Manly moved into the outright competition lead and sent an ominous warning to their NRL rivals with a 34-6 thrashing of Cronulla in their top-of-the table clash at Toyota Stadium tonight.
A game expected to be a tight, low-scoring affair was anything but as the Sea Eagles made their co-competition leaders look more like wooden spoon contenders for most of the match.
Manly ran in six tries to one in front of more than 18,000 fans to move two points clear of the Sharks and Sydney Roosters after the Roosters’ shock loss to Gold Coast last night.
Backrower Glenn Stewart scored a double while Matt Ballin, Josh Perry, Brett Stewart and Michael Robertson also scored tries.
The result extended Des Hasler’s side’s winning streak to six matches and ended Cronulla’s five-game winning run.
A perfect first-half for Manly, in which they did not make a single error, saw them race to a 22-0 lead, with a try to Sharks captain Paul Gallen just before the break making it 22-6 at halftime and giving his side some hope.
But the home side was unable to get into the game and Manly scored two more tries in the second half to complete the rout and reaffirm their status as one of the teams to beat in 2008.
Ballin and Perry had crashed over from close range for four-pointers in the first half while Brett Stewart finished a fine backline move to score his 11th try of the season.
Manly drew further ahead in the 53rd minute when Robertson pounced on a Steve Matai grubber and Jamie Lyon converted from the sideline.
Glenn Stewart showed great strength to seal the first double of his career in the 60th minute and while the Sharks at least enjoyed better field position late in the match, they were never able to turn it into more points.
The Sea Eagles came out defending ferociously, with Matai, Orford and Glenn Stewart all pulling off huge hits on Sharks fullback Brett Seymour in the first half.
Matai was impressive, just a week after he was hospitalised with a bruised lung suffered against the Titans, while halves Orford and Lyon were instrumental.
Hasler was thrilled with his side’s performance, particularly in the first half.
“I’ve got to give our boys a huge rap,” Hasler said.
“It’s a daunting place to come to… and I just thought our opening 40 minutes, – we completed 20 from 20 (sets) – it was very disciplined, very sharp and we stuck to the match plan and were very clinical.
“It really set it up for us.”
But Hasler wouldn’t buy into the suggestion his side was the benchmark of the competition.
“Oh no, there’s a few sides out there.. we’ve got a tough month ahead … ask me in a month,” Hasler said, adding he wanted a huge crowd at next week’s home clash with Parramatta.
Orford, who came off late in the match with a corked leg, said he believed the Sea Eagles were a stronger side than they were last year, when they lost to Melbourne in the grand final.
“I think we are a better team overall,” Orford said.
“I think we’re more experienced for what we achieved last year.
“There’s still areas of our game we can work on and get better but I think as a complete unit we’re just really enjoying our football… and everybody’s playing their part.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen described Manly as the best side he had played this year while coach Ricky Stuart labelled his side’s performance uncharacteristic.
“We’re a better footy team than that,” Stuart said.
“We’re not where we are by any fluke so we’ll jump back on the horse and start again on Monday.”
MANLY 34 (G Stewart 2 M Ballin J Perry B Stewart M Robertson tries M Orford 3 J Lyon 2 goals)
CRONULLA 6 (P Gallen try L Covell goal)