Manly could look on the bright side and say they at least got the first 10 minutes right. Having conceded big leads to Newcastle and Wests Tigers in recent weeks, the defending premiers emerged pumped and primed for this one, and were out to 12-0 before the Rabbitohs had found their stride. But on an evening when Manly’s frailties were exposed in a manner that will give their fans nightmares, those opening exchanges were all Des Hasler’s men could take pride in. The rest of their effort added up to a loss that has at once stripped them of dark-horse status for the title, made their chances of claiming a top-four spot remote, and thrown them into a dog fight to make the playoffs.
There’s little doubt that, playing at Brookvale Oval – a graveyard for Souths in recent times – and having got off to a flyer, Manly became complacent before the job was a quarter done.
Souths, on the other hand, were terrific. They could have dropped their bundle after conceding those early tries, the second of which was nothing less than a gift to the home side from video ref Bill Harrigan. Instead, they knuckled down to the task of playing precise and intense football.
Their reward was four tries between the 17th and 30th minutes, an onslaught from which Manly never quite recovered. Nathan Merritt pounced on a kick for the first; lovely passes from Chris Sandow and Merritt had Fetuli Talanoa squeezing over for the second; new boy Chris McQueen grabbed the third after Manly winger Tony Williams made a meal of cleaning up a clearing kick; and Beau Champion completed the blitz after McQueen showed more desperation than Williams in catching a high ball.
Souths completed every one of their first 14 sets, while Manly’s discipline went out the window. Manly fans will remember the match for an argument between skipper Matt Orford and star player Anthony Watmough, and for a series of blunders from the Williams boys, Tony and David. More on those later.
The Rabbitohs weren’t as good in the second half, but scrambled well as Manly raided their line in, admittedly, a mostly predictable and ineffectual fashion, characterised by too much cross-field running. Jason King’s last-minute consolation try was a pointer to the way ahead, coming from a clever exchange up the guts rather than premature and easy-to-read crabbing movements.
It was an emphatic win in hostile territory for Souths, who kept their finals chances alive, though their joy was tempered by Roy Asotasi’s season-ending knee injury.
The Game Swung When… The rot had started, but Manly still led 12-10 when Souths’ Issac Luke booted a regulation clearing kick deep into Manly territory. It fell to big Tony Williams to collect the ball and run it back. But the act of collection proved beyond him. While the bounce wasn’t altogether friendly, he approached the task with all the urgency of a man catching some rays on a beach holiday, while at the same time mimicking the turning circle of a famous cruise ship. Sure enough, red-and-green jumpers swooped, and Chris McQueen was in for a try on debut. Souths were in front, never to be headed.
Who Was Hot… Asotasi had led the way for Souths until his knee buckled in one of those gruesomely awkward tackles. Sandow had some lovely touches, and Merritt and Champion both grabbed doubles. But this was a win built on a committed and disciplined team performance rather than individual flair.
Who Was Not… It’s clear as day that the Wolfman, David Williams, is a good fellow and a red-hot finisher when Manly are going well. But under a full moon at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night, he produced a series of howlers that cost his team and drove him to distraction.
Manly fans will tell you he hasn’t been the same since his confidence got knocked around in Origins II and III. Against Souths, he made a number of handling errors, the worst a clumsy knock-on while trying to take a low-trajectory line dropout in the first half. His frantic protest that the ball had struck his knee (when his fingerprints were all over the blunder) pointed to an unstable state of mind, glimpsed again in the second half after another handling error. He’s not suddenly a poor player, of course, just one whose confidence is around his ankles, but carrying the ball in one hand on kick returns is not the way back.
In Williams, Hasler has a selection headache. Ditto with the other Williams, Tony, who despite bagging a double and occasionally looking the goods, lacks the kind of mongrel that someone like Hasler would surely insist upon.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… With the match slipping away from Manly in the second half under a lopsided penalty count, Orford appeared to chip Watmough about his indiscipline. Ninety-nine times out of 100, players wear a rebuke from their skipper, but on this occasion Watmough snapped back with some colourful words of self-justification.
This is an emotion-charged sport played by highly competitive men, but team-mates arguing with each other is not a good look, nor an encouraging one for Manly fans still hoping for a successful defence.
But nor should the incident be beaten up beyond what it was. When Tony Williams scored on the hour after some good work by Orford, Watmough was among the first to congratulate his skipper.
Bad Boys… All clear on the violence front; but Hasler will have a quiet chat with Watmough about lapses in discipline.
Refs Watch… Hasler was irate about elements of his players’ showing, but also with the performances of Ben Cummins and Brett Suttor, who at one point had the Rabbitohs ahead 8-3 in the penalties.
Some of their holding down penalties seemed harsh, but there’s no way the referees cost Manly the game.
The most bewildering decisions came from the video referee’s box. Harrigan found a way to deny Jamie Lyon a try based on a knock-on that no amount of replays could confirm, then a few minutes later green-lighted a Watmough try despite a blatant knock-on from centre Ben Farrar. While you could argue Farrar had been stripped of the ball, he clearly knocked it forward trying to regather.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Luke Stuart (Rabbitohs): Led the way with 169 metres from 20 runs and 23 tackles; 2 points – Roy Asotasi (Rabbitohs): Showed Souths what they’ll be missing with a powerhouse display encompassing 105 metres from 10 charges; 1 point – Nathan Merritt (Rabbitohs): Sharp as a pin in bagging a double and selectively chiming in.
Rabbitohs 36 (N Merritt 2, B Champion 2, C McQueen, F Talanoa tries; C Sandow 6 goals) def Sea Eagles 22 (T Williams 2, J King, A Watmough tries; M Orford 3 goals) at Brookvale Oval. Crowd: 15,702.