Round 10: Melbourne Storm v. North Queensland Cowboys (Suncorp Stadium, 14/05/16)


Saturday’s showdown between Melbourne and North Queensland at Suncorp Stadium was one of the bona fide thrillers of the 2016 season, as well as a critical turning-point for the Storm. Up until this point, it’s felt hard to truly rely on Melbourne to bring home a spot in the finals berth, while Cameron Smith’s form has been distressingly inconsistent in the wake of Billy Slater’s departure in Week 2. Nevertheless, Melbourne – and Smith – managed to beat the odds and dominate last year’s premiers in front of a sold-out Suncorp.


The victory was all the more dramatic in that this was technically a home game for the Storm, who were hosting the Cowboys as part of a Suncorp double-header. Even if the Broncos hadn’t been playing shortly after it would have felt as if we were squarely in Cows territory, but the fact that both of last year’s finalists were playing back-to-back made it seem as if Melbourne might be shut out from the very beginning. Sure, Suncorp also has an Origin connection that makes it a natural home ground for several of the Maroons, but it nevertheless felt as if Melbourne and Manly might simply be there to texture the spectacle of seeing the two reigning finalists play back to back at the same venue.


As a result, the game felt like a struggle for Suncorp itself, with the Storm trying again and again to claim it as their home ground for the duration of the match, just as Smith brought all his Origin intensity and dexterity to bear upon showing the Broncos that he was even more comfortable in the heart of Brisbane than they were. The result was the closest match this season – the kind of night where every single try and conversion feels like a turning point. Both teams scored two tries, two conversions and a penalty goal, with only Cameron Smith’s field goal in the dying minutes tipping the balance in Melbourne’s favour.


Over the last couple of months, there’s been so much drama around field goals that it was great to see a player simply doing it right. On the one hand, the growing discomfort with golden point has tended to revolve around the viability of using field goals to win games, with the two best examples of golden point victories this season depending on tries (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Euan Aitken). At the same time, this season has seemed to be plagued by failed field goal attempts during golden point, most pathetically in the Tigers’ loss to the Storm at Leichhardt Oval – and I say that as a Tigers supporter – but perhaps most dramatically during the golden point stalemate between the Raiders and the Knights at Hunter Stadium, with both teams trying and failing to bring home a one-pointer to break the unbearable suspense.


On top of that, one of the Bunnies’ most comic moments this season has been Greg Inglis’ field goal brain snap against the Dragons in Round 3, a Terry Lamb flashback that’s likely to hit the news cycle again as South Sydney prepare to take on St. George-Illawarra for a second go on Thursday night. In a season that has been so characterised by thwarted or frustrated field goal dramas, then, Smith’s kick was a reminder why the one-pointer is still an important part of the game. Over the course of his career, Smith has been nothing if not judicious and this was only the second field goal he has ever attempted, a wobbly yet determined kick that occurred at just the right moment to demotivate the Cowboys and shock Suncorp into realising that they had temporarily become a Storm venue.


Along with the Sharks’ incredible win over the Knights the following day, it suddenly seemed like a real possibility that the premiership might be won by a team south of the border this year. Still, it was never a sure thing for the Storm. While they might have made a valiant show in the opening twenty-five minutes with tries from Tohu Harris (24) and Kevin Proctor (27), they didn’t score another point until Smith’s penalty four minutes after half-time, while the Cows managed tries from Gavin Cooper and Michael Morgan at the 4th and 54th minutes, and a Thurston penalty at the 20th.


In other words, Smith scored every point for the Storm after the twenty-seventh mark, or the final five points of the game, depending on how you look at it, converting Proctor’s try only to contribute his own penalty and field goal in the second half. For the first time since Slater left, Smith felt back on track, while it was the young guns who were a bit diminished by comparison. While Sulisali Vunivalu has had some amazing appearances this year Saturday wasn’t one of them, as he gifted a Thurston bomb to Gavin Cooper in the first five minutes, allowing the Cows to bring in their first four-pointer of the evening. With Jason Tamaulolo managing to prevent both Vunivalu and Cameron Munster from scoring, it suddenly felt as if Melbourne’s young guns had more to learn from Smith than might have seemed over the last couple of weeks, reinstating the balance between veterans and young guns that has seemed so sorely lacking in the Storm of late.


On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys were just that little bit less seamless than usual. While consistency is always the name of the game in North Queensland, they didn’t quite hold it together over the course of this particular game, despite rivalling the Storm’s opening pair of tries with an impressive 70% of possession over the first twenty minutes or so. After a penalty goal at the 20th minute they were leading 8-0, and yet it never felt like a done deal for the Cows, who seem to be slightly unsettled after the recent media discussions of James Tamou’s departure for New South Wales. Part of what has made the Cowboys Grand Final team so amazing is that they have continued to play as the same team for much longer than is normal, so it is only natural that the loss of one of their toughest players – or even the prospective loss – would destabilise them a little in this way.


In the second half, the North Queensland sets were especially disorganised, which made me wonder whether the pressure of producing a field goal was bringing back memories of the Grand Final for Thurston, since this is the first time this year that he’s really had to bring a one-pointer home to seal the deal. At the same time, the Cows must have been frazzled by their performance towards the close of the first half, with even Lachlan Coote – usually one of the most reliable players on the field – making the error that led to Proctor’s try in the 27th minute and the Storm’s a 12-8 lead. Still, Morgan reminded us why he’s one of the best finishers in the game, putting down what turned out to be the coda to the Cowboys’ effort thanks to a brilliant dummy-half move from Jake Granville.


With the Storm now sitting at number three on the ladder – above the Cowboys – this week’s match against the Eels is going to be critical in building momentum and capitalising on Saturday’s showdown at Suncorp. While I’d normally say the Storm have it – especially after Parra’s loss to the Bunnies last week – I wouldn’t rule out a gutsy effort from the Eels, since they’re now playing with one of the best cards in the deck: utter desperation. For North Queensland, it is going to be important to use the match with the Broncos to save face, especially since Brisbane smashed the Sea Eagles as the Cowboys might have hoped to smash the Storm. Losing to the Broncos at 1300SMILES is just not an option, at least not at this point in the season, and it’s going to be great to see Townsville rally around Thurston to make up for last weekend’s thriller in Brisbane.

Round 10: Penrith Panthers v. New Zealand Warriors (AMI Stadium, 14/05/16)


It was an appropriately eventful match for the first NRL game in Christchurch in six years as the Panthers hosted the Warriors at AMI Stadium on Saturday afternoon. While the Panthers often seem to acclimatise well to cold-climate matches, strong winds saw them buffeted all over the field, especially during the first half. For the most part, the wind worked in the Warriors’ favour but even there it led to an especially error-prone and erratic game.


In many ways, the most exciting points of the evening occurred in the first half hour and last twenty minutes, with the opening, in particular, offering one of the most blistering displays from both teams for some time. After kicking the first try of the game for the Riff, Jamie Soward went on to convert and then land a penalty goal moments later. When Tyrone Peachey brought down a four-pointer shortly after, Soward put the icing on the cake once again, bringing Penrith to 14 of their overall 30 in the first twenty minutes of the game.


On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors saw a beautiful hat trick of tries from Solomone Kate (5), Jonathan Wright (25) and Blake Ayshford (31), all of which were converted seamlessly by Shaun Johnson despite the windy conditions. For a moment, it seemed as if New Zealand might have it, but that trio of six-pointers would end up being the last that they would score over the entire evening. Likewise, Johnson’s superb conversion game – one of his most consistent all season – was soured by a series of errors that provided the Panthers with their early surge. Offloading the Steeden in the in-goal area in the first couple of minutes of the game, he pretty much gifted the ball to Soward, while an error shortly after – kicking a restart on the full – gave Penrith the advantage as Peachey burned down field to score.


In other words, Johnson was effectively responsible for Penrith’s first two tries. Whether it was the unfamiliar venue, the windy conditions or the disorientation of the Warriors at large is anybody’s guess, but it was pretty strange to see Johnson suffer these kinds of fumbles and brainsnaps, since he’s usually one of the most composed players on the field, even if he hasn’t been the most consistent over the last couple of weeks. Conjoined with RTS’ absence and Issac Luke’s demotion from the Kiwis, it seemed to spell the end of the new look Warriors spine – at least for the moment – especially since New Zealand should have had the advantage in what was effectively a home game.


By contrast, Soward and Peachey were both dominant, with Peachey bringing in a hat trick of tries that would have been a resume for Origin if he were eligible, providing what felt like the first really comfortable win that the Panthers have had for some weeks and the first time this year that they have won by more than a margin of ten. For that reason, it must have been a bit of a cathartic match for Riff fans, who have spent most of the season with their hearts in their mouths as close game after close game comes down to the line. In fact, last night felt like it could be yet another one of those games, until Peachey came back at the 60th minute with the first Penrith four-pointer since he scored in the 20th, while a try from Dallin Watene-Zeleniak at 73 and another from Peachey himself at 76 sealed the deal for Penrith in the most dramatic and exciting way.


Not only did that bring the Panthers into the top eight but it made a bit of a break from the regular pattern of matches this season. In a year in which so much has been decided just before or after half time, Saturday afternoon’s showdown didn’t feature a single point scored in the twenty minutes before and after the break. Bookended by a blistering opening and closing act, the middle part of the game was a bit of a void – a windy void – in which the ground and conditions felt as much of a character as the darkened southwestern corner of Kogarah Oval on Friday night, in what amounted to one of the most atmospheric games so far this season.

Round 10: Parramatta Eels v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Pirtek Stadium, 14/05/16)


Friday the 13th was an appropriate date for one of the darkest and most emotional matches this year. Not only were Parramatta playing their first game – and their first home game – without Nathan Peats, but they were playing the team that sold him to them in the first place. With both sides of the Steeden haunted by Peatsy’s absence, blue and gold supporters rose for a show of solidarity at the ninth minute in one of the best and most moving tributes to a player I’ve ever seen. Never in my memory has there been such a disconnect between club members and club management, with the standing ovation feeling like a very public middle finger to Parramatta’s “gang of five” as much as a gesture of support for Peats himself.


Of course, this was also a suspenseful game for the Bunnies, who were facing the prospect of losing five games in a row and probably would have done so had it now been for the inspired orchestration of Greg Inglis and Luke Keary, which may just be what the Rabbitohs need to shake things up and return to their glory days of 2014. While Inglis was more than competent at five-eighth, it was only when Luke Keary was brought in off the bench and G.I. moved to centre that the sparks really flew.


With Keary fit and firing as a first-half five-eighth in the final twenty minutes and Inglis channelling the ferocity of his days at the Storm, the odd couple managed to level the score by setting up tries for Bryson Goodwin at the 72nd minute and Keary himself at the 78th. With an Adam Reynolds penalty goal at the 18th minute having introduced a differential of two between the opposing teams, Reyno made good again at the final siren with a beautifully placed conversion that was an object lesson in grace under pressure, especially since the game’s favourite halfback had only managed two out of four so far.


Given that the Eels had to win 12/15 to make losing Peats (and Watmough and Morgan) worth it, it was fairly disheartening to see them lose their first game back playing for competition points, especially since it seemed as if they had it before the Inglis-Keary machine kicked in. Still, Semi Radradra more than made up for his gaffe during the early minutes of the Trans-Tasman Test with a hat trick of tries that, coming in at the 27th, 36th and 43rd minutes, ended up representing 3/5 of all points scored by the blue and gold, with only Vai Toutai bringing in another four-pointer on the half-time siren and Michael Gordon only managing two out of four conversions


Still Souths seemed to sense that the Eels were vulnerable, pummelling them until they were only down to one man on the bench, with Danny Wicks, Isaac de Gois, Beau Scott and David Gower all sent off for head checks at one point or another. Kenny Edwards was also off for good after an elbow to the head from G.I., and while it wasn’t intentional it felt like an indication that Inglis was back in form, since he tends to produce that kind of collateral damage when he’s playing at his peak.


While it can’t be doubted that the Eels put in a sterling effort, the combination of Peats’ departure with the shock of Inglis and Keary meant that the defeat probably felt more drastic than it actually was. With the blue and gold now needing to win around 12 out of 14 of their remaining games to even have a crack at the semis, they’re going to need more than Semi to get the job done. In a weird way, though, it feels as if the weekend isn’t yet over for the blue and gold, since Peatsy’ performance for the Titans on Monday – if he plays – is going to inflect last night’s match as well. Bookended by an Eels outfit devoid of Peats in Friday and Peats’ debut with Gold Coast on Monday, no other round this season is going to be as dramatically and traumatically identified with the salary crisis, or with the plight of Eels fans and players as a whole than the coming weekend.

Round 10: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. Canberra Raiders (UOW Jubilee Stadium, 13/05/16)


While last night’s match at Kogarah Oval may have brought a much-needed win for the Dragons, it was the venue itself that was the main character of the evening. After a nearby power outage took out one of the four spotlights, venue lighting and wi-fi – as well as the scoreboard every now and then – the entire southwestern corner of the field was left shrouded in darkness. Not only did that make it inscrutable to footy fans at the venue, but it rendered it all but invisible to anyone watching it on television, as well as to the video refs at the bunker.


With football coverage having evolved so much over the last twenty years, we’ve grown used to having more access to the game than the players themselves from the safety and comfort of our living rooms. Last night, however, was a throwback to an era where the live experience more than outweighed the televised experience. Indeed, for long portions of the game even front-row spectators would have been left more or less in the dark, with only the players really knowing what took place in the southwestern corner.


Although playing in the dark is a bit of a grind, there was nevertheless something empowering about the way in which last night’s blackout freed both teams from the kinds of scrutiny that have come into existence this season as a result of the introduction of the bunker. Time and again, players have been faced with decisions that are so far from their intuitive experience of the play concerned that it has unsettled them for the remainder of the gam, with the result that a bad bunker call – or even an opaque bunker call – has been a turning point for several big matches.


Last night, however, the bunker had to concede its limitations in an unprecedented way. When Joey Leilua broke through the Dragons defence in the first couple of minutes of the game to plant the Steeden over the try-line, it seemed as if he might have fumbled the ball, but in the absence of any clear visibility the most that the bunker could do was to award the most cautious and least committed verdict, coming down with a No Try ruling that could easily have seemed ludicrous if the corner had been properly lit.


Of course, there’s no guarantee that on-field refs won’t show the same arbitrariness as the bunker refs, and there can’t have been a Raiders fan in the house prepared to accept that Joel Thompson’s high hit on Blake Austin deserved to go unpunished. Blood streaming down his face, the usually placid Austin was on the verge of abusing the ref, but wisely channelled his energy back into the game, in what retrospectively felt like a bit of a turning point for the Raiders effort.


Speaking of the Raiders, while the media may have given them a pretty bad wrap in the aftermath of the game, I was actually fairly taken with how they managed to turn the match around in the second half. Not managing to score until Jordan Rapana crossed the line in the 55th minute, they nevertheless levelled with the Dragons by the final siren, thanks in large part to Jarod Croker, who kicked and converted his own try at the 78-minute mark to become the greatest try-scorer in Raiders history, sending the game into Golden Point in the process.


While he’s far from a perfect player, Croker has to be one of the most consistent kickers out there, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was his skill with conversions, more than anything else, that won the game for the Raiders. Without a lucky penalty goal from Gareth Widdop in the 50th minute, Croker’s kicking consistency would have won the game, especially since Widdop himself only managed to convert the first of the Dragons’ three tries. Sure, Croker’s kicks were probably easier than Widdop’s, but his consistency across Raiders games goes above and beyond any single conversion or set of conversions.


Nevertheless, you couldn’t doubt the strength of the Dragons effort either. While the Red V need to rack up wins, they also need to build a sense of camaraderie around flagship players, and last night’s match featured the kinds of inspired moves and decisions that signify a team getting back into gear. With a brilliant opening try, Tyson Frizzell made yet another argument for Origin eligibility, while Jordan Nightingale put in one of his signature freaky flick passes to set up Tim Lafai for a try at the 65th minute. Almost as deft was Lafai’s dexterity in picking up and planting the ball, in what has to be one of his most understated moments of brilliance since making the move from the Dogs at the beginning of the year.


However, it was young gun Euan Aitken who was the star of the show. Fresh off a great Country performance at centre, he would already have had a little bit of star power last night, but the fact that he managed to clinch Golden Point with an intercept try from Jack Wighton really cemented his celebrity status within the Dragons, as well as his potential to reinstate the Dragons as an exclusive team within the NRL at large. Catching the ball from Raiders fullback Jack Wighton, he put in an even more impressive Golden Point victory than Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s four-pointer against the Roosters at Central Coast. While 2016 may have provided us with Golden Point at its most anticlimactic and irrelevant, it’s also provided us with a few object lessons in how to win Golden Point with integrity and panache, and Aitken’s performance last night was one of those treats.


In fact, coming off the heels of Gareth Widdop’s failed field goal – one of the unluckiest since the 2016 Grand Final – as well as a series of botched efforts from Aitken himself, last night’s Dragons victory had the kind of double or even triple relief we saw in the Cowboys’ epic win last year. Certainly, it wasn’t nearly as epic, but it nevertheless felt like a more convincing argument for a renewed St. George-Illawarra presence that any match since their disastrous run against Brisbane and North Queensland earlier in the season. With the Rabbitohs next on their list, it’ll be interesting to see whether they make or break their momentum, since both teams have a lot to prove at the moment.

Round 7: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Parramatta Eels (Brookvale Oval, 16/04/16)


For both the Sea Eagles and the Eels, there was a precious, precarious atmosphere in the air on Thursday night that just made this turning-point in the 2016 season just that little bit more volatile and visceral. For the Eels, this was both their most resounding victory of the season so far – at 5/7 they are now tied with the Broncos in their strongest start to the year since 1986 – but also the last match before they are stripped of competition points for the salary cap breach next week. Given that Parra have been struggling to reach this point even since the Storm salary cap scandal that denied them the Grand Final of 2010, there’s a cruel irony in that prospect.


For the Sea Eagles, this was the first game played at Brookvale following Mike Baird’s announcement of how and when Sydney Rugby League would be centralised over the coming years. In fact, this was the first game played full stop following Baird’s announcement, turning it into something of a reminder of the spirit and passion that an be found at Sydney’s suburban venues. While Brooky won’t necessarily be completely shut out by that process, there’s no doubt that the Brookvale culture on display last night will be as muted in the long-term as it was by the last ten minutes of the game.


In many ways, this season has already felt like the end of the road for Brookvale. It was bad enough to be smashed by the Dogs in Round 1, but to then lose to Souths in front of a near-empty stadium added salt to the wound. With last night cementing a hat-trick of home losses that is unprecedented in recent Manly history, it felt as if the late great generation of Brookvale – the generation that reignited the Fortress over the late 00s and early 10s – was firmly at an end.


Of course, that’s not to say that Jamie Lyon, Brett Stewart and Steve Matai – the last of the old guard – haven’t put in some stalwart moments this year. Lyon, in particular, has been as good as he ever was, and brought in every single point for the maroon and white last night. Not only did he score and convert the Sea Eagles’ single try in the 17th minute, but it was his pair of penalty goals in the 23rd and 55th minutes that kept Manly in front until the Jennings-Radrada machine brought in twelve points at the seventy-minute mark. Unfortunately, Steve Matai and Marty Taupau were both fairly quiet – Trent Barrett doesn’t quite seem to know how to handle his big men – while Brett Stewart continued what has to be his weakest start to the season by fumbling a Parramatta kick to allow the blue and gold to bring in one of their tries. For another player, that might be a mere slip-up, for someone as consistent and professional as Stewart it was a major blow to Manly morale.


The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that both Apu Koroisau and Dylan Walker made the same mistake in what often felt like a weird inversion of a halves pair: fumbling kicks rather than setting them up, they both felt like rookies as they tried to smash through and beat around a dominant Parramatta side.Their performance was all the more surprising in that over the last few weeks it’s gradually come to feel as if they might – improbably – for from a stand-in and freshman into one of the unlikeliest halves combo in the NRL.It must have been sweet for Souths fans, then, to seeing Walker fail to deliver much to the Manly side, although it was considerably more disturbing for Manly fans – as well as any fan of Stewart – to see the Prince of Brookvale making the same errors as a rookie halves pair.


Over the last couple of weeks, one of Manly’s key strengths has been the way that veterans and young guns have managed to converge their very different skill sets on a new vision and identity for the team. Last night, however, that convergence failed to come, with most of the veterans offering very little in the way of leadership and most of the young guns failing to make good on their vigour and stamina. While Tom Trbojevic may have run a full 45 metres further than Semi Radradra, even he seemed a bit muted compared to his mad dashes and sudden moves at Mt Smart last weekend.Of course, there was one Manly veteran who was as stately and sublime as always with the Steeden. Returning to Brookvale for the first time since joining the Eels, Foran didn’t put in a showy or flashy performance – if anything, it was his steely calm and that seemed to unsettle the Sea Eagles from the word go.


In fact, despite the media furor, I’d question whether this even deserved to be called a grudge match or a spite match. Even after all this time, the Sea Eagles probably have more resentment reserved for DCE than for Foran. In any case, Foran is such a paragon of professionalism – a grinder who slots in wherever he’s needed and brings in hard play after hard play without having to style himself as a hard man, his sheer presence seems to preclude anything as petty as a footy grudge. For all Foran’s presence, however, it was Michael Jennings’ night. Bringing in two tries in the four minutes (69, 73), it felt like the moment that Eels fans have been waiting for in the errant centre’s adaptation to life at Pirtek. With Semi Radradra crashing through four minutes later, any doubts about whether these two hard-hitters are going to synergise seemed to be definitively put to rest.


In a year that has been characterised by so many anniversary games – Jarod Mullen’s 200th, Jason Nightingale’s 200th, Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s 200th, Chase Stanley’s 100th, James Segeyaro’s 100th – Jennings got the best birthday celebration for his 200th, as did Parramatta, who celebrated the 30th anniversary of their 1986 start to the season with their best opening run in as many years. Of course, Jennings and Radradra’s efforts didn’t come out of nowhere, and Corey Norman also put in a good presence at captain throughout the game, putting in a nice cross-field kick in the first half that was almost destroyed by Dylan Walker but taken up again by Brad Takairangi who put it to ground in what was arguably the deftest four-pointer of the game.


If there was a downside to the Eels’ performance, it was Michael Gordon’s kicking game, which wasn’t a consistent as we’ve come to expect from the ex-Panthers. Nevertheless, after last weekend’s sterling effort against the Warriors, he deserved a bit of a break. In any case, Parra weren’t desperate for points, with Nathan Peats barging into 43 tackles, in yet another example of the kind of can-do attitude that makes him a clear contender for Origin in the next year or two.


While Manly still struggle to fuse their veterans and young guns into a single seamless outfit, then Thursday night felt like yet another example of Parra’s ability to function as a team. In an NRL era in which player trades are more and more common, it’s more and more important that outfits can gel as beautifully as the blue and green at Brookvale on Thursday. While Manly may have seemed to hold court for the first seventy minutes, there was a lack of organisation that came to the fore in the final ten, giving the Eels the opportunity to seize onto what might be their greatest moment this season. And they’re going to need to hold onto that high to front up to the Cowboys after having competition points docked, just as Manly are going to need to regroup to avoid losing to the Knights. That prospect would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the season, but as the last two weeks has demonstrated, anything can happen this year in the NRL.

Round 6: New Zealand Warriors v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Mt. Smart Stadium, 09/04/16)


Manly seem to have a special confidence when it comes to the Warriors, with last Saturday’s victory at Mt. Smart Stadium marking their fourth victory in a row and their tenth win in eleven games against New Zealand. Whether it’s because the Sea Eagles are so used to their fortress mentality and relative isolation from the rest of the Sydney game, or because the Warriors can’t compete with Manly’s ability to rein in and discipline their hard hitters, Mt. Smart seems to crumble whenever Brookvale comes to town. Last night was no exception, and marked a bit of a turning-point for the Sea Eagles, who have now won as many games as they have lost in 2016, and are slowly but surely making their way out of the cellar.


Nearly doubling the Warriors for an 18-34 finish, it was Manly’s veterans who put in the best performance, with Steve Matai and Jamie Lyon scoring every point for the Sea Eagles between Josh Starling’s try in the 24th minute and Tom Tbbojevic’s try in the 79th minute. With Matai scoring a double in the 45th and 71st minutes and Lyon converting every try of the game along with two penalty goals in the 54th and 69th minute, these were two players who are used to taking on New Zealand in the Manly jersey, and their professionalism and panache was a reminder that the old Manly guard are still alive and kicking. It was really pleasurable to see these two old halves carving up Mt. Smart as if it were Brooky – not even a fairly quiet night from Brett Stewart could kill the Manly nostalgia hovering over the field.


At the same time, it was clear that Manly has its fair share of young guns as well. Trbojevic’s final try felt like a symbolic changing of the guard, while Josh Starling’s first four-pointer in the NRL felt like the entrance of a prop for the modern era – dexterous and tough, he played a critical role in Manly’s possession in the first half, while his strength and focus on the field also helped the Sea Eagles come away with a hefty 82% possession. Combined with Marty Taupau’s try in the seventh minute, it was a welcome indication that Manly are starting to really get their big men in check, a critical move for a team that until recently had one of the best stable of hard-hitters in the competition.


In fact, this match be just come to be classed as the moment at which the new-look Manly outfit really started to gel as a team, closing ranks to take advantage of every New Zealand error or misstep. In particular, the maroon and white pounced on two fumbles from Tuimoala Lolohea to come up with their first two tries, as Kapow and Starling seemed to take the sorry Auckland winger back to square one after his amazing performance against the Roosters at Central Coast Stadium last Sunday afternoon.


Nevertheless, the Warriors also put up the kind of fight you might expect at Mt. Smart, with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck predictably outrunning everyone else on the field, but Blake Ayshford also making his strongest statement at centre this season, with two line breaks and a try in the 38th minute. As with so many other matches in 2016, the make-or-break moment occurred shortly after half-time, with possession handed over to the Sea Eagles after Solomone Kata was ruled to have been out of the in-goal area following a Manly kick. It was a bewildering moment, given that the exact opposite ruling had been handed down moments before, and the Warriors barely had time to regroup before RTS failed to defuse a grubber that felt as it if had been kicked all the way from Brookvale, setting up Matai’s second try of the afternoon. Sure, Kata may have made up for it with a four-pointer in the 75th minute, but it was more than answered by Trbojevic in the 79th, in one of the best last-minute tries scored this season.


In terms of the Warriors’ Big Three, Issac Luke put in probably his best argument for being classed with Shaun Johnson and RTS this season, crashing over from dummy-half for a try in the 59th minute. Although it’s a Luke trademark, that move hasn’t been so successful with New Zealand this year, so it must have been a relief for Warriors’ fans to see the errant hooker rack up his third try of the season. While Johnson didn’t receive as many tries to work with, his kicking game was as deft and consistent as Lyon’s, while his work in the halves showed some of the flashes of brilliance and inspiration that drove the Nines this year, although Mt. Smart has a tendency to bring that out in him generally as well.


After last week’s win against the Roosters, then, Saturday’s match was inevitably a bit of a letdown for the Warriors. While their loss couldn’t be described as humiliating, Andrew McFadden will be keen to ensure that it doesn’t become a trend when they face off this round against the Bulldogs. Now fifth on the ladder, high on their incredible victory over the Storm, but also still looking to make up for their defeat at Belmore the week before, Canterbury-Bankstown are going to offer a make or break moment for the Warriors, not least because the Dogs are going to be “hosting” New Zealand in their own backyard at Westpac Stadium. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sea Eagles are going to have to muster all their Brookvale spirit for a Parramatta outfit that has somehow crept to third place, in what promises to be a cracking opening to Round 7.