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.