dWERE we really so silly? The Bulldogs had won 13 of their past 14, yet Manly were favoured. Des Hasler, who guided Manly under the radar for so long, couldn’t have asked for more; his minor premiers were the underdogs.
Perhaps no longer. The Bulldogs, now with Hasler in charge, held their nerve while the Sea Eagles faltered. Neither side was at their best; that will be ominous for the other teams in the finals. Both teams have so much more to give but still produced a tough, torrid thriller.
Now the questions are how will the Bulldogs respond to an easier ride through the finals, and how will the Sea Eagles respond to adversity? Both teams are clearly good enough to be back at the same ground on September 30.
Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ ability to score from anywhere last night outweighed Manly’s inability to score from close range. Manly had as many opportunities as the Bulldogs did but their opponents made them count.
Rugby league is a game of possession, yet there are exceptions, especially at this time of year. What can be more important than possession is being able to take advantage of possession.
The Bulldogs did so early on, while Manly did not. The Sea Eagles enjoyed the better of the opening quarter, yet they could not find a way over the line, through a combination of a solid Bulldogs defensive line as well as a Manly attack that was off its game; only slightly, but enough to ensure the final pass went behind the man more than it did in front of him.
The Bulldogs spent little time in Manly’s quarter yet centre Josh Morris was still able to conjure something out of nothing, showing remarkable speed to set up winger Jonathan Wright for the first try of the contest. In doing so, Morris proved that fluorescent boots, as worn by Dean Whare, could still feel like they have concrete in them when faced with blinding pace.
At that point, the beauty of finals football was replaced by the brutality of it. Manly co-captain Jason King was placed on report for a high tackle on Aiden Tolman, and he was quickly followed by centre Steve Matai, who clipped winger Sam Perrett high.
Then in quick succession, both teams lost leaders. First, Manly co-captain Jamie Lyon limped off with a calf injury, then two minutes later, the Bulldogs’ skipper Michael Ennis left the field with a rib problem, albeit briefly. Yet through all the commotion, and the Bulldogs’ early lead, the Sea Eagles refused to panic. And with Ennis still walking gingerly up the tunnel, winger Jorge Taufua scored.
Their refusal to panic was emphasised by second-rower Tony Williams’s efforts. In the opening half hour, he had displayed the hands of an infant trying to grasp a cup of milk, losing possession on two occasions, but busted the Bulldogs open and then sent a perfectly timed inside ball to fullback Brett Stewart, who scored to give Manly the lead.
There were some telling statistics. The Bulldogs missed 21 tackles in the first half, while the Sea Eagles’ completion rate was 63 per cent. Both sides were playing tough but neither was doing enough to dominate. Predictably, the Bulldogs hit back early in the second half; Kris Keating spotted Brett Stewart out of position, and grubbered for himself to score.
The difference was the Bulldogs’ ability to create opportunities from anywhere. The Sea Eagles were caught off guard to such an extent that Morris found himself only having to out-pace King on the flank. He did so with ease, before sending Ben Barba over.
The Sea Eagles had their chances late, but – again – could not make them count.
BULLDOGS 16 (B Barba K Keating J Wright tries K Inu 2 goals) bt MANLY 10 (B Stewart J Taufua tries D Cherry-Evans goal) at ANZ Stadium. Referees: Ben Cummins, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 36,420