Another chapter was written into the Leichhardt Oval on Sunday afternoon as the Wests Tigers overhauled a 20-6 half-time deficit to rock Manly with a last-minute match-winning try in front of a throbbing hill of parochial home supporters.
Match-turning twin intercepts a well-laid plan
Tigers winger Dave Nofoaluma's two long-range intercepts off Tom Trbojevic cut-out balls swung the match, of that there is no doubt. Behind four tries to one and needing a major momentum swing early in the second half, Nofoaluma twice latched onto the rival fullback's long passes to not only defuse Manly attacking raids but set his own team on the front foot and the second led to his team's first try of the second half.
Nofoaluma had a blinder of a game, with a match-high 239 metres and 10 tackle busts but the two intercepts were the clutch play. Afterwards his coach revealed it was something that had been planned.
"We spoke about that during the week: Tom Trbojevic loves the long ball and he's really good at it," Ivan Cleary said after the game.
"It actually turned the game, I thought. It was a couple of plays that didn't just happen. We've been working on it for a long time. That's good. Teams come with a plan to expose it because it has been exposed in the past. That's a win for David, that one."
First-half margin flattered Manly, both coaches agree
The Tigers had plenty of attacking chances in the first half but couldn't quite ice most of their last tackle plays. Meanwhile Manly not only took their chances but also jagged a couple against the run of play. Unusually, both coaches agreed Wests were better than the 20-6 score-line indicated.
"20-6 at half time, I don't think that was reflective [of the game]," Cleary said.
"It was more they were scoring through [our] individual mistakes more than anything. That's not to say they weren't playing well but they weren't 14 points better. We needed to start the second half well which we did and the rest was history I suppose."
Manly's Trent Barrett, unprompted, had a similar assessment.
"Being up 20-6, we probably didn't deserve to be up 20-6 to be honest," he said.
"I didn't think we were playing that well. We just didn't make them earn anything that they got [in the second half]."
Tigers halves continue to blossom
While both Tigers halves, Luke Brooks and Tui Lolohea, were complicit in their team's failure to capitalise on attacking chances in the first half, each lifted dramatically in the second. Brooks's control of proceedings and kicking game were exemplary while Lolohea straightened up the attack and scored a powerful and important try.
"We went through a period in the first half where we were pretty erratic. We were breaking tackles but we were sort of all over the shop," Cleary said.
"We'd break a tackle, throw an offload, run sideways. We just lost our way and Tui was probably guilty of that. Brooksy was as well actually.
"The second half they both straightened up a lot. Tui when he scored, that's his thing. If he understands that when he does that more, good things are going to happen. Hopefully [that was] a great breakthrough for him in that regard.
"I thought Luke actually was really good. Just about every play he did had meaning to it, he was composed. More than I've sort of seen before. Hopefully that's a bit of a go-ahead game for him as well."
Manly fadeout doubly disappointing given prize on offer
To cede a game where you led 20-6 at half time is always going to be disappointing. To do so against a team well below you on the ladder who are playing only for pride while you yourself could finish the weekend anywhere from fourth to eighth makes it infinitely more so.
At half-time Manly were set to end Round 23 inside the top four; as it is they are clinging to the bottom of the top eight and desperately need to beat the Bulldogs next week to stay in the finals zone.
"It was disappointing. That's probably an understatement," Barrett said.
"It makes next week even more important. There is a quagmire of teams thereabouts and every game counts now. But I'm more disappointed in how we lost that second half. We didn't manage it at all. Their kicking game on the end of their sets was particularly good. Missed tackles and offloads in that second half on their outside backs really hurt."
Injury wrap: Tigers respond to concussion but Manly youngster suffers horror blow
The Tigers' win is even more impressive given they lost hooker Matt McIlwrick to concussion early on, after earlier this season losing veteran rake Matt Ballin to an injury-enforced retirement then young-gun No.9 Jacob Liddle to a season-ending shoulder injury.
The battled out the game with utility Jack Littlejohn at dummy-half before lock Elijah Taylor took over for the final 20.
"We had Jack Littlejohn come on, he hasn't played much at all lately, not really at hooker," Cleary said.
"We lost Jacob Liddle for the season a few weeks back. Elijah Taylor finished there the last 20 minutes or so and did a really good job."
Poor young Bradley Parker came up with the dropped ball that handed the Tigers their final attacking chance but it was under incredible duress – he suffered a serious knee injury in the tackle that jolted the ball free.
"He did his ACL in that tackle, which is devastating for Brad," Barrett said.