The Rabbitohs have come away with a 40-22 win over the Sea Eagles in Gosford, but that scoreline belies the heroism and resilience of the Manly side, who copped the earliest send off in fifteen years when Karl Lawton was marched from the park eight minutes in for dumping Cameron Murray on his head. From there, field position ebbed and flowed in dramatic bursts of momentum, but not even the return of Josh Schuster on the left edge could make up for a South Sydney outfit with an extra man on the park.
Long before the kickoff reached him, Reuben Garrick slid a boot back over the sideline and got in place to get Manly their first set from the South Sydney twenty. Schuster wasted no time taking a run on the second, bumping off Lachlan Ilias to break the ten, before a Cody Walker tap granted six more tackles, and a left sweep came off Mansour to make it three successive sets on the Bunnies’ line. This was huge opening pressure, so it was massive when Sauce knocked it out of DCE’s grasp a play later, and carried it eighty metres to boot.
Tolu Koula helped staunch this massive shift in momentum with a barnstorming hit under Walker’s ribcage, but even then Campbell Graham would have crossed over on the right if he hadn’t slipped into Brad Parker, while Ilias came up with a decent kick to the left edge, where Manly had to work their way off their own line for the first time tonight. They were still inside the twenty by tackle four, and kept feeding it towards Schuster until DCE booted it long and hard, and the chase followed to prevent Blake Taaffe making any real headway.
Isaiah Tass ran over Koula on the Bunnies’ next foray into Manly territory, while Garrick did well to clean up the kick, as the Sea Eagles once again were faced with a wall of cardinal and myrtle on the cusp of their twenty. DCE took his kick slightly further back this time, nailing a tricky bounce for Taaffe, who became the next player to slip over on this dewy Central Coast surface, giving Manly time to get their defence in order and prevent South Sydney getting too far into their own territory, as Tevita Tatola took his first run six minutes in.
For a third time, the Sea Eagles couldn’t reach South Sydney’s end, and while DCE didn’t get as much distance with this kick, the bounce was mercurial enough to defy Alex Johnston, who lost it another ten metres back. Yet the Bunnies kept on getting boosts into opposition territory, this time with a Kieran Foran offside that saw Tatola make up for lost time by barging into the red zone on tackle two, before Ilias had a crack at running the footy, and Cam Murray was dumped on his back by what turned out to be dangerous contact from Karl Lawton.
In slow motion this was brutally above the horizontal, putting Murray at real risk, so it wasn’t surprising when Lawton was sent from the field, as Manly stared down seventy-one minutes with twelve men on the park. South Sydney took the two, Taaffe popped it through the posts, and Manly had their first send off since Addin Fonua-Blake against Newcastle in 2020, and the fastest in fifteen years, since Michael Crocker in 2007, while Jai Arrow consolidated with a tough burst followed by a late offload that DCE did well to contain.
Lachlan Croker galvanised the next set with a deft dummy half run, but the Sea Eagles still couldn’t break the Rabbitohs’ half, while the Bunnies continued to drive it hard and fast up the middle, where Damien Cook targeted the tired defenders before Walker ended with a short chip to the right that Jason Saab cleaned up on the full. Yet Cook also ushered in the first big letoff for Manly, collecting an offload late in the count only to knock on a moment later, before Foran bumped off a big Jake Trbojevic hit to finally bring Manly over halfway.
DCE’s next kick was a beauty, sailing so high that Johnston had to leap a metre and a half off the turf to collect it. With that kind of hang time, Saab should have been able to do more with the chase, but in any case Tass lost the footy on play one, and the Sea Eagles seized the moment, drawing deep into this sudden shift in momentum with a left side sweep that saw Trbojevic pop it out for Foran to dummy so convincingly that Parker was reaching for it as his five-eighth burrowed into the line and twisted through a last-ditch low shot from Ilias.
Taaffe came in on top, Foran tucked the footy into his chest, and slammed down a muscular opening try as Mansour tumbled over the top, although the replay didn’t show any evidence that Foran had to managed to hit the turf once Ilias put his hands under the ball. It didn’t show any evidence that he hadn’t either, so the Bunker ratified the on-field ruling, in what may have been an unlucky call for South Sydney. Garrick missed the kick to keep it a four-point game, while a Davvy Moale flop got Manly an augmented restart.
After spending so much time in their own end, the Sea Eagles were back on the front foot, although this turned out to be one of their weakest sets of the game, full of false starts and hesitation, so it was pretty cathartic when Saab brought it all together under the high ball. Taking advantage of his height advantage over Johnston, he took a pinpoint DCE chip in the air, and managed to avoid touch as he slammed it down for his first try in eight games. Possibly spooked by the last one, the Bunker scrutinised this too, but cleared it pretty quickly.
This was one of DCE’s most accomplished kicks of the game so far, a tribute to his ability to rescue a set in a single gesture of game management. Lawton was marched at the eighth minute, but the Sea Eagles had ten on the board when Garrick booted through a superb sideline kick, every bit as good as Daly’s assist as it curved away from the right post and then corrected at the last minute. Manly only made it halfway on the restart, but DCE still sent it to the ten, while Foran and Schuster combined for a massive drag-back on Taaffe’s return.
In the end, Ilias had to boot it from his own forty, while Manly started their next set outside their thirty, as the Bunnies started to show signs of frustration, and Schuster made space up the left, where he looked set to run straight over Keaon Koloamatangi before Tatola came in to help with the tackle. Sauce was safe under DCE’s next kick, but a barnstorming chase from Foran prevented him making a single metre, while Graham took his eyes of the footy for a fatal moment on the next play, as DCE toed it, and Arrow only just secured it on his own line.
Manly now had a scrum from the ten, and spent most of their time on the right edge, where the Bunnies got a letoff when the DCE-Saab combo went south with an overlong harbour bridge pass that even Saab’s height wasn’t enough to contend with on the sideline. With a Dylan Walker offside, we were set for a momentum shift if the Rabbitohs could rally here, and Siliva Havili got them rolling with a strong charge to the thirty, laying the platform for a near-break from Ilias that Garrick only just cleaned up.
Nevertheless, the Bunnies were on a roll now, garnering six again off a Trbojevic ruck error before Saab tried to intercept but flicked the footy over the left sideline. Manly had their first chance for a while, and succumbed on tackle one of the restart when Havili completed his charge up the middle but from close-range, drawing in Schuster and popping a short one out for big Keaon to trample over Foran for the first South Sydney try. Taaffe booted through the extras, and just like that we were back to a four point game.
In another swing of the pendulum, however, a Taas error cost the Rabbitohs a full restart. They were back on the defence beneath DCE’s next kick, but got a third letoff when Marty Taupau got done for a second effort. Murray built speed on tackle two, Graham leaned into it on tackle three to break the twenty, and Murray continued to galvanise his team with a rapid shift back to the left, where Johnston congealed this sudden burst of speed into a massive acceleration from fifteen out, with Koula and Saab between him and the line.
First he pivoted away from Koula, than he twisted-and-spun through Saab, using the momentum of the contact to somersault both of them over the line before reaching out his hand for a confident grounding as Trbojevic tumbled on top, but too late to drag him into touch. Taaffe’s kick initially looked like a superb sequel to Garrick’s boot from the other sideline, but it curved away too late. Still, it was only his second miss of the season, while Johnston had become the first Bunny to score in five straight games against the Sea Eagles.
Six minutes from the break and we were back to a two-point game, as Graham continued his right-edge metres on the restart, and Ilias broke through the line for one of the toughest runs of his career to date, barging into Parker and Foran to arrive a metre out from the chalk. Still, the Sea Eagles survived and, true to the spirit of this volatile game, nabbed their next try on the next set, when all DCE’s brilliance with the boot crystallised around his third 40/20 for the season, off an impossible bounce for Johnston on the sideline.
All it took was a left sweep for Schuster to show what Manly have been missing with one of his trademark no-look passes – an offload out of a low shot from Graham that he propelled, beach volleyball style, for Christian Tuipulotu to dance over a Mansour ankle tap and bump off Taaffe to promise a 16-12 score heading into the sheds once Garrick converted. It was a pretty impressive result for a Sea Eagles outfit that had been a man down since the eighth minute, and the Manly bench knew it, cheering on as their backliner got over the chalk.
Yet this wasn’t the final note of the first stanza, since the Bunnies built off a Taupau error on the restart for a left sweep of their own ten seconds out from the siren. It came off a sideline-to-sideline play that saw the passes get wider and wider until Walker flicked it out for Tass, who didn’t even consider shaping for the wing, but instead accelerated to bust through Saab and smash the Steeden down, bringing South Sydney back to their opening two-point advantage once Taaffe booted through a perfect two.
Koloamatangi took the first hit-up back, and Havili drove it hard up the middle, with Murray following in his wake to make space for Walker to boot it back to the Manly ten. Tuipulotu had more runs than any other Manly player, and took another on the second tackle now, while DCE kicked his first one back from halfway, as the game ebbed into a momentary calm. Taupau came in hard to prevent Murray doing much with his charge, and the Bunnies failed to make much headway into Manly territory, as Saab took control of the next high ball.
No sooner had he done so, however, than he shifted an impatient pass out to the left that cost his men ten metres, and yet big metres from Garrick meant DCE booted it from halfway for a second straight set. Both teams were feeling out the contours of the arm-wrestle, deducing how the rhythm had settled after the break, while searching (or waiting) for the next error, penalty or big individual play. Manly found it harder to build position on their next set, and this time DCE kicked inside the forty, before Taffe spilled the footy along the ground.
To his credit he scooped it up in time, but it left him vulnerable to a bone-rattling tackle from Foran, which in turn galvanised Burgess into a big run up the middle and a rapid play-the-ball for Cook to add more metres, before the Bunnies got the first restart of the back half off a ruck error from Trbojevic. They shifted right midway through, as Parker shut down Graham with a clinical one-on-one, before Burgess finished off the midfield charge that started it all by busting through what looked like a staunch Sea Eagles line for the first try since the break.
It was an amazing trajectory in slow motion, as big Burgess bumped off Croker, stepped out of a Taupau ankle tap, and then barged through the combined heft of Trbojevic, Garrick and Croker, who had come in for a second tackle, to slam down four for South Sydney. You couldn’t have asked for a clearer indication of the Sea Eagles exhaustion in Lawton’s absence, while Taaffe booted the extras to make it the biggest lead of the night, and Ben Trbojevic and Shaq Mitchell both came off the bench to add some energy from the next generation.
Taupau, in particular, seemed exhausted, following his miss on Burgess with a slow peel to gift the Bunnies a boost on the restart. Murray was strong as ever up the middle, Cook made more metres, and Mitchell brought them inside the ten, as the set reached a new fever pitch that the hosts couldn’t quite parlay into a tryscoring right sweep. It didn’t matter though, since Walker celebrated his sesquicentenary by scoring a play later on the left, where he scooped up a crafty roll-back from Tass and crossed all but untouched by Garrick in the corner.
Full credit to Tass for the most creative assist of the game, since when Koula and Saab converged on him, the sweep seemed complete, taking the Sea Eagles completely by surprise when it continued into Cody’s mad dash. Taaffe added another beautiful sideline kick, Walker was clearly riding an emotional high after his father had made a surprise visit from Casino to attend his 150th jersey presentation, and the game took another rapid pivot when Ilias tried to match Garrick’s opening decision to let the ball hit touch, only for it to land just infield.
Manly had avoided another restart, and were inside the thirty with a Dylan Walker run on tackle two, while Ilias made a good read on Foran’s next pass to Ben Trbojevic. DCE steadied the ship with a chip right on the last, and while Saab secured it and shifted it back infield, Koula’s second kick was the hardest off the boot so far, barrelling over the back line before Koula bounced back immediately with a clinical shutdown on Shaq play one of the following set. Even so, Murray was staunch up the middle, and Ilias hit the red zone on the fourth.
Manly survived, but started their next count right on their try line, only reaching the halfway mark off a strong early run from Tuipulotu and even stronger metres from Garrick to get Daly in position for the kick. Jake Turbo did well to shut down Burgess when Souths got the ball back, but Ilias was on a roll, clocking up seven post-contacts for his seventh run, so it was another big pivot when Sean Keppie slammed in to force a Tass cough-up, and Koula followed with a near-break up the right, eluding Tass before Arrow finally came in to shut him down.
In one set, Manly had tentatively reclaimed the rhythm, so with a consolidation here they might regain control on the cusp of the second quarter, producing their most volatile and enterprising try of the night. It started with a Foran grubber from the left edge that DCE tried to toe forward in the ten, but missed, forcing him to chase it in goal, where he competed with Cook, and quickly became lead chaser, only for Cookie to pull his right arm away at the very moment of grounding, resulting in a penalty try and a 30-22 scoreline after Garrick’s kick.
Daly ended the restart with a high ball that initially seemed a little deep for the chasers, but ended up being just right to trap the Rabbitohs on their ten. Graham still hadn’t cleared the ten by tackle three, and while the hosts survived this set, they had a real challenge on their hands when the Sea Eagles got six again towards the end of the next one. Schuster was back in action for the left sweep on the last, sending a Foran ball out to Tuipulotu, who lobbed it over the sideline, but not without a Mansour fingertip making contact first.
The Bunnies sent it upstairs, but the challenge showed what was clear in real time – that Sauce had deflected the Steeden on its way over the sideline. Weirdly, though, the Bunker called it inconclusive, leaving the Rabbitohs with a challenge in their arsenal seventeen seconds out from the siren. For the moment, though, they had to withstand a Manly left edge attack that had been rejuvenated by the pause, culminating with a Jake Trbojevic grubber that deflected off the defence and with another metre would have hit Garrick on the chest.
Even so, the Sea Eagles had the scrum feed, and opted to shift it right this time, where DCE booted it on the third to force Johnston to clean it up in goal. While Manly had enjoyed longer periods on the South Sydney line, this was the sharpest and most sustained close-range pressure they’d applied all night, and Graham was determined to contain it with a big hit on Ben Turbo out on the left, only for Arrow to find himself offside back in field. Schuster continued Ben’s drive with a big run up the sideline, before Dylan Walker took an early kick.
It wasn’t as inspired as DCE’s third-tackle grubber, forcing Jake to bump it into touch to grant the Bunnies zero tackle. Walker made metres up the right but Mansour couldn’t replicate them out on the sideline, so the hosts shifted it back to the other edge, where Johnston slipped over on his way to the wing, but managed to garner a restart off a DCE error. Again, Mansour tried to find space, and again he was held up, this time by Tuipulotu, as the full heroism of Manly’s twelve-man defence was thrown into starker and starker relief.
Walker would have put Graham through a hole on the wing if Ben Trbojevic hadn’t swung an arm into the footy, as the Sea Eagles took a deep breath and settled in to defend another scrum from their ten. For a second they looked to have gained a letoff when Johnston chased a loose Walker pass twenty metres back to the sideline, and Koula bumped him into touch, but there was a late call of second effort, while a DCE offside turned out to be the death knell, the last piece of South Sydney position needed for Murray to soar over beneath the crossbar.
Like Nathan Cleary’s try against the Titans, this was the key consolidation moment of the game, bringing Murray full circle after the Lawton tackle for one of the sharpest tries of his career – wide ball from Cook, defenders both sides, but hard and straight enough to slice over untouched. Taaffe booted through the two from right in front, and the Bunnies were at 26-22 with eight minutes left on the clock. Yet Ben Trbojevic reversed the rhythm once more with a David-on-Goliath tackle on Koloamatangi to force it free on play one of the restart.
High contact from Sauce on Tuipulotu got Manly a set in the ten, where this brief surge came full circle when Ben Trbojevic, the man who had started it all, put down a Foran ball on the left edge. The Rabbitohs had seven tackles to play with, the Sea Eagles got another boost of position with successive errors from Murray and Mansour, Johnston only just cleaned up another awkward wide ball from Walker, and it felt like we should be in for a grandstand finish, despite the fourteen point difference on the board.
Perhaps that’s because Manly had put in such a heroic effort to defend their line in the wake of the earliest sin bin in fifteen years. Nevertheless, the Bunnies had the last word, in the last thirty seconds, when Graham cleaned up an awkward ball on the right, got on the outside of Ben Trbojevic, and reached out his full wingspan to offload through Tuipulotu for Taaffe to make it forty points – a big momentum-builder for South Sydney as they prepare to take on a Brisbane outfit flush from their first top-four scalp in ages next Thursday night.