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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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