Rung by rung, the Sea Eagles have started to move back up the ladder, although it’s been a grind every step of the way. Last Saturday at Allianz, they managed to overcome the Roosters 22-20, although it wasn’t a clean or easy win, with Daly Cherry-Evans coming down with an ankle injury at the 74th minute that seems likely to take him off the field for at least a month, and the Roosters denied a final try from Latrell Mitchell by the bunker, due to the fact that Mitch Aubusson was supposedly offside as it was being set up. Given that Manly is effectively a new team, it’s worrying to think how they’re going to cope over the next four weeks without their star fullback, especially because Steve Matai is now also out with a neck injury and Brett Stewart has only just started to make his presence felt again after a stint on the sidelines.
At the beginning of the game, it actually felt as if we might be witnessing the new-look Manly we’ve been promised since the beginning of the year, with the Sea Eagles notching things up to 6-0 at the fifth minute, thanks to a nifty double cut out pass from Feleti Mateo to Jorge Taufua that was all dexterity, leaving the Roosters scrambling to figure out what had happened. Nevertheless, it was only a short time before Shaun Kenny-Dowall celebrated his 200th game in style, scoring two tries that ensured that the Roosters were doubling Manly by half time.
Along with SKD, Tupou was shining, showing one of those intermittent bursts of genius that remind you that we’re dealing with an Origin-level player here, at least at his best. Making the most of Manly’s efforts to regroup after DCE was taken from the field, he put in the most spectacular try of the game, kicking a bouncing ball only to scoop it up again just before it reached the dead ball line. Complementing Tupou’s game was probably Blake Ferguson’s single best case for Roosters fullback – no small achievement given he’s struggling with a shoulder injury – even though Latrell Mitchell was playing in the No. 1 jersey. Given his history, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ferguson always seems to play better under duress, and if last Saturday was one of his most stressful performances, it was also one of his most solid since the beginning of the season.
Despite that early surge, however, the Roosters’ victory was by no means a sure thing, with SKD taking more of a back seat in the second half as Manly came up with one of the late surges so typical of this year in football, putting on 14 points in 10 minutes to grab the lead , thanks in part to an innocuous play the ball error from Kane Evans. In the absence of both DCE and Matai, Jamie Lyon really stepped up as Sea Eagles custodian, putting down a strong try in the 58th minute that was crucial to putting Manly back in front. In a nice bit of symmetry, Lyon’s grubber found Tom Trbokevic who then passed it back to Lyon who placed it for a second try. Combined with a penalty goal a couple of minutes earlier, Lyon had single-handedly upped Manly by six point, and in many ways it felt as if he’d personally won the game for the Sea Eagles, not unlike Josh Dugan’s effort for the Dragons the following day.
Of course, Trbojevic’s effort was crucial as well, and the interplay between the two epitomised the dialogue between young guns and veterans that’s needed if Manly are going to turn their fairly haphazard squad into a genuine contender for 2016. It’s all the more important in that with DCE absent Lyon may move to the halves, where he’ll be paired with one of the most inexperienced five-eighths in the competition. Nevertheless, Walker put in his best argument for the position to date, exuding a new confidence and assurance that has to be promising for Manly fans. Given how injury-prone the team has been in 2016 – Jamie Buhrer made his first appearance since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament last year only to be taken off after 19 minutes with a broken thumb – it’s critical that even mid-career players like Walker are able to take on the role of veterans when the situation demands it.
Nevertheless, it was a slog for Manly, with Barrett calling it one of the toughest victories he’d ever seen, and the bunker controversy putting a bit of a dampener on things as well. Where Ricky Stuart, Neil Henry and Paul Green have all been fairly diplomatic about the bunker controversies so far this round, Trent Robinson is a more vocal kind of coach, and there was no doubt that he felt as if the Chooks had been robbed, especially in the immediate aftermath of the game. Whether that affects the Tricolors’ resolve next round is anyone’s guess, but what is clear is that the Sea Eagles are going to have a bit of a challenge on their hands when they face off against the Rabbitohs next weekend. Arguably hit with one of the most gruelling draws this year – they’ve got a staggering number of five-day turnarounds – Manly have faced real challenges in finding time for their veterans to train alongside their young guns, yet another reason why they need to do everything they can to nurture that relationship when they’re actually on the field.