When Des Hasler returned to Brookvale for the 2019 season, there was a sense of renewed optimism in the Manly Sea Eagles club.
After Wayne Bennett’s Bunnies made a resilient statement of intent on Thursday night against the Chooks, Manly had the opportunity to do something similar against the Eels on Friday night. They failed.
Much had been made of the obvious disadvantage taken on by Des Hasler’s team after the season-ending injury to superstar Tom Trbojevic against the Storm last weekend. Yet, when Parramatta coach Brad Arthur spoke on radio just moments before the match, suggesting the most important thing the Eels could take from the game was to ‘stay healthy’, a serious question arose about the Eels’ motivation.
That question was enunciated by the fact that Manly and Parramatta would occupy fifth and sixth on the ladder going into the finals, irrespective of the result between them in Round 25.
So a weakened Sea Eagles took on a de-motivated Eels?
In spite of those pre-game comments, the Eels brought their A-game and jumped the Sea Eagles early. Michael Jennings and Clint Gutherson found the line for the home side in the opening exchanges, before a Mitchell Moses penalty goal established a 14-0 lead after 22 minutes.
The predictions of a toothless Sea Eagles’ attack without their talisman appeared to be prophetic, as the Eels ran riot early. The opening half was all Parramatta and Manly looked a little off the pace, as the home fans roared in numbers and the Eels’ defence rarely gave the visitors a sniff at their line.
Manly did have a late chance to lessen the margin with just five minutes remaining in the half. Brad Parker slipped a nice ball back inside to Jorge Taufua after regathering a high attacking kick in Parramatta territory, before Taufua proceeded to spill the easiest of balls with the try line begging.
It was somewhat comical, costly and reflective of the Sea Eagles’ night. A late penalty goal did bring Manly closer after they hit the scoreboard in the final throes of the opening half, however the 14-2 Parramatta lead at the break reflected the flow of the game fairly accurately.
Two early second-half penalty goals to Moses stretched the lead, the second after Martin Taupau had been sent to the sin bin. If someone can explain to me how a direct attack on the head of an opponent – one that sends the victim off the field via a stretcher – isn’t worthy of a send off, could they email me?
Taupau was the luckiest man to remain on the field at Bankwest Stadium last night and Ray Stone’s injury and subsequent absence demanded the aggressor be punished to the fullest extent.
Instead, Taupau spent ten minutes in the bin, only for the New Zealander to return and have a significant impact on the game in the final 20 minutes.
The Sea Eagles were briskly awarded a dubious try in the 58th minute after the ball appeared to be clearly knocked-on by a Manly player in the lead up to Manase Fainu touching down. The Reuben Garrick conversion and subsequent penalty goal had the Sea Eagles within six at 22-16.
When Kane Evans emulated Taupau’s violent effort and was dismissed to the bin with just 12 minutes remaining after a brutal hit on Brad Parker, the visitors looked likely to level things up, despite the Eels being clearly the better team on the night.
Mercifully, Maiko Sivo scored twice in the final ten minutes to secure a well-deserved 32-16 victory for the Eels.
The result will most likely pit the blue and gold against either the Sharks or Tigers in the first week of the finals. That will be an elimination encounter and one in which Parramatta will feel quite confident after another impressive display against top eight opposition.
As for the Sea Eagles? Well, they look something of a blunt weapon without Tom Trbojevic at the back. Whether Hasler is able to pull a rabbit from his hat in the upcoming finals’ series is yet to be seen, however, Manly appear to be a brave but sadly spent force without their brilliant fullback on the field.