Manly struck twice in the space of five minutes late in the second half to break clear of the Vodafone Warriors to clinch a 22-12 win in today’s blockbuster 20th-round NRL encounter at Mount Smart Stadium.
While the result took Manly to 30 points on the ladder, extending its lead over closest rivals Penrith and Canterbury-Bankstown to four points, the 10-point losing margin meant the home side slipped out of the top eight to ninth spot on points for and against
The setting was ideal for the match of the round with the biggest crowd of the season so far at Mount Smart Stadium - 19,199 - and conditions perfect as well.
The Vodafone Warriors were chasing their fifth straight win at Mount Smart this season and their sixth home win on end stretching back to the Eden Park victory over Canberra in April. They were also desperate to rebound from their disappointing loss to Brisbane.
The contest opened with a pulsating first half befitting the blockbuster nature of the occasion and, but for the astonishing Daly Cherry-Evans, the Vodafone Warriors would have gone to halftime in front.
In the final moments of the half, winger Manu Vatuvei intercepted 40 metres out, sped away and seemed to have skipped clear only to be ankle-tapped by Cherry-Evans with the line at his mercy. Quickly the Vodafone Warriors swept the ball right but Konrad Hurrell spilledl the final pass.
So the teams hit halftime just four points apart at 10-6 after the home side had certainly looked the goods.
They had opened up with ample energy, aggression and precision from the kick-off.
The first two ingredients led to the them jolting the ball loose with a big shot on Anthony Watmough just outside his 20.
Moments later the Vodafone Warriors' precision on attack created the opening try, shifting the ball nicely to the right with a slick tip-on from Sam Tomkins giving the Tongan tank Konrad Hurrell an early chance to make a statement. He didn’t disappoint as he steamed through his Manly opposite Steve Matai for his 10th try of the season and the 35th of his career.
Chad Townsend, entrusted with the kicking duties in Shaun Johnson’s injury-enforced absence, hammered a sweet conversion from well out on the right to make it 6-0 after just a minute.
The Vodafone Warriors maintained the rage without further success although they also needed a slice of fantastic desperation at the other end when Hurrell mopped up a threatening Manly kick.
The sheer fury and intensity in the opening 20 minutes set this contest apart as one of finals quality.
There were blemishes with a dropped ball when the attack was building while three kicks in behind Manly’s right edge unfortunately went dead.
The Sea Eagles, as they always do, kept hanging tough, though. They threatened through a probing Jamie Lyon run, won a penalty near the Vodafone Warriors’ line and created space on the left for replacement winger Cheyse Blair to score. Halfback Thomas Leuluai tried bravely to drag him into touch as he dived but replays showed the try was fair. Lyon couldn’t convert and it was 6-4 to the home side after 19 minutes.
Four minutes later the Vodafone Warriors were so close to their second try of the day in quite remarkable circumstances.
A Townsend bomb to the left went uncontested, Peta Hiku allowing it to bounce in the belief the ball was going out near the corner. Vatuveil tracked it down, flicked it back into the in-goal area and captain Simon Mannering pounced for his would-be ninth try of the season.
The crowd willed it to be a try. Multiple angles were used, frames frozen and eventually it was determined the bomb had touched the sideline. No try.
The flow of possession began to favour Manly. Feeding off an error near halfway the Sea Eagles surged downfield again, hammered at the line, won a penalty and from the repeat set created a try for Hiku in the corner. This time Lyon’s shot was on target for a 10-6 lead after 30 minutes, a lead they held at halftime if only thanks to Cherry-Evans' ankle-tapping heroics on a try-bound Vatuvei.
The second half began with the urgent Vodafone Warriors making the play.
Ben Henry went over from a Ben Matulino offload. The crowd went berserk, only the transfer from one Ben to the other was cruelly called forward.
Next Vatuvei crossed after a spread left. He thought he’d scored. The replays said he hadn’t (Cherry-Evans saved again) and almost immmediately the Vodafone Warriors lost possession trying to spread the ball wide out to their right edge.
Back they came and Townsend chipped to the left again, Tomkins coming down with the ball, squriming to try to get it down but being stopped centimetres short.
The Vodafone Warriors wanted for something to happen but the bounce of the ball, the little bit of luck needed, just wasn’t coming.
On came debutant Tuimolala Lolohea for Leuluai and almost immediately he looked both lively and likely with threatening incisions from his first touches.
Still it was 10-6 as the match went past the 60-minute mark; the next play would be the critical one.
Manly came up with it, first forcing an error and then striking through its right edge again with Hiku getting through for his second in the corner when Brett Stewart swung around in support. Lyon's conversion had Manly where it wanted to be and where it so often is leading 16-6.
That took a lot of sting out of the battle and a soft Daly Cherry-Evans try five minutes later sapped more energy as Manly went 22-6 ahead.
But the Vodafone Warriors weren't fading away.
They conjured up an eighth try in eight games for Mannering as he scooped up a Townsend grubber near the line. Townsend knocked over the conversion to leave his side 12-22 behind and there it finished.
A run of home wins over Canberra, Newcastle, Brisbane, Penrith and Parramatta had come to an end against the side which is unquestionably the benchmark this season.
Defeat was patently disappointing but equally there was acknowedgement later that the Vodafone Warriors just weren't quite good enough when the points-scoring moments were on offer. They had no shortage of them either but were either denied or failed to make the most of them.
The mission never seems to be any easier and it won't be next week when the Vodafone Warriors travel to Canberra to face the Raiders.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 12 (Konrad Hurrell, Simon Mannering tries; Chad Townsend 2 conversions).
Manly Sea Eagles 22 (Peta Hiku 2, Cheyse Blair, Daly Cherry-Evans tries; Jamie Lyon 3 conversions).
Halftime: 10-6 Sea Eagles.
Referees: Bern Cummins and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dane Nielsen, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Thomas Leuluai; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Suaia Matagi; Ben Henry, Simon Mannering (c); Sebastine Ikahihifo. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Jayson Bukuya, Sam Rapira, Tuimoala Lolohea.