Somehow, Manly almost let this one slip. What should have been a much-needed tension-free afternoon for coach Des Hasler and Sea Eagles fans became a nail-biter in the last 10 minutes, when the Raiders pressed to level the scores after looking out of sorts and out on their feet for most of the match.
The defending premiers opened with perhaps their best 30 minutes of the season, the forwards’ purposeful running and almost mistake-free execution complemented by Matt Orford’s pinpoint kicking, which helped his side to a 67 per cent share in that first half-hour.
Though they were without a handful of their Origin stars, Manly gave no sign of missing them. Indeed, it was the 18-year-old substitute five-eighth Kieran Foran who, with his second touch in the NRL, opened the scoring in the third minute with a superb sixth-tackle try, the youngster prospering from an improbable Tony Williams offload. Foran’s try ended Canberra’s streak of scoring the first try in their last seven outings, and the setback seemed to knock the stuffing out of the men in the green.
Big George Rose crashed over in the 16th minute to put Manly out by 10, and two Matt Orford penalties had the home side comfortable 14-0 leaders at the end of the first half, during which the Raiders looked tired, slow and bereft of ideas. Terry Campese was quiet and his halves partner Marc Herbert even quieter. With the ball, the Green Machine was malfunctioning to the point of shutdown. Their attack had all the penetration of a plastic spoon. Coach David Furner wasted little time injecting his benchmen, but errors flowed from their mitts as well.
The second half began more brightly for the visitors, who finally managed to secure a workable amount of possession. But when Manly scored first from a Raiders blunder and went out to 20-0, an embarrassing score was looming for the men from the capital.
Then, out of nowhere, they went bang, bang, bang.
Between the 61st and 69th minutes, Canberra constructed three tries to put themselves in with a chance. Like a soccer team that’s down a goal with the minutes ticking away, they suddenly started to turn on the flair. In those final 10 minutes, they had two gold-plated chances to score again and perhaps level the scores, but couldn’t convert either.
The better side for the first hour, Manly deserved their seventh win, which propelled them into the top eight for the first time. It’s been a long way back from a terrible start, and despite the spluttering finish, the Sea Eagles were entitled to feel just a little pleased themselves as darkness fell at Brookvale.
The Game Swung When… Though Manly led from the 3rd minute and were never headed, their most crucial try came in the 53rd when Jared Waerea-Hargreaves capitalised on a David Milne handling blunder to blow out the Sea Eagles’ lead to 20 at a time when the visitors had been clawing their way back into the match, if not on the scoreboard then at least in the sense of looking switched on and competitive.
Canberra recovered well from that point to score three tries, but the start they’d given was too much.
Who Was Hot… Though he faded in attack, young Foran made a stunning debut, impressing not just with his early try and confidence but with several crunching front-on tackles on substantially bigger men. A player to watch.
Who Was Not… He made decent metres in attack, but Canberra fullback Milne had a mostly unhappy time of it. The rookie Foran beat him with an in-and-away to open Manly’s account, George Rose treated him like a speed hump for the second try, and his handling error presented Waerea-Hargreaves with the match-sealer.
Terry Campese, meanwhile, played with what might have been a trace of dejection after his Origin dumping, and his one goal from three attempts didn’t help the Raiders’ comeback.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Waerea-Hargreaves’ second-half hit on Brett Kelly was one of the bell-ringers of the year.
Bad Boys… None to report.
Refs Watch . . . Centremen Jared Maxwell and Bernard Sutton were largely inconspicuous in a solid showing.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Matt Orford (Sea Eagles): Controlled the bulk of the match with perhaps his best kicking and passing game of the year; 2 points – Jason King (Sea Eagles): Lion-hearted effort in heavy conditions – 17 runs for 126 metres; 1 point – Kieran Foran (Sea Eagles): A try and 33 tackles (some of them beauties and not one missed) made this a debut to remember.
Sea Eagles 20 (K Foran, G Rose, J Waerea-Hargreaves tries; M Orford 4 goals) def Raiders 14 (T Thurling, J Carney, P Graham tries; T Campese goal) at Brookvale Oval. Crowd: 8,182.