An under-strength Manly outfit starved of possession has overcome the loss of key players, a lack of quality ball and a late Johnathan Thurston field goal to earn a 26-21 Good Friday win at Gosford.
Down by a point with three minutes to go, Kieran Foran – filling in at halfback for an injured Daly Cherry-Evans who was ruled out in the lead-up – gambled on a short ball to Jamie Buhrer and came up trumps as the interchange forward barrelled over to hand Manly a win that brought a rapturous crowd of 10,013 to their feet as one.
The win wasn't without its share of controversy – earlier, down 20-14, the Sea Eagles enjoyed a double slice of luck when a loose ball from Brett Stewart looked to travel forward but was fumbled by the Cowboys and handed Manly an extra set of six on the visitors' line.
When Foran scythed through for a try that allowed Lyon to level the scores with his conversion, Buhrer had run through and looked to impede Ray Thompson but the video referee ruled in favour of the home side.
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A furious Thurston then set about squaring the ledger with a brilliant field goal that looked like it may be enough to see his side home, before Foran's late heroics.
Earlier, Manly seemed a little off the pace in an opening half in which the Cowboys were the better side when it came to capitalising on their limited opportunities.
It was an ominous start for the visitors when Manly opened the scoring in the fifth minute in utterly typical fashion. A trademark left side shift went from Foran to Brett Stewart then Steve Matai, who strolled over for his ninth try of the season – bringing him level with Eels winger Semi Radradra – and an early 6-0 lead.
However Manly were off the pace thereafter, unable to capitalise on a small number of attacking chances and barely managing to hold out debutant winger Curtis Rona who almost barrelled over for a try on the 20 minute mark but Matai managed to repel him.
However on the next play, returning winger Kyle Feldt brilliantly marked a cross-field bomb from Thurston out to the left. Feldt, who had spent much of the warm up practising his goal kicking, then lined up to take the conversion but the tough chance slid to the left of the posts.
They were in again through Brent Tate when Thurston combined with Gavin Cooper to create an overlap on the right side. Despite Tate improving the position markedly Feldt fluffed the kick – his second and final attempt of the night – from almost in front.
A comedy of errors ensued when Matai put the kickoff out on the full, then Thurston failed to put the ensuing penalty kick out on the full, and Manly then quickly lost it through Taufua who flirted too close to the left hand touchline.
With the Cowboys taking advantage of their fortuitous field position they were able to force a line drop out before an inside ball from Thurston put Tate over for his second, running straight past a wounded Anthony Watmough who left the field shortly after nursing an elbow and did not return.
Thurston had the kicking duties back and was able to turn four points into six at the Cowboys third time of asking for a 14-6 half time lead.
Rona managed to earn his debut try in the 56th minute when he crashed over, backing up Morgan who himself was supporting a Brent Tate offload. Thurston's clutch sideline kick stretched the score out to 20-10. It capped off a hugely promising debut for the powerful winger who had several great charges and a couple of equally good reads in defence.
Looking to be running out of gas, Manly needed something special and they got it from their mercurial fullback Stewart, who sliced through the line in his own end of the field in the 67th minute and found a rampaging Taufua, who continued his blockbusting return from injury with a second try for the night.
That then set the scene for the late dramas and another win that took Manly to a share of the equal competition lead with their fifth win of the season.Manly Sea Eagles 26
(Jorge Taufua 2, Steve Matai, Kieran Foran, Jamie Buhrer tries; Jamie Lyon 3 goals) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 21
(Brent Tate 2, Kyle Feldt, Curtis Rona tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals, Thurston field goal). Crowd: