Melbourne might just have given Manly a major psychological blow ahead of the NRL Top 8 finals, grinding out an incredibly gutsy 16-10 win over a gallant Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval. It was an intense match, a high quality and full of feeling – as Manly turned the blow torch on to Melbourne in much the same way the St George Illawarra Dragons did only a few short weeks ago.
Manly more than matched the defending premiers for much of the torrid clash, but two pieces of individual brilliance tipped the balance of power Melbourne’s way.
The Sea Eagles were unable to shut down a Cooper Cronk inside ball to Billy Slater, and the Origin star did the rest, producing a stunning one-arm offload to a flying Matt Geyer to open the scoring in the eighth minute.
Slater looked to have gone from hero to villain in an instant shortly after when he butchered an Orford bomb and Brett Stewart was on the spot to dive over, but the video ref saw it differently, penalising Stewart for pushing Anthony Quinn in the lead up.
The home side finally got on the board courtesy of a charging Glenn Hall in the 16th minute, with Steve Matai’s conversion locking it up at six all.
But with the game locked a 6-all with less than sixty seconds left in a hotly contested first half, the Storm’s premiership quality came to the fore.
Cooper Cronk again utilised his almost-telepathic connection with Slater, putting a chip over the top on his own 40 that was picked up masterfully by the Storm custodian, before linking with Israel Folau who streaked away to burn the home side.
Smith’s sideline conversion was unsuccessful, leaving the Storm 10-6 in front at the break, a gutting end to an impressive half from the Sea Eagles.
Manly again found themselves on the wrong side of a contentious decision early in 48th minute, and again it cost the home side points.
Brett Stewart was ruled to have knocked on when contesting the ball with Adam Blair, and the Sea Eagles were unable to diffuse the Melbourne repeat set, as a determined Cronk forced his way over for Melbourne’s third try.
Smith’s conversion was on target to make it 16-6, leaving the Sea Eagles an enormous mountain to climb in the final half hour.
But the Sea Eagles replied almost immediately, catching out a compressed Storm defence on the right edge to go over through David Williams to cut the deficit to 16-10.
Every man and his dog predicted fireworks in this clash of premiership heavyweights – and boy, were they right.
Brent Kite took offence to some extra attention in a tackle from Michael Crocker, and it was on, as both sides came to blows.
Tensions again boiled over mid-way through the second half when Steven Bell took exception to an Anthony Quinn tackle on Williams, but the Sea Eagles couldn’t land a killer blow in the closing stages as basic skill errors continued to let them down.
The Storm seemed to be doing everything to hand the Sea Eagles victory with a number of uncharacteristic handling errors, but Manly couldn’t crack it for a try in a desperate final few minutes, as the Storm held on for a gutsy win.
MELBOURNE 16 (C Cronk I Folau M Geyer tries C Smith 2 goals)
MANLY 10 (G Hall D Williams tries S Matai goal)