Manly can lay claim to being the new “Fibros” after an undermanned Sea Eagles side stunned Cronulla 28-16 in Saturday night’s elimination final at Lottoland to continue their remarkable revival under master coach Des Hasler.
Led by prop Addin Fonua-Blake, Manly ignored the absence of big-name stars Martin Taupau, Tom Trbojevic, Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen to set up another sudden-death clash with South Sydney next Friday night and end the illustrious career of Sharks captain Paul Gallen.
With the heavy injury toll and suspension of Taupau, it was widely considered that the Sea Eagles had done well to make the play-offs after finishing 15th last year and the glory days when the club was known as the “Silvertails” seemed long gone.
There was even doubt until Monday night whether Manly’s ground was fit to host the elimination final after asbestos was found in the hill but the Sea Eagles continued their unbeaten record against the Sharks at Brookvale since 2008 with a dominant display from the kick-off.
Match: Sea Eagles v Sharks
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: Lottoland, Sydney
Without Taupau, Fonua-Blake took it upon himself to inspire the Manly forwards, who included three players called up from Blacktown Workers in Sean Keppie, Lloyd Perrett and Haumole Olakau’atu - the latter making his NRL debut.
Fonua-Blake, who carried the ball for 187 metres, laid the platform for the first try in just the ninth minute when he bounced to his feet after a charging run to execute a quick play-the-ball that caught Cronulla front-rower Andrew Fifita out of position as hooker Api Koroisau dived over to score from dummy half.
Fonua-Blake monsters his way to the line
Manly centre Moses Suli scored four minutes later after captain Daly Cherry-Evans sent him racing through a hole near the Cronulla tryline and winger Rueben Garrick converted from out wide to send Sea Eagles fans in the 15,495 crowd into a frenzy.
The Sharks had already missed 12 tackles and their woes were compounded when five-eighth Shaun Johnson kicked the ball dead for the second time in the 17th minute to give Manly a 20-metre re-start.
Sea Eagles second-rower Jack Gosiewski forced a repeat set at the other end with a deftly placed kick into the Cronulla in-goal and centre Brad Parker scored in the next set of tackles after pouncing on a Cherry-Evans grubber.
With his forwards unable to match the energy displayed by Manly and struggling from fatigue, Sharks coach John Morris was forced to replace Fifita and fellow prop Matt Prior midway through the first half
The injection of former Test prop Aaron Woods from the interchange bench helped stem the tide for the Sharks and star second-rower Wade Graham laid on a 26th minute try for Bronson Xerri with a cut-out pass that gave the teenage centre a clear run to the Manly line.
Trailing 18-4 at half-time, Cronulla had missed 26 tackles to just five by the Sea Eagles but they returned from the break with a renewed focus and momentum appeared to have shifted when Johnson put winger Aaron Gray over for a try in the 46th minute.
Cherry-Evans special sends Suli in
However, any thoughts Sharks fans may have had of a second-half comeback were short-lived and the return of Fonua-Blake swung control back in favour of the home side.
The Tonga international all but put the game out of reach for Cronulla when he pirouetted out of an attempted tackle by Jack Williams to score in the 52nd minute after Cherry-Evans ignored a call from the sideline to kick for goal from a penalty 20 metres out and in front of the posts.
Fullback Brendan Elliott secured the win when Gosiewski put him over for a 72nd minute try before Josh Morris crossed for a late consolation try to narrow the margin of Cronulla’s loss to 28-16.
Of the Manly absentees, who also included Morgan Boyle, Taniela Paseka and Albert Hopoate, only Taupau will be back for Friday night's clash with Souths at ANZ Stadium but under Hasler the Sea Eagles can't be under-estimated.
Since beginning his coaching career at Manly in 2004, Hasler has missed the finals just twice - in his first season and 2017 with Canterbury - and guided the Sea Eagles to the 2008 and 2011 premierships.
Should they overcome the Rabbitohs, Manly would then travel to Canberra the following week to play for a place in the grand final.
Brendan Elliot confirms Manly win