ROUND 11: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (4 Pines Park, 14/5/23, 14-20)

The Sea Eagles almost pulled off one of the great comebacks of the year at Brookvale Oval on Sunday night when they hosted a Sharks outfit still reeling from their shock loss to the Dolphins in Magic Round. Cronulla were as dominant as you might expect in the first sixty minutes, which they led 20-2, but over the back twenty the locals kept them out, and piled on two tries of their own, almost entirely reversing the run metre tally of the first stanza in the process, as Daly Cherry-Evans gave an absolute masterclass in vision, passion and courage.

Manly had first touch of the football, with Jason Saab taking the catch and Josh Aloiai the first carry on the sunny side of Brooky Oval. Taniela Paseka had it at the forty by tackle four, and Daly Cherry-Evans took his first kick from about the same spot, while the Sharkies stayed in the sun too, with Will Kennedy making a break up the left for his first run of the afternoon. The hosts moved quicker up the park on their next set, despite starting deep in their left corner, and DCE had absolutely no pressure as he booted his next one all the way to the line.

As a result, Cronulla were bunched up in their own end, with Nicho Hynes kicking his next one well within the forty in an effort to recoup position. Manly tried to extemporise with a right to left sweep midway through the following set, but with Brad Parker knocking it backwards, the momentum was lost, and so the arm wrestle of this set-for-set opening continued. Briton Nikora was raring to break the line with a tough charge midway through the following set, laying the platform for Blayke Brailey to earn his men six again, and a full stint in Manly’s end.

They were five out by tackle three, and Royce Hunt was over a play later, trampling through a very unconvincing low shot from Haumole Olakau’atu and coming down with DCE on his back, off a superb pair of passes – long ball from Brailey in front of the posts, and short assist from Hynes right at the defensive line. Hynes booted through the two, and the Sharkies were six ahead, a welcome reprieve after last week’s game, when they only scored their first try after the Dolphins had put down thirty. The restart was just as good too – and so was Nikora.  

This time he delivered an offload that set up Jesse Ramien for some promising work down the short side, but the last few plays fizzled out a bit, leaving Manly without much to contend with, even if they struggled to break their twenty once they got ball in hand again, forcing Daly to strike the Steeden with all his might to send it down to the opposition thirty. With Ramien muscling his way into the twenty on tackle four, it felt like Cronulla had another crack at their anticlimactic restart now, and so it was, with Turbo forced to take the footy into touch.

Ten minutes in, and the visitors had the first dropout of the afternoon, although they wouldn’t even get a single tackle from it, since DCE’s genius with the boot came to the fore here, as the Manly master delivered a low rolling effort that Ramien didn’t have a chance of taking on the sideline. This was the first great rhythm shift of the match, and the home crowd knew it, cheering as Tommy broke his way into the forty, and hushing just as quickly when Ronaldo Mulitalo leaped a full metre off the turf to execute the most flamboyant high ball take so far.

Manly were probably lucky not to get a knock-on at the end of the next set, but then again, Ramien was also fortunate not get done for an escort, since this was the second time in the game that he’d put himself in front of the catch – the first time with Garrick, and now with Turbo. Those two letoffs ushered in a new period of volatility for the match, as Nikora pivoted from boot to boot for another crack at the line, and Brailey finally gave away the first penalty of the match with a flop right when the Sea Eagles looked set for another stint in their end.

The crowd were chanting as Aloiai hit halfway on play one, and cried out for a ruck error two plays later, which they received when the bell rang out to signal Matt Moylan’s mistake, but what was quickly looking like the most dangerous Manly set of the night came to an abrupt halt with a dropped ball from Lachlan Croker. Nevertheless, the boys from Brooky were amped up in defence now, with Sean Keppie and Paseka bringing in big hits, and Garrick capping it off by taking the kick and flicking it out to Turbo all in one frenetic-confident move.

The Eagles made it to halfway on the next set, where DCE booted it once again to Mulitalo’s end, as Aloiai came down in backplay, with what appeared to be a right arm or shoulder issue, and left the park a minute later, bringing Bullemor off the bench. Meanwhile, Moylan was at the red line by the time he chipped his next one, and Manly seem set to suffer from momentarily having a man down, as Cooper Johns scooped up the footy after everyone pulled back from the bounce, only for Kelma Tuilagi to make a brainsnap grab on Nikora behind him.

Hynes added the first of two penalty goals this afternoon, bringing Cronulla to eight unanswered points, while Aloiai was now on the sideline, as the replay clarified it had indeed been a low tackle on a rampaging Mulitalo that brought him to this impasse. Keppie came in hard on McInnes two tackles into the restart in an effort to stem the Shire momentum, but the ex-Dragon took another carry on play four to steel himself, capping off a disciplined set after points that ended with a well-placed Hynes kick, and another Manly positional struggle.

DCE recouped their flow with a brilliant boot, and an even more inspired chase, storming down the park to wrap himself around Kennedy’s right leg and prevent any hope of a kick return. It was the kind of individual effort that can make Manly games, and Daly continued to deliver in defence on the following set, single-handedly making it feel like the Sea Eagles had the upper edge now, even if they didn’t have a point on the board yet. Croker leaned into that energy a beat later with a fifteen minute dummy half dart, and DCE took another bomb.

As visionary as the Manly captain was, however, Mulitalo was just as secure, lying down on the grass to take this high ball, and so laying a platform for Hynes to nose his way up the middle, before a pair of left foot pivots allowed Moylan to follow in his wake on the short side. Nicho showed he could bomb just as high as his opposing half at the end of the set, and with Turbo placed in danger with a precarious collect right on his own line, and news coming down that Aloiai had dislocated his shoulder, this period of Brooky confidence fizzled away.

That’s not to say that Manly weren’t putting in a decent effort, but that the Sharkies once again felt like a team that were 8-0, especially once Connor Tracey reprised Moylan’s charge up the left, and Hynes launched his next one beyond the right padding, where Johns had no choice but to bump it over the back line. DCE looked sober, blood streaming from his head, as he lined up a conventional dropout, and then joined a three-man pack on the right edge to not only hold up a mad Teig Wilton charge, but to force the error five out from the try line.

It was a pivotal enough moment for Cronulla to send it upstairs, in an effort to show the big second rower had maintained possession. An inconclusive result meant that both teams got a breather, and that the Sharkies had time to collect themselves enough to ensure that Manly couldn’t capitalise positionally on this cough-up. They didn’t break halfway before DCE launched it down to Kennedy, while the visitors had a fresh Wade Graham to take their next charge up the middle, even if Jack Williams couldn’t quite manage the offload on tackle four.

For the second time in a row, the Sea Eagles were working it right off their line, but they got a boost now with a Brailey slow peel, and then an even bigger heartbreak when Daly followed all this recent clarity of vision by failing to find touch on the penalty kick. It was as if the Sharks had received the penalty, hitting the red zone midway through the count, as Hynes set up a beautiful run from Kennedy, who held it up for an age before storming his way into the ten, where DCE was in place to stop him in the same spot he’d shut down Wilton a few sets before.

The left might have been closed off, but the visitors had enough energy now to parlay it out to the right, and take advantage of a Manly outfit that had conceded 21 tries on this wing in 2023, the worst of any team in the comp. The sweep was perfectly executed, and culminated with Ramien engaging Garrick, bringing him right in before popping the assist out to Katoa, who tucked the footy under the right arm, and pivoted off the right boot to utterly defy Parker before coming to ground with Garrick under his back, bringing his men to twelve unanswered.

A deft Hynes sideline kick made it a 14-0 lead, as the crowd went silent, and the Sharks hit 68-0 in their last three first halves against the Brooky boys, two of them played at 4 Pines Park. Add a penalty from Johns for holding down, and the restart felt like it might well be the tipping-point of the match, the moment when a torrent of Cronulla points started to pour over the Sea Eagles’ hallowed home turf. Direct running from Williams, and a searching midfield dance from Moylan got them to the twenty, and yet things fell apart a tackle later.

The inspiration came from Parker, who started making up for letting Katoa through by barging in hard and low to force a Kennedy cough-up, and with Moylan done for crowding a beat later, the home crowd were roaring once more, as DCE’s game face steered them into the twenty, with the help of a tough charge from Bullemor – their first hit of the entire match inside the opposition twenty. Daly was searcing for opportunities as they hit the ten, feeding it out to the right before chipping to the left edge, where Katoa got the collect of the game.

Garrick actually had hands on it when Sione wrested it out of the air, two metres above the turf, AFL style, and then broke through several waves of defence, before flicking it out to Hynes to take a languorous run up the middle of the park, and then taking the second phase to bring it deep into Manly territory, where the Sharkies got a full set in the ten after Tommy was lucky not to be sent off for crowding out on the left edge. Hynes was in superb flow now, feeding it on to Nikora to almost break through beside the padding in his hardest run so far.

Only the most committed of trysavers from Johns – also the best so far – was enough to stop Briton smashing over, and while Brailey was unable to follow in his slipstream, Cronulla still nabbed a third dropout to close out the first stanza. Again, though, DCE led an effort to shut down Wilton early in the count, this time by jamming in hard with Bullemor to distort a high-pressure pass from Graham. With only 38% of possession, it was a small victory that the Sea Eagles had come away only fourteen down, and Johns and DCE were emblems of that starch.

Even better, they got points on the board just before the sheds, when high contact from Ramien on Garrick, on the ground, set up the young kicker to boot through two from the sideline as the siren rang out. Williams had the first carry back, and then again on the fourth, cementing a steadying statement from the tall timber, culminating with a ten-man chase on Tommy as he returned from the corner. The same staunchness in defence meant Manly didn’t make it out of their own end, as DCE booted his next one over the sideline for a brief breather.

Conversely, Cronulla were fluid on their next set, with Hynes lobbing a wide ball back in field early in the count, in a gesture of elasticisation, and chipping from the thirty on the last, as the Sea Eagles found themselves spending their next three tackles in their red zone, and only breaking the forty off ten post-contacts from Adam Woods, who also managed Manly’s first offload of the evening (the Sharks had six), a confidence-booster that translated into a soaring DCE bomb, but without a comcomitant kick chase to prevent Katoa taking it without a touch.

Four plays into the next set, Graham dummied and almost busted his way through the line, before Hynes came agonisingly close to a spectacular left corner try, receiving the footy from Moylan about twenty out and fifteen in field, and withstanding defender after defender to stretch his hand over the chalk, only to succumb to the accumulating pressure at the last moment. Thomas Hazelton had enjoyed a cracker of a night up the middle, but a crowding penalty now cemented this as a Manly resurgence, as the locals finally hit the Sharks’ twenty.

It was a pretty dramatic shift after spending so much time deep in their own red zone, but more Mulitalo dexterity meant they couldn’t get anywhere on the last, while the visitors looked silky even when trapped in their own end, using the constriction as a motivator for their biggest acquisition of position since the break, their most explosive footy of the afternoon, and one of the biggest humiliations for Manly’s left edge defence of the season. No surprise it all started with Hynes, who got the play rolling with a well-timed pass to Katoa.

From there, Sione added acceleration and shot it out to Nikora, who split the difference between a wiry winger and a hard-running second rower with a mad charge that defied even Tommy, leaving him with ample space to pop it back inside for Ramien to cross untouched as Jason Saab decelerated and deflated five metres back. With Hynes booting through another two, the Sharks were ten times Manly at an imposing 2-20, and yet these would be their last points, while the Sea Eagles would use the next half hour to mount a sublime near-comeback.

By this stage, Cronulla also had 340 to 261 post-contacts, so the hosts had to put some grunt in if they were going to reach double digits. For a moment it looked like they’d received a blow midway through the next set, when Katoa and Ramien tipped back the footy just as they were accelerating into the opposition half, but the call came down Sione had sent it forward, which just made it all the more frustrating when Parker lost control late in the count, ushering in another period of Sharkies’ dominance when Hazleton tempted an Olakau’atu ruck error.

By this stage, the Sharkies were absolutely dominating run metres too, with Ramien (145), Katoa (139), Kennedy (131), Tracey (119), Nikora (115) and Hazelton (113) all topping the table before Garrick got a look-in at 111. The Sea Eagles needed an explosive individual play, and they got it on the very next set, when Taniela Paseka busted his way through the line, forcing a mammoth tackle from Kennedy that was likely a trysaver, despite occurring thirty-five minutes from the chalk, mirrored by a gutsy Hynes-Parker effort deeper in the red zone.

Nikora came close to making it a trio of great tackles, but ended up going a little high, giving this Manly outfit, who’d spend so long trying to break out of their own twenty, their first sustained stint on the Cronulla chalk. That in itself felt like a rhythm shifter, especially once a Ramien error got them their first close-range scrum. Paseka started with a steadier, as if to revive the inspiration of that subime break, Parker required a bearhug tackle from Kennedy, Ramien and Hynes to prevent him crossing on the left, and Wilton gave up the next mistake.

With so much rapidly accumulating position – the fastest of the game – the Eagles had to score here or concede all this momentum back to the Sharks. For a moment, they looked like they’d cross beside the left padding, if only through the sheer dint of their determination, but all this energy devolved when Karl Lawton made a hasty effort to put the footy down, instead of just taking the four-Shark tackle and setting up his next man, and lost the footy in the process. With 14-0 in the opposition twenty since the break, the Brookvalers had devolved.

Still, they had enough money in the bank to score on the next set, and with a dangerous shot from Dale Finucane, this had to be their moment. In fact, they got a couple of chances, and a reprise of that last splendid stint on the Cronulla line, as Katoa infringed the ruck for them to hit the ten once again, where Saab and Mulitalo came together on the right edge with Tracey on top. The DCE-lookalike barked out for a loose carry, and that was the call, but Manly sent it upstairs to confirm that Ronaldo had snuck an arm deep into the fray to strip the Steeden.

Again, this had to be the moment, especially since the Sea Eagles were now making inroads deep into the goal area, with Olakau’atu tumbling one and a half metres over the chalk on the right, where only the most muscular of Cronulla pack efforts held him up, and then taking another crack in the same spot a play later, but now with an assist – a short ball for Tolu Koula that was called forward, but not before Wilton was deemed offside. The Sea Eagles had arrived at peak precarity, the very cusp between last quarter genius and total football chaos.

If they were going to have a chance of a comeback, they had to score now, on this set, without relying on a Cronulla error, and not only did they pull it off, but they did so with a classic Manly try – a combination of veterans and young guns, a testament to the Trbojevic dynasty, and a tribute to Garrick in his 100th milestone. Tommy set them up, taking on the line with immaculate timing before flicking the footy out for brother Ben to provide a tap-on assist for Garrick, who crossed over in the corner and then converted his own try from the left sideline.

The angle was hard, but he sailed it directly through the posts, and had now scored all eight points in this contest, while sitting at sixth on the list of all-time Manly pointscorers. To their credit, Cronulla kept the Sea Eagles in their thirty for the first half of the restart, in a flashback to the hosts’ positional challenges after the break, but the game had taken a different turn now, and while Mulitalo collected a soaring DCE bomb, the chase ensured that he couldn’t make any metres off it, while even a strong Cronulla set only got Hynes halfway for the kick.

Indeed, Manly now had 26-0 tackles in the opposition twenty since the break, although they had a mini-slump at the sixty-seventh minute, when Woodsy fed a pretty poor ball to Keppie, and Paseka got done for dangerous contact a beat after. Again, however, Johns showed his mettle in defence, leading a four-man pack to shut down some Hynes-assisted Moylan space on the right, while DCE put his whole body on the line, and showed his men what leadership looks like, by diving on the footy, half a metre from the chalk, at the end of a Hynes grubber.

Still, the Sea Eagles hadn’t quite found full footy flow – and wouldn’t for the rest of the match, which unfolded as a series of periodic brilliant moments, rather than a full-on domination of the visitors. In this case, the issue was a cough-up from Parker, and yet it was quickly eclipsed by an uncharacteristically messy sequence from Cronulla too, as Hynes made a mistake, Hunt infringed the ruck and Katoa got done for a high shot, bringing the Brookvale locals back onto the opposition chalk, where the Sharkies steeled themselves for wave after attacking wave.

Miraculously, Wilton forced the Turbo error on the last, and Moylan dove on the Steeden behind them, in what initially felt like a possible end to the brilliance that Manly had intermittently glimpsed over the final quarter. The next set was all Sea Eagles yearning, from DCE dancing around two defenders to make way for Keppie to rack up a few extra metres, to Turbo taking on the line up the left, searching for a break, and finally to the beautiful DCE run and pivot, on the back of a Wilton error, that opened a slice of space beside the right post.

As questionable as the Wilton mistake might have seemed, the result was pure rugby league poetry, as Daly shifted off the right boot once, then twice, and fed it in to Croker, who seemed to be thinking with the same footy brain as he came to ground with Kennedy on his back, in the most exhilarating try of the evening. Garrick added the extras to make it a six point game, with five minutes on the clock, while DCE had delivered his tenth try assist in eleven fixtures, and fielded the kick the restart for good measure, before flicking it over to Keppie for the run.

Only two plays passed before Daly stepped into the spotlight again, opting for a 40/20 that didn’t come off, but still forced enough of a Katoa fumble-back on the left edge that the Sea Eagles were able to sturdy up their defensive line by the time the Sharkies stuck in to bring it out of their own end. Cronulla had almost doubled Manly for run metres in the first stanza, with 973-575, but the hosts had reversed that trend almost entirely in the second forty, with 869-560, even if they got a setback now when Tommy knocked on an awkward Johns boot.

With less than three minutes on the clock, the Brookvalers basically had one more set, guaranteed, to bring the game to golden point, and as the rain started to pour down over the Northern Beaches, Ramien came up with the Sharks’ worst play of the match. He’d pushed the envelope a few times beneath the high ball, and now he took out Turbo as deliberately as possible, so it was a half-hearted Challenge that Cronulla sent upstairs to contest it, and the Bunker processed it immediately. The Sea Eagles had one more set to prove their conviction.

As the rain drifted softly in the Brooky floodlights, it felt like victory was almost ordained, that this calm somehow had to percolate into the home team and rouse their local spirit. But it was not to be, despite a final offside error from Tracey, as the score remained locked at 14-20 right until the siren. Still, this was a pretty good show for the Sea Eagles, who will be looking to draw on their best moments tonight when they rock up for the Raiders at the end of Indigenous Round, and a nerve-rattler for a Sharks outfit still smarting from Wayne Bennett.

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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