ROUND 14: Wests Tigers v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Campbelltown Sports Stadium, 12/6/22, 4-30)

Manly might have won 10/13 fixtures at Campbelltown, and triumphed over the Tigers in Round 9, but if the black and orange had any chance of a win over the Brookvale crew, it was likely to be this afternoon. Not only was it members’ appreciation round at Leumeah, but DCE wasn’t backing up after winning Origin I, while the home team hadn’t lost a single player to either the Blues or Maroons. No doubt, the departure of Michael Maguire had been destabilising, but that might well be a motivator for the first stint of the Brett Kimmorley era.

For the first stanza, the game hung in the balance, but Manly came big back after the break, thanks in part to a massive sequence from Haumole Olakau’atu, who capped it off with a barnstorming close-range try, and thanks in part to a faltering performance from Brent Naden, who started strong, but eventually let through a pair of tries, and then dumped Jake Trbojevic on his back for the ugliest tackle since Karl Lawton on Cam Murray. He was sent off for his troubles, leaving the Tigers with ten players to face the final fifteen minutes.

To add insult to injury, the Sea Eagles used this time to put down two effortless tries, each of which felt epic in its own way. The first was Tolu Koula’s first NRL try, a masterful piece of footwork that felt like the closing comment on the match until Josh Aloiai bookended the game by barging over at close range, and notching up his first double in the process – a feat he never achieved in all his time in Leichhardt. Add Garrick coming one point off Papenhuyzen’s table-topping tally, and the Eagles soared home despite DCE’s absence.

Brooksy took the kickoff into a strong breeze, and the Tigers almost got the footy back, only for Lachlan Croker to gather it at the death. Wests did well to swarm the Eagles on play one, but even so Kieran Foran was in enemy territory by the time he took the kick, while the hosts spent most of the next set in their own thirty, thanks in part to a massive AloIai-Croker hit on Joe Ofahengaue. Brooks didn’t break the forty by the time he took the kick, as Manly started their next count from halfway, and Olakau’atu broke into space up the right.

He shifted it out to Koula, who would have crossed if not for a trysaving tackle from Ken Maumalo, but even so the Tigers were already scrambling by the time Foran chipped it out to the right, where Maumalo came up with a second strong play to take it on the full in goal, gifting his men seven tackles to start making up for this early deficit in field position. Zane Musgrove was in Manly territory midway through the count, the halves created space for Daine Laurie, and Brent Naden hit the red zone, all on the fourth tackle.

This compressed sequence led to the first burst of position, as Musgrove went for an offload, Manly got a touch, the Tigers packed the scrum, and Morgan Harper conceded six again with a ruck error. From an early struggle to build position, the hosts now had the first sustained period of close-range attack, but Manly absorbed the pressure, coming in to contain a left edge sweep before Tofa Sipley stripped the Steeden from James Tamou a millisecond after Croker pulled back from the tackle. The Sea Eagles had barely flinched.

Josh Schuster didn’t’t waste any time recouping position, booting a spiralling bomb early, but not getting it quite far enough to prevent Tamou working his way back from his error by laying the platform for his men to cross the halfway line on tackle three. Brooks took on the line a play later, and Jacko got a deft offload away to Musgrove, before booting it out to the right, where Jason Saab followed Maumalo by garnering seven tackles. Christian Tuipulotu got an offload away on play one, Koula was raring for post-contacts, and Manly were activated again.

Still, the Tigers were able to contain them, as Starford To’a came in for a tough one-on-one to clean up Schuster’s next charge on the left, while a Tamou offload on play two, and a scheming run across the ruck from Hastings almost made space for Naden on the left, where he was only just cleaned up by Koula, who got some joy after being shut down by Maumalo on his own enterprising wing play a few minutes before. Manly took the kick with ease, but Foran’s next floater missed the mark, sailing into the breeze and tumbling dead in goal.

For the second time in ten minutes, the Tigers had seven tackles to play with, as Jacob Liddle leant into Jacko’s scheming rhythm with a deft run from dummy half that dishevelled the Manly defence as the home attack cascaded through a precise Hastings pass, a terrific Brooks run, and a Maumalo kick at speed from the sideline. For a brief beat, Jacko looked destined to put it down, but the bounce ended up favouring Croker, who did well to bang it into touch. Nevertheless, the Tiges had the first dropout of the match, and had to capitalise on it.

Initially, it looked like they’d done just that, off a left sweep that allowed Naden to take his restlessness on the edge to a new level. Hastings sent it left, Laurie followed with a harbour bridge ball that seemed destined for the wing, and Naden seized the day, popping the footy forward with his right hand, recapturing it and parlaying the pack tackle from Manly into just the right angle for the putdown – or so it seemed, since the exhilaration of this opening clutch try dissolved as soon as the replay showed the ex-Panther knocking on at the death.  

This had the potential to be a real rhythm-killer for the Tigers, so they needed something big at the end of their next set. Brooksy almost delivered with his biggest bomb so far, and while Garrick caught it clean, a good chase could have kept him at the ten, so it was frustrating when he delivered the best return so far, making his way well past the twenty, shrugging off a tackle, and accelerating beyond the thirty, where we were treated to an even more dramatic shift in fortune when he offloaded at the death, and Naden came up with it.

Naden had gone from botching a try to intercepting the footy in his own end, so this had the potential to be a full circle moment. Instead of reprising the promise of that last close-range set, however, the Tiges didn’t even get to their last play, thanks to a Luke Garner cough-up, while a second effort from Liddle early in the next Manly count allowed the boys from Brooky to decisively claim the momentum as their own. All it took was a short ball from Jake Trbojevic to send Aloiai past Tamou and through a Jacko angle tap for the first try of the game.

It was pretty dispiriting to see the Tigers go from the focus of that almost-try to the sluggish speed at marker here. Garrick’s conversion put him at 114 points for the season, three behind Val Holmes and thirteen behind Ryan Papenhuyzen, and the Eagles got some fresh blood on the restart when Dylan Walker left the bench. Aloiai continued to deliver with a tough run on the fourth, Foran got in place for a decent kick, and Maumalo hit back by trying to bust through on tackle two, while Alex Twal, fresh off the bench too, drove it up the middle.

Despite these flexes from the big boppers, Brooksy’s next kick didn’t create any real pressure, partly because there wasn’t a convincing chase behind it, while Aloiai wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down, reaching double figures for hit ups and clocking over seventy run metres before Laurie had to lie down on the ground to take the next high ball. Walker had injected a new energy into the Manly side, so the Tigers had to step up here, as Twal took another strong carry up the middle, and Hastings booted it over the sideline for a brief rest.

Walker wasn’t slowing down either, channelling DCE with a 40/20 attempt at the end of the next Manly set. It bounced obliquely, and favoured the Tigers, but the attempt itself was a flex, and a gesture of confidence, even if the Sea Eagles’ big men were starting to look exhausted. Schuster, Harper and Tuipulotu rallied them with a big combined tackle to drive Nofa back fifteen minutes on the left, just when he seemed to be glimpsing space, and yet Taupau couldn’t match their dexterity a play later, when Liddle caught him out at marker.

Anxious not to lose the momentum of that pack tackle on Nofa, Tuipulotu and Schuster combined again on play one, bringing in Davey to lift To’a clean off the ground as he tried to reprise Nofa’s charge up the left. Yet Manly didn’t ultimately need a big hit to bring the set to a close, since Luciano Leilua did the job for them with the most egregious error of the afternoon so far. He was next in line for the right sweep, and had clear sailing to the chalk, but just wasn’t focused on Brooksy’s timing, and so let the first Tigers try go begging.

Even worse, he got pinged for an illegal strip late in the next Manly set – a bad sign, since the last try had come off a botched Tigers’ try followed by an error late in the changeover. Once again, Taupau wasn’t quite on song, hesitating too long for an offload on the opening play, but the strength of the Sea Eagles’ big men decimated the hosts again on tackle two, when Naden came in for a low shot on Olakau’atu, and ricocheted off at such a violent angle that he was in the sheds a minute later.

Garner now headed to the centres, alongside Maumalo, and Kelma Tuilagi came off the bench for an earlier than expected stint against his future club. Taupau was looking more confident on the fourth, putting enough pressure on the defence to clear up space for Schuster to pop a harbour bridge ball out to Saab for what would have been an easy try if the pass wasn’t forward. Both teams now had botched tries off arcing left edge options, so this felt like a levelling moment, proof the Tiges could win if they put down four on the next few sets.

Instead, both sides went set for set for a few minutes, and a fairly error-laden period ensued, bookended by a mistake and slow peel from Schuster that laid the platform for Garner to show what he could do out at left centre. In spirit, the assist came from Joffa, who plunged into a sea of Eagles before the crossbar, and came up with the inspired last-second offload that Taupau had been looking for in the Tigers’ ten – visionary enough for Brooksy to easily pop it on for Tuilagi to send Garner over in the corner as a cascade of Eagles slid past him.

Brooks had a challenging angle for the conversion – right on the sideline, straight into the sun – and even then he almost made it, only for the Steeden to ricochet off the upright to keep it a two point affair. Olakau’atu came in hard on Twal midway through the restart for the biggest hit of the game so far, destabilising the Tigers’ new-found flow enough for Brooksy to boot it out on the full. It wasn’t all bad news for the hosts, however, as word came down from the sheds that Naden had already passed his HIA, and would be returning to the park soon.

Brooks made up for the error with a clinical trap-and-scrap of Schuster’s next grubber, and while he didn’t manage to float his last kick too far, the Tigers rallied to make sure Manly couldn’t do much with their last thirty seconds of possession, despite some promising speed from Garrick up the right edge, where he might have nabbed a try with just another boot of the ball. After the break, Garrick had the breeze to contend with, and only got it to the Tigers’ twenty, meaning he had to take it at his own ten after they built some decent position.

Koula also tried to build some speed up the right, and Olakau’atu barged his way up the centre, but the Sea Eagles didn’t ultimately do much with their first set back, while Liddle milked another marker penalty from a Manly big bopper – this time Jake Trbojevic, who was caught out of position, allowing the Tigers to jump fifty metres up field. They were inside the ten by tackle three, and swept right immediately, where To’a would have crossed over if not for a splendid solo tackle from Harper that turned out to be the last big play of the set.

The Sea Eagles had the Steeden back a play later, and focused their attention on the left, where Croker booted it all the way to the try line from halfway up the park, forcing Maumalo to get on his bike to bring it out of the red zone. Hastings almost subjected Laurie to a hospital pass, but the Tigers fullback did well to tap it on to Naden, who collected it to give the set a second wind that ended with Brooksy hanging it high and Seyfarth following with a strong kick chase, only for the no. 17 to undo all that initiative with a second effort on Harper.

Manly now had a full set in Tigers territory, and their best position since the break. They gained even more a few plays later, when they successfully challenged a supposed Croker knock-on to show that it had been an illegal strip from Joffa. With a full set right on the line, the Sea Eagles should have scored here, but instead Nofa intercepted a wide ball from Garrick, made his way up the sideline, and flicked it one-handed for Laurie to send infield to To’a, who briefly slipped, opening up just enough space for Koula to launch in for the tackle.

The crowd were baying for a professional foul here, but got no joy, as the Tigers accelerated again on their left edge, where Naden was five metres out by the time he was brought down by Olakau’atu, who seemed to get away with an unchecked ruck error. Even so, the hosts were glimpsing consolidation, so it was shattering when Olakau’atu stripped the footy from Hastings, and started a sweep to the left, where Saab broke through the line and made it all the way to the Tigers’ forty before he hit a trysaver from Laurie.

Big Haumole was even better a few sets later, when he busted past Jock Madden, and kicked at speed for Koula, who would have crossed if not for Madden getting back on track and coming in for another trysaver. Olaku’atu was now sitting on 136 metres off 13 carries, and had provided real leadership over the last few minutes, so the Tigers had to hit back quickly here, and initially seemed to have done just that when Croker dummied right, and sent it back inside to Trbojevic in front of the posts, where Leilua slammed in for a one-on-one strip.

Yet with Musgrove called offside, the Sea Eagles got the last burst of position they needed, and opted to tap and go, scoring an effortless try off a clinical sweep on play one. Naden had been strong in attack, but he lost the plot now, coming in for an arm grab on Garrick when he should have put his whole body on the line to prevent the stand-in fullback coasting in. It brought his 2022 tally to 120 – only seven behind Papenhuyzen – when he snuck the Steeden past the left post to convert one of the easier tries of his career.

Olakau’atu had set the stage for this last burst, so it felt right that he scored off Manly’s next burst, which came largely off Schuster’s boot – two bombs, the second of which led to a dropout, and a crafty grubber that got his men six again. Schuster capped off all that footwork with a mercurial run, showing the footy in his right hand as he drifted all the way across the ruck, before popping an offload out for Koula to play it as quickly as possible, and so get Croker in place for a short ball to Olakau’atu, who was only seven metres out from the line.

From there, it was Goliath against Davids, as Haumole pivoted away from Brooks, shrugged off Tamou, twisted away from Naden, barged through Garner and reached out his wingspan to bang the ball down. Garrick missed the conversion, but his men didn’t have to work too hard to retain the rhythm, as Naden’s decline since returning from his HIA culminated with the messiest and most dangerous hit of the night – a double act in which he swung an arm into Jake Trbojevic’s face, then lifted him well above the horizontal in the follow-up motion.

Naden was always going to be sent off for this contact, the worst since Karl Lawton’s early tackle on Cam Murray (and arguably even worse), promising issues for the Tigers backline over at least the next month. As if this nightmare sequence weren’t bad enough, Brooksy got done for a strip on the next set, allowing Garrick to narrow the gap with Papenhuyzen’s top-of-the-table tally to five as the Campbelltown crowd grew muted and pensive. Manly were secure enough, then, for Olakau’atu to take a break, as Ben Turbo trotted off the bench.

By this stage, Haumole had racked up seventy metres post-contact, a stunning sequel to last week’s eighty metres after contact, while the Tigers couldn’t even get their challenge right, wasting it in an effort to contest a Joffa fumble on the ground. The Sea Eagles had another close-range shot at the line, and while Davey tried to take a short ball from Shuster over on the left, and only came up a metre short, this was a surprisingly uninspired affair from the visitors, culminating with a limp Foran grubber that Laurie scrambled well to clean up.

Still, Laurie’s pick-up was a mere micro-victory in a dominant Manly back half, which was all the more impressive in that the Brooky boys were still working it into a strong breeze. Just under seven minutes from the end, the Tigers got a scrum, their best field position in ages, and their last big chance of the night, as Laurie hit a hole, but overran the play, meaning Madden’s pass was forward by the time it got to him. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sea Eagles barely blinked before delivering their next and most inspiring try of the afternoon.

Garrick set it up with a scheming run in the middle of the field, but the play belonged to Koula, who scooped up the Steeden, circled back around, sliced past Leilua, danced over an ankle tap from Laurie (who was left punching the ground in frustration) and jogged over the chalk without Garner making contact, for his first try in his eleventh NRL game. As if that wasn’t enough, he delivered a barnstorming run from a standing start on the next set, shooting it out for Sipley to set up Schuster for what would have been a sure assist for Saab if he’d passed.

Instead, he took the tackle, but it hardly mattered, since Manly were now in peak footy flow, leaning right back into that rhythm when another illegal strip, this time from Nofa, bumped them back down the Tigers’ end once again. Koula had delivered the most direct long-range try of the afternoon, and Aloiai followed with an equally clinical effort from up close, bookending the game by collecting a short ball fifteen out, barging into Jacko, shrugging him off, and barely registering an arm grab from Laurie as he cruised over for the last four.

It was a sorry sequel to Naden’s arm grab, and all the more frustrating in that there were several Tigers defenders in place, all of whom should have done better than just leave the contact for Jacko to manage. Aloiai now had his first career double, a stat he never managed with the Tigers, and had put down three tries in two games against the black and orange, while Kimmorley was looking grim on the sidelines, sizing up the scale of the problem he’ll have to address if he gets the gig over the next few years.

With the conversion, Garrick is only one behind Papenhuyzen for top scorer of the season, while the Sea Eagles have notched up 150-56 in four straight wins over the Tigers, as well as (more importantly) landing back to back wins for the first time since their Round 3-6 streak. They’ll need that gee up for a pair of challenging games against North Queensland and Melbourne before they get their bye after Origin II, while the Tigers need to continue soul-searching, since they can’t afford to be beaten by Canterbury next Sunday afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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