Dan Walsh, NRL.com
The wolves may be at Manly's door, but as has been the case throughout 2014 it counted for little where it mattered most, as the Sea Eagles rallied against worrying pre-game rumours to post a solid 21-12 victory over the Dragons at Jubilee Oval.
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With reports surfacing minutes before kickoff that superstars Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough had asked for releases from the club in recent weeks off the back of the same rumours circulating about veteran centre Steve Matai, the Sea Eagles did enough to get the job done on Monday night.
Stewart and Matai in particular were instrumental in turning the Dragons’ right edge into an autobahn, repeatedly targeting a defensive combination of Benji Marshall and Josh Dugan that proved softer than microwaved marshmallow for three tries, while Watmough was typically bullish in making 139 metres and 20 tackles in his return from suspension.
The Sea Eagles fifth win from their last six matches will do little to dispel the talk of player mutiny on the Northern beaches, but it does install them two points clear at the top of the NRL tree, while the Dragons slip down to 12th behind the Titans on points differential.
Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop was the first to trouble the scorers with an early penalty goal from 25 metres out, but despite the home side enjoying the lion's share of territory and possession in the first 15 minutes it was Manly who crossed the stripe for first and second four-pointers of the match, with their opening tries seemingly rolling off a production line.
Locking the GPS firmly onto the Dragons' number 7, Manly's left side trio of Kieran Foran, Stewart and Matai linked twice in the space of three minutes with the same second man play manoeuvring Matai to the outside of Marshall on both occasions, resulting in Matai's 12th try of the year and his younger Kiwi teammate following suit again to push the Sea Eagles up 10-2 after 23 minutes.
Matai's exit just short of the half hour mark with a suspected right knee injury did little to halt the Sea Eagles’ surge, as first Foran and then hooker Matt Ballin forced repeat sets through probing kicks. With the Dragons’ indecisiveness on their line making Manly's left side shifts resemble little more than those conducted in training runs, only a contentious obstruction call denied the visitors a third to fill-in centre Tom Symonds in the 34th minute.
Having been on the receiving end, Marshall returned fire in the shadows of halftime, strolling through a worryingly large gap in the Manly goal line defence thanks to a simple ball from halves partner Widdop. Marshall's first try in the red and white remarkably reduced the Sea Eagle's lead to just two at the break, an incredible effort from the home side given the battering they had taken.
As Matai re-entered the fray minutes after halftime it was Manly's turn under the microscope, with only the desperate diving effort of Jorge Taufua preventing opposite number Jason Nightingale from touching down a deft grubber from Dugan.
But it was the boot and then the slick hands of Daly Cherry-Evans that ensured the Sea Eagles were the next to score, as the Maroons halfback first piled the pressure on the Dragons’ back three with a booming kick in the 52nd minute, and then once an error was forced from returning winger Brett Morris, put Tom Symonds through the line to re-establish a 16-8 advantage for the visitors.
Adopting the mantra of 'when in doubt, go left', Foran and Stewart again combined at the Dragons’ line in the 61st minute, this time sending Taufua across for his ninth try from 10 games this season and stretching their lead to two converted tries.
Playing with the confidence of a side that had dropped just one of its last five starts the Dragons refused to die, at one point forcing four repeat sets in the space of five minutes, only for Cherry-Evans to regain possession with a wobbly 73rd minute line drop-out that bounced over the sideline.
Popping a late 20 metre field goal from the ensuing set, Cherry-Evans ensured there would be no last minute heroics from the home side, despite a typically spectacular 77th minute touchdown from Jason Nightingale.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 21 (S Matai, K Foran T Symonds, J Taufua tries; J Lyon 2 goals, D Cherry-Evans field goal) defeated St. George-Illawarra Dragons 12 (B Marshall, J Nightingale tries; G Widdop 2 goals) at Jubilee Oval. Crowd: 10,530