The Knights crafted the perfect opening 10 minutes of rugby league, exploding to a 14-0 advantage before being swamped by three tries in the final 10 minutes of the first half to incredibly trail the ‘home’ side 16-14 at oranges.
Newcastle bolted to their lead on the back of some Richie Fa’aoso brilliance, the back-rower bursting through Manly’s Glenn Hall to run 20 metres to score the game’s first points after just four minutes. In the eighth minute Fa’aoso cracked the Manly defence again, a wonderful around-the-corner offload gifting Mark Taufua a passage to the line for a 12-0 lead.
An 18th-minute penalty goal blew the score out to 14-0 and the Manly fans who’d braved the peak-hour traffic up the F3 were worried. They needn’t have been.
Almost immediately the Sea Eagles shook off their funk. They ruthlessly capitalised on Newcastle dropped balls to score their opening two tries, the first when Brent Kite swooped on a spilled Marvin Karawana ball and sent it quickly to the left where centre Ben Farrar stepped Adam MacDougall to score. Three minutes later Cooper Vuna dropped the ball cold 15 metres out from his line; from the ensuing set quick hands saw Manly flanker Tony Williams cross in the left corner for a 14-10 scoreline.
In the 37th minute, the move that broke the Knights’ hearts: on halfway the ball swept from Glenn Stewart to Jamie Lyon, who passed to David Williams who found space on the right edge. As the cover defence converged, and with 19-year-old team-mate Kieran Foran gesturing for a kick, the ‘Wolfman’ obliged, booting the ball centre-field towards the goal posts. When Knights’ hooker Isaac De Gois fumbled his clean-up attempt Foran gleefully grounded – although it took a Benefit of the Doubt call from video ref Bill Harrigan to adjudge Foran borderline onside before the four-pointer was awarded.
After the break the Sea Eagles went on a rampage, scoring five more dazzling tries. Such was their comeback from 14-0 down that they piled on 34 unanswered points before the Knights crossed for their only try of the second half – 41 minutes after Taufua’s try that had seemingly put them in good shape for a win.
The victory elevated Manly to fifth on the NRL ladder (24 points), level with the Knights, and edged them closer to an all-important top-four spot. Meanwhile Newcastle slipped to seventh on points differential.
The Knights badly missed injured skipper Kurt Gidley’s direction.
The Game Swung When… Manly pounced on handling errors by Karawana and Vuna to post tries in the 30th and 35th minutes. And when Newcastle headed for the sheds up trailing 16-14, the players’ body language suggested it would be a long road back.
While Newcastle fully deserved their blistering start a telling stat was that Manly had just one set of six during the first 10 minutes; when the possession came their way and their opponents started to cough up the pill, they made the most of their opportunities.
Who Was Hot… Manly lock Glenn Stewart was outstanding for 80 minutes, making four tackle breaks and a line break. Anthony Watmough (13 runs for 100 metres) delivered another spirited and energetic performance.
After seeming a little panicked early Matt Orford (56 touches, two try assists) settled down to direct his backs with authority.
Brent Kite (18 hit-ups for 142 metres from 39 minutes) lifted noticeably when the opposition put 14 on his side.
Jamie Lyon (four tackle breaks) and Ben Farrar (a try and a try assist) did some good things out wide.
And burly prop George Rose scored a try and always took defenders with him as he clawed out 132 metres of territory in just 30 minutes.
For the Knights, five-eighth Ben Rogers always looked threatening, while Fa’aoso (four tackle breaks, three offloads, a try and a try assist) looked like he was ready to rip the opposition to shreds with a devastating opening burst. But as Manly warmed to their task he went into his shell. Like the rest of his team-mates.
Who Was Not… The Knights dropped too much ball (13 errors) and were forced to defend too many repeat sets. After 10 minutes of play if someone had said the Knights would go to halftime having tackled their opponents 23 times in their 20-metre zone you’d have discreetly moved away from them.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Manly’s first try of the second half. On the sixth tackle, Jamie Lyon lofted a bomb to the left flank, which Ben Farrar batted back to Michael Robertson. The fullback sized up the situation and hoicked a hasty bomb towards the goal posts. Knights’ halfback Scott Dureau tracked its path and seemed to have it covered but as he caught the ball running backwards he slammed into the right upright. The ball fell was jolted free and picked up by Matt Ballin who scored.
In the 13th minute the Knights booted a line dropout 78 metres.
In the 17th minute Matt Orford very nearly didn’t boot a line dropout – his feeble effort carried all of 18 metres and dribbled a further 22.
In the 77th minute Matt Hilder made the worst knock-on at dummy-half in the history of rugby league stumbling over the ball like a drunk.
Refs watch… Nothing too contentious. Although in the 73rd minute the Knights had a promising raid called back for a forward pass… then trudged back to their in-goal when Ben Farrar scored his second try off a 77th-minute Shane Rodney pass that looked infinitely more forward. But that’s football.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Glenn Stewart (Sea Eagles): Toiled hard for the full 80 with 126 metres from 18 hit-ups, with 29 tackles; 2 points – Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles): May not have dominated his opposition like in recent weeks but his up-tempo runs inspired his team-mates when things looked grim early; 1 point – George Rose (Sea Eagles): Scored his fourth try from his past five games. Was tough to handle on the charge.
Sea Eagles 44 (B Farrar 2, T Williams 2, K Foran, M Ballin, G Rose, A Watmough tries; M Orford 6 goals) def Knights 20 (R Fa’aoso, M Taufua, S McDonnell tries; S Dureau 3 goals, W Naiqama goal) at Bluetongue Stadium. Crowd: 15,857.