The Manly Sea Eagles have caused a major upset in the first week of the finals, fighting past the Cronulla Sharks in their elimination final despite having a stack of injured and suspended stars on the sideline. Here are my talking points from the game.
How does the Manly machine just keep rolling?
If you had of told Manly supporters at the start of the 2019 season, coming off the horror show of 2018, that they were going to finish just outside the top four after spending a large chunk of the season inside it, then win a first-week elimination final on the back of a ridiculously good defensive effort to set up a semi-final with the South Sydney Rabbitohs, they would have quite literally bitten your hand off to take it.
It has been a ridiculously good season for the Sea Eagles against pre-season expectations.
If it wasn’t for the Canberra Raiders, Des Hasler would be almost a certainty for coach of the year, such has been the magnitude of the turnaround at the club.
Given their incredibly long list of injuries and suspensions, and the side they were playing last night, there is no way on this Earth the Sea Eagles should have beaten the Sharks comfortably.
But for most of the 80 minutes, they were just that. Absolutely perfect.
While there are still areas to work on, and they need to go up the gears if they are going to win the premiership, an almost impossible task without Tom Trbojevic, this Manly machine is not one to write off.
Whether it was their defence last night, where they only missed 14 tackles in the 80 minutes, or the way they picked the right option at every opportunity in attack, there was little not to like about the Sea Eagles.
And while the side are outsiders to win the competition, it wouldn’t surprise to see them take it to the Rabbitohs with Martin Taupau back next week.
Only a fool would completely draw a line through them, because as they have proven throughout the year, grit and determination is an acceptable replacement for raw talent when you have the stuff in spades like Manly do.
Cronulla’s performance summed up their season
While the Sea Eagles should get a mountain of praise for their efforts throughout the game, there is no doubt that the Sharks simply didn’t aim up to the mark.
Whether it’s the hoodoo, where they have won just 5 of their 39 – now 40 – games at Brookvale, or whether there were other factors at play, they looked drained, out of it, and struggled to get into the game.
Right from the opening minutes, it looked like one team had turned up to play, and it sure wasn’t the Sharks.
When they went down 12-0 after back-to-back Manly tries in the first quarter of an hour, it seemed to set the wheels in motion. You could have almost called the game there, such was the importance of not letting Manly get on a roll.
Cronulla might have demolished the Tigers last week, but they were incapable of carrying out the same gameplan tonight, and it became impossible once they fell behind that early lead.
Unfortunately, silly errors, poor decision and soft defence at times sums up the Sharks season. When you have Shaun Johnson putting kicks dead multiple times in the first half, the ball hitting the floor, poor attacking choices and tries being scored against you like they were in the first 20 minutes, it’s clear which way the game is going.
There were some positive signs for the Sharks at times, but even that sums up their season.
So much potential to do something great, so little in the way of on-field delivery.
Addin Fonua-Blake has a case to be the best prop in the game
If there was any player on the field who deserved to get over the tryline for a try, it was Addin Fonua-Blake.
While he has always had the talent to do great things in the game, it’s not until this year where that level has finally started to be realised.
Not only has he cemented the starting front row spot in the Manly side, he has become one of, if not the best prop in the competition.
His performance last night, where he needed to stand up and lead in the absence of Taupau and a number of other key middle men, was outstanding.
He finished as the top metre-eater on the ground with 187, but his ability to be damaging across 72 minutes was also critical to the Manly success as they looked to maintain the rage right throughout the game.
Fonua-Blake has become known for playing long minutes this year, his fitness going to another level, but in a finals intensity game like that, to hold the level of performance like he did, is something special.
Out of those 187 metres, he also had 70 post-contact metres, while he had a line break, seven tackle breaks and a couple of quick play the balls early in the game, one in particular which set up the try to Moses Suli on the back of a strong charge.
He came up with a big run or hit whenever Manly needed it, did his share of ball playing and stepped up to the plate when Manly looked a hopeless cause coming into the game.
Paul Gallen will go down as a warrior of the NRL
It’s extremely rare in this day and age to get a player completing his entire career with a single club, but Paul Gallen is just that.
The former New South Wales skipper, who has experienced so much heartbreak during his professional career, is now retired following the Sharks loss, and while there will be the jokes about him losing more games than any player in the history of the NRL, having limited success in Origin and other incidents throughout his career, he should go down as one of the best forwards of this era.
Gallen wasn’t flashy, let’s get that straight.
Gallen was an old-style lock. Someone who wanted to run and tackle all day, every day. Sure, he could be accused of many things which de-railed teams attacks, but he was a quality forward.
What was possibly most impressive about the career of the G-Train was his ability to adapt in the later years.
While he built the foundation on running and tackling like some sort of supernatural force, when he began to get older and slow down, he was able to add a good ball playing and offloading game to his style, which gave him an extra dynamic and kept him at the top of the sport for as long as it did.
Love him or hate him, Gallen will be missed in this sport.
How good can Daly Cherry-Evans’ kicking game get?
While the defence of the Sea Eagles got a wrap up above, and should get many, many wraps in the coming week, it was Daly Cherry-Evans who was the orchestrator of their victory.
Cherry-Evans has played a lot of good games in Sea Eagles colours this year, so it makes the following a big call, but Cherry-Evans’ performance may have been the best of his season to date.
While his opposite, Shaun Johnson struggled with his kicking game and made some dumb errors, there was nothing of the sort from Cherry-Evans.
He forced a number of drop outs with his unbelievably consistent short-range kicking game, turned the forwards around when Manly were on the back foot with a strong long-range kicking game, and picked the right option when passing the ball more often than not.
Cherry-Evans has come on as the ultimate professional in 2019, with his game going from strength to strength, and if Manly are to make a push in the finals and get the better of the South Sydney Rabbitohs next week, which I think at this stage I’d tip them to do, then the man who controlled things against the Sharks has a huge role to play.
Roarers, what did you make of this elimination final? Drop a comment and let us know.