NRL Finals Week 3, 2007
Manly Sea Eagles 28 def North Queensland Cowboys 6

Their consistency wasn’t harmed one bit by the weeks rest, the Manly machine rolled on tonight – beating the Cowboys and showing no signs of going into their shells regardless of the magnitude of the match they are contesting.

With some late withdrawals for the Cowboys prior to kick off, with Jason Smith and Carl Webb unable to start – many thought the Cowboys would crack early. In reality it took about 50 minutes, the usually flashy Cowboys doing well just to hang on early, dodging bullets every 5 minutes as they saved tries and had others saved by the video referee.

With plenty of possession and well built pressure on the Cowboys early on, Manly looked certain to score several times but amazingly they could only produce a 6 point lead after a tonne of ball and field position.

The man of the hour was Michael Monaghan. The man Manly so desperately wanted to off-load only a few years ago was precise and controlled in his actions; making massive metres from dummy half and firing off some dangerous kicks – 1 of which earning a 40/20 result.

With the momentum all Manly’s way, the only concern was their problems when the Cowboys did get a set on their line. The Cowboys had two attacking sets in Manly territory and both times they scored, the first time – the try was disallowed; but with seconds to go in the half the Cowboys crashed over to tie things up with 40 minutes to go.

At half time, golden point looked a chance – with the Cowboys gaining some confidence and Manly shellshocked at only achieving 6-6 after so much attacking ball. Any thoughts of a continuing arm wrestle were blown away early, with Anthony Watmough charging over the line from a tap penalty. An opportunists try, a little bit similar to a Darren Senter special several years ago – sneaking over the line after a quick tap. This play shattered the confidence of the Cowboys, for the second time – they had their pants pulled down by a close range, soft try.

Once they hit the lead again, the weight of the world was lifted from Manly’s backs. The line breaks being achieved by Michael Monaghan were now been followed up by explosive Watmough runs and the kicking game of Matt Orford was stepped up a notch – turning the screws on the Cowboys. While refereee Paul Simpkins had a poor game that probably hurt the Cowboys with several bad calls, most certainly the better team won – Manly clearly the better team as they have been for most of 2007.

When Manly play expansive and uptempo, they put on more points.. Whenever they tried to get aggressive and overplay their hand – they invited the Cowboys into the game. Steve Matai again struggled in the centres, his aggressive up and in defence opened spaces for the Cowboys – but North Queensland couldn’t take advantage.

The Maroon machine clicked into gear by the 60th minute, putting on sublime attacking plays and carving up the Cowboys in all departments. Even when the Cowboys broke the Manly line, scrambling cover defence snuffed out most raids. Manly are very similar to the Storm in that they have a squad of talented players, all playing their part and smothering the likes of Bowen and Thurston. Even new winger Michael Bani handled his late call up for Chris Hicks with ease; the speedy flanker safe in defence and looked elusive with the ball in his hand.

Whenever Thurston ran to the line or paused to position a kick, Matt Orford was all over him – a one on one steal by Orford on Thurston over the Manly line was typical of the effort by the man they call the Ox.

Manly have the complete arsenal to dominate their opponent in the Grand Final, from the speed and injection of Brett Stewart, to the guidance of Monaghan / Orford, to the mobile power of Watmough on the fringe and finally the punch of Kite centre field – it’s power across the park that will have the other sides worried.

Manly will need to monitor some injury issues this week, Michael Monaghan copping a head knock and feeling the ill effects. Steve Matai injuring his shoulder and ankle, but returning to the game late. Niggling problems for Orford and Menzies should be no problem for the Eagles, both men continuing on and showing no discomfort during the game.

The farewelled Cowboys can hang their heads high, their young makeshift forward pack well beaten but showed experience above their years to hold the score as low as they did. Marker defence really hurt the Cowboys, they let Monaghan and co steal too many easy yards and the attacking platform that followed was like a charge of the light brigade as the skillful Manly side backed up everywhere.

After the win, Des Hasler and the Manly officials did a good job of keeping a lid on things – getting the team into the sheds quickly and throwing a wet blanket over celebrations. The experienced Hasler and his assistants knowing all too well that a controlled intensity is needed and will try hard not to let his players lose focus. Chris Hicks will be doing everything in his power to prove himself for next week, but his able replacement Michael Bani has given coach Des Hasler a big selection headache by playing so well tonight. Do Manly change a winning side? Does Hicks deserve his Grand Final shot on form throughout the year?

While Manly don’t know who their opponents are; if it’s the Melbourne Storm as expected – the Eagles have the likes of Michael Monaghan and Steve Menzies who I believe are the ideal men for the big game atmosphere of a grand final. Monaghan is cool under pressure and keeps things rolling along, much like his opposite Cameron Smith and the ageless Steve Menzies has been there many times before and knows whats required. The presence alone of these two men will allow their skillful teammates to do their job without getting swept away in the moment or cracking under pressure.

It will be a relaxed Manly side watching tomorrows final Grand Final qualifier between the Storm and Eels. I’m sure their hoping for a long, belting and bruising affair between their two rivals.

By ricky

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