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Rarely do you see a team more deserving of a win than Cronulla was in this match, and yet the game of rugby league can be so cruel that the Sharks had victory stolen from them with just 90 seconds on the clock.

The camaraderie at Manly in the past five seasons has been built around weekly poker nights – but the card they pulled yesterday is not one you’d find in even the best hand.

Manly used their “get out of jail free” card and denied Cronulla what would have been the bravest victory of the year, and more importantly one which would have moved them out of reach of the wooden spoon.

But make no mistake, the Sharks were brave and at the very least it proved to their faithful fans that they support a team made of stern stuff, while Manly fans were left to ask whether this is a team capable of defending the title.

It may have been Brett Stewart’s return from an 18-week injury lay-off, but Luke Covell did all the celebrating early when he accepted a Scott Porter kick in the ninth minute to give Cronulla the early momentum.

Penalty goals extended that lead to 10-0 before the major talking point of the match arrived as rookie referee Phil Haines sent hardworking Shark Luke Douglas from the field for a careless high shot on Chris Bailey.

It seemed a poor decision, and one that by rights should have taken the fight out of the match – especially when Manly winger Michael Robertson scored in the corner from the ensuing set.

By half-time the scores were deadlocked at 10-all thanks to an Anthony Watmough try.

Grant Millington gave the visitors the lead once more when he crossed soon after the break, but tries to Michael Robertson and a heart-breaking last-minute effort to Ben Farrar sealed an undeserving victory for the reigning premiers.

The Game Swung When… Haines sent Douglas to the sheds for an early shower. Or perhaps the more appropriate description would be “the game was ruined when…” Douglas’ high shot on Bailey was careless, loose and forced the back-rower out for the rest of the game – but was it worthy of a send-off? A big call.

With the Sharks leading by 10 points at the time, the decision to send off one of the NRL’s hardest working props was a death knell for what was developing as a gripping contest. As it turned out, Cronulla battled on bravely until the end. But playing for nearly 55 minutes with just 12 men on a warm spring day was just too much.

Who Was Hot… With their leading front-rower sent from the field after just 27 minutes, Cronulla needed other senior forwards to lift – and that is exactly what happened.

Former skipper Paul Gallen put in a Herculean effort as he tried to inspire his young team-mates, running for 260 metres while also chipping in with 34 tackles and six offloads, while prop Kade Snowden (178 metres, 35 tackles, one line break) and Anthony Tupou (137 metres, seven tackle breaks, two offloads) were similarly hard to handle.

Luke Covell (78 metres, eight tackle breaks, one try and four conversions) was also inspirational for the courageous Sharks while Anthony Watmough (163 metres, 10 tackle breaks, 22 tackles) was Manly’s best with some support from George Rose and Kieran Foran.

Brett Stewart was ‘dusty’ in his return but did manage to pull off several magnificent try-savers in the first half.

Who Was Not…. It would be unfair in the extreme to criticise any Sharks from this match – they showed nothing but grit and determination and were unrewarded for the effort.

Manly, on the other hand, will be very concerned about the performances of a number of their notable players. They say forwards win games, but Manly are taking the field each week with a pack that look unlikely to dominate at NSW Cup level, let alone an NRL finals series.

Brent Kite (76 metres) and Josh Perry (74 metres) failed to stand up and fill the void left by losing Jason King (ribs) and Chris Bailey (concussion) in the opening 25 minutes. Only Watmough cracked three figures while George Rose (98 metres) was the only Manly forward who remembered to run straight and hard.

But particular criticism should be reserved for Manly’s two centres – Ben Farrar and Steve Matai. Farrar was caught out of position in defence several times and made two crucial errors, while Matai missed a staggering seven tackles and inexplicably threw away possession with three minutes to go. With star centre Jamie Lyon due back next week, neither is assured of a starting berth against the Titans.

Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Steve Matai’s stunning brain explosion! With Manly given possession from a penalty, with three minutes to play, just inside the Cronulla half Matai took the tap and went for a run himself. After making a solid eight metres everything appeared to be going well – and then the Kiwi Test star inexplicably flicked an offload out the back… and into touch. Winger Michael Robertson desperately scrambled to knock it back in-field but to no avail.

It was a brain snap that should have cost Manly two competition points, and quite simply defied any logic.

Injuries…. Manly prop Jason King looks set for a few weeks on the sideline with a rib injury, while medical staff will monitor both Bailey and Kite (concussion).

Also, Watmough played the full 80 with an elbow injury.

For the Sharks, Corey Hughes finished the game with busted ribs and Anthony Tupou also played through concussion.

Refs Watch… Does it need to be said? The send-off of Douglas ranks in the top five worst calls of 2009, and rookie referee Phil Haines will hopefully learn a lot from the impulsive decision.

Beyond that the control of the ruck was dreadfully inconsistent and the series of penalties that handed Manly one final shot at the Cronulla line in the dying moments were highly questionable.

Ricky Stuart had plenty to say about the referees after the match – and he had good reason to be upset.

Bad Boys… Douglas was charged with a careless high tackle but will be clear to play this week with an early guilty plea. Best & Fairest… 3 points – Paul Gallen (Sharks): An astonishing effort from a man determined to finish the season with a win, Gallen made 260 metres from 30 runs, 34 tackles, and six offloads; 2 points – Kade Snowden (Sharks): Gallen was spectacular, but Snowden was not far behind, the burly front-rower played for 69 minutes, made 178 metres, 35 tackles and also had a line-break; 1 point – Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles): Made errors but Watmough’s work-rate did keep Manly in the contest and had him head and shoulders above his fellow forwards.

Sea Eagles 18 (M Robertson 2, A Watmough, B Farrar; M Orford 1 goals) def Sharks 16 (L Covell, G Millington; L Covell 4 goals) at Brookvale Oval. Crowd: 15,844.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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