error in all its slippery frustration. Koula shaped for another break up the right a set later, skipping over a slipped-over Talakai to glimpse open space, but the Sharkies held strong, right down to Hynes’ safe hands in the fullback role under a soaring DCE bomb. There were ten minutes on the clock, and a ten point difference, as the rain grew stronger.
Hynes went for a 40/20 on his next kick, but was always going to have a challenge to send it over the left line, even if Sipley hadn’t slammed in to shudder the Steeden into a different trajectory. It wasn’t terrible, clearing the chalk at the thirty, but it didn’t give Cronulla any reprieve from the Sea Eagles, who were back in their territory midway through the next count. Foran took a big charge up the left on the penultimate play, and DCE lobbed through his most idiosyncratic kick of the night – facing the post, but off the side of the boot.
The result split the difference between a chip and a sweep, getting the Sea Eagles a fresh set on the line when Talakai knocked it on. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as DCE delivered an even more mercurial last-tackle option in the heaviest rain so fan – a kick off the right padding that would have produced points if Davey hadn’t fallen awkwardly on his shoulder in the process of rolling over it. He was clearly in excruciating pain as he opted to remain on the park, while something about the Sharkies’ survival felt like a final tipping-point tonight.
Foran had another big penultimate play on the next set with the best post-contacts of the night up the left edge, while the Sea Eagles got a blow on and off the field – off, when Davey headed to the sheds, and on, when Koula chipped it too hard up the right to grant Cronulla seven tackles with five minutes on the clock. Karl Lawton tried to repeat Foran’s big run up the left, but Ramien was in place to hold him up, while DCE bookended the game, following his fumbled kickoff, with another fumble off some poor service from Croker at dummy half.
A few plays later, Hynes glimpsed a break in the line up the left, and did well to feed the footy across to Talakai, who copped an early hit from Saab, as the Sea Eagles lost their challenge to contest it, as Hynes booted the two into the breeze to bring his men to 34-22. The Sharkies will be looking to play the full eighty minutes of footy in a more rigorous way when they rock up to meet Brisbane next week, although even the lull of this back half can’t take the burnish off the best single stint of Talakai’s career, good enough to lift the whole team with him.