A hugely impressive and injury-ravaged Panthers outfit has come to Brookvale and almost spoiled milestone games for a pair of Manly veterans, before a throbbing capacity crowd erupted as a last-minute try earned the Sea Eagles an unlikely 26-25 win.
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Match stats, scores and video
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On a perfect Sunday afternoon, a hugely parochial crowd of 18,654 was on hand to witness Manly's most underwhelming 40 minutes of football since their Round 5 capitulation at Leichhardt as an avalanche of errors and penalties allowed Penrith's thrown-together and patched up squad to go to the break up 16-6.
But, in what was a frantic and end-to-end 80 minutes of rugby league, a Manly side that has repeatedly shown a complete refusal to go away somehow stayed in the contest and scored two tries in the final three minutes to break Penrith hearts. It gave retiring veteran Jason King a magical finish to his last game at Brookvale Oval and long-serving centre Steve Matai a victory in his 200th NRL game.
The win kept Manly in with a hope of earning the minor premiership and denied Penrith a guaranteed top-four finish, but it may have come at a cost with Matai on report, hooker Matt Ballin and back-up dummy half Jamie Buhrer both succumbing to injuries – with fears Buhrer may have suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
Penrith raced out of the blocks early with the help of some early penalties in a passage of play that set the tone for a frantic and at times panicked-looking first half from both sides that nevertheless proved highly entertaining despite the high error and penalty count.
In just the third set of the game – Penrith's second use of the football – Anthony Watmough was penalised for a push in the tackle before Tom Symonds was pinged for being too slow in the play the ball a few plays later.
With the visitors enjoying a full set at Manly's line, an offload in front of the posts from Kiwi Test prop Sam McKendry went back to impressive young hooker Kierran Mosely. Mosely's pass found a charging Nigel Plum who burst through to be the afternoon's unlikely first try-scorer with his first try of 2014 in his 20th appearance.
Some great defence from young five-eighth Will Smith helped shut down Manly's first attacking raid when he pressured Stewart to throw a pass into touch, before another brace of penalties handed Penrith a golden chance to extend their lead.
A nice pass out to the left from Smith and a brilliant tap-on from Matt Moylan to Dean Whare led to Josh Mansour barrelling through Peta Hiku out wide.
Again it was a quick brace of penalties that led to points shortly thereafter, with the Sea Eagles making their best attacking opportunity of the game count when Kieran Foran helped Jamie Buhrer through a hole on a run to the line to close the gap to 10-6.
Manly continued to hand Penrith opportunities through dropped balls but the visitors were almost as profligate, particularly winger Mansour who twice lost it trying to play the ball too quickly.
Despite that the Panthers were next to score and it came on the back of a superb dummy and run out of acting half from the debutant Mosely, who raced downfield to put Manly on the back foot.
Although that set finished with Manly working it off their own tryline, an uncharacteristic no-look offload from Manly skipper Jamie Lyon in the face of some determined Penrith defence popped up perfectly for Idris who couldn't believe his luck as he made the short run to the line.
That break in play earned Mosely his first breather of the game and Penrith immediately paid the price when, from the first tackle after the resumption, acting half Lewis Brown threw it forward from dummy half.
Again Manly handed it straight back via a loose Daly Cherry-Evans pass and both sides continued to hand the ball over, often early in the count, as the error count surged.
Penrith dodged a bullet in the 33rd minute when the video ref found an obstruction from Steve Matai in the lead-up to a possible Taufua try.
Matai was placed on report shortly after for a shoulder charge on Watene-Zelezniak – which came as the winger threw a forward pass having made a line break off a rushed Stewart kick, which itself came after he got into space from a Foran chip in an action-packed play that pretty much summed up the frantic half.
When an unlikely Soward attempted field goal after the half time siren sailed wide it gave both sets of players, coaches and the crowd a rare chance to catch their collective breath.
The visitors extended their lead early in the second half when Lyon threw his second intercept pass of the match, allow Soward to race 70 metres and shoot Penrith out to a 22-6 lead.
With the match returning to a semblance of normalcy and the frantic pace dying down, Manly began to win the arm wrestle and it paid off with a try to Tom Symonds when weight of possession began to count against the Panthers.
A Soward penalty goal shortly after restored Penrith's advantage to 12 points before some Brett Stewart magic put the Prince of Brookvale in open space, finding James Hasson in support to close the gap to six with just over 15 minutes remaining.
With Penrith almost out on their feet, another cold-as-ice field goal from impressive fullback Matt Moylan made it a seven-point lead with eight minutes to play.
With Manly needing to score twice in the final three minutes, King jumped on a prone Idris after Idris had pounced on a Foran grubber, and knocked the ball loose.
Manly immediately made Penrith pay when some more Stewart magic put Lyon over in the corner, leaving Penrith with a tricky two minutes to hold on to a three-point lead.
It turned out the visitors' lead wasn't enough as a Foran half break from the kick-off scattered the Penrith line before a series of passes and offloads led to what felt like an almost inevitable try, the shattered and exhausted Panthers unable to stop Tom Symonds crossing in the corner to steal the game with a last-minute match-winner.
Manly Sea Eagles 26 (Symonds 2, Buhrer, Hasson, Lyon tries) def Penrith Panthers 25 (Plum, Mansour, Idris, Soward tries; Soward 4 goals, Moylan field goal). Crowd 18,654.