A virtuoso performance from Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks has helped guide his team to a commanding 38-12 win over a shell-shocked Manly outfit at Lottoland on Sunday afternoon.
Brooks and his five-eighth Benji Marshall were near perfect in an opening 40-minute burst in which Manly barely touched the football and the pulsating 15,546-strong crowd was quickly silenced. The halftime score was 26-0 which few teams ever recover from.
The Tigers halves overshadowed the long-awaited return of star recruit Josh Reynolds, who had to settle for an energetic and effective stint off the bench in the second half at hooker, although the result long since decided when he entered the fray.
Brooks had the ball on a string, setting up three of his side's four first-half tries, and scoring the other.
It was his finest performance of an already-impressive 2018 Telstra Premiership season and among the best of his career to date.
Match: Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
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The somewhat unheralded Tigers pack easily shrugged off the loss of forward leader Russell Packer (knee), with Ben Matulino, Alex Twal and Matt Eisenhuth leading the way through the middle.
For Manly, there were few positives. Tireless efforts through the middle from Jake Trbojevic and Api Koroisau were not rewarded on the scoreboard.
Second rower Jack Gosiewski showed enough to suggest he will be a capable replacement for Curtis Sironen. But really, Trent Barrett's men just need this one to disappear into the history books as quickly as possible.
Marshall said the performance was one which highlighted the development of the side.
“There were plenty of excuses coming here,'' he said.
''Not many people win here, they've won every game here this year, Russell was out, there was a lot of things we could have sat back and made excuses for but the guys who come in and did the job like they've done all year, guys like Alex Twal, Eisenhuth, a lot of not so much superstars are stepping up and doing their job. From a club perspective, it's pretty exciting the way we've started.''
"The second half we stopped playing and protected the lead a little bit. There are still things to work on for us."
The problems started early for Manly – a critical penalty on the last play of what had been an otherwise excellent defensive set in just the third minute.
A brilliant Brooks grubber – the first of many from him on the day – forced a drop out at the end of that set. His second deft grubber sat up perfectly for Chris Lawrence to open the scoring.
Another penalty and Marshall scorched through a yawning gap off a quick tap to force Manly to again defend their line. This time they escaped with a penalty goal but when Brooks sent Kevin Naiqama through a hole from the next set to set up a Malakai Watene-Zelezniak try the floodgates were well and truly open at 14-0 after 14 minutes.
When Manly finally got the ball in the 17th minute for the first time since the opening set they already looked spent.
A Thompson line break, a Marshall forced drop-out, an Aku Uate dropped ball straight off a scrum all piled on the pressure.
Next points came when Brooks darted over from dummy half for a well-earned try in the 31st minute then held up a brilliant short ball for Marshall to score off a perfectly executed set play and suddenly it was 26-0 after 33 minutes.
When the Sea Eagles finally trudged off at half-time to a chorus of boos from their home crowd, they'd suffered no further scoreboard damage but had been forced to make 213 tackles to 85 and held just 25% of the ball, having been out-run by 1053 metres to 360.
If they were to be any hope of a comeback, Manly needed a good start to the second half and to be next to score – but they got neither. An error in the first set was followed by a poor attempted clean-up of a Brooks grubber by Uate, conceding a drop out.
It didn't immediately lead to points but the Tigers were still able to extend their lead in the 45th minute when a vintage side-step allowed Marshall to bag his second.
To Manly's credit they stuck in the fight and managed to prevent further damage, closing the gap with second half tries to Joel Thompson and Brad Parker as the sting went out of the contest. A final-minute penalty try to Jacob Liddle – who fumbled a grounding after being illegally tackled without the ball by Daly Cherry-Evans – sealed the 38-12 result.
The win leaves the Tigers inside the top four (and equal second on ladder points) with a 5-1 record while the differential hit drops Manly below Canberra to 12th place with just two wins in six rounds.