A question. Could a busted Sea Eagles team, decimated by injury, lift for ‘Des the mad scientist Hasler’ one more time and send the men from the insular peninsular into the most unlikely of preliminary finals?
After the inflammatory mid-week comments from Sam Burgess around the NRL judiciary system and the impressive performance by the Sea Eagles against the Sharks in week one of the finals, many saw a potential Des-driven upset in the offing at ANZ Stadium on Friday night against South Sydney.
For Manly, it was to prove so close yet so far.
South Sydney started well and tries to Alex Johnston and Cody Walker in the opening 15 minutes sent Wayne Bennett’s team to a 10-0 lead, with the bit parts Manly side looking unlikely to threaten the Rabbitohs on their home turf.
Walker and John Sutton were brilliant on the left edge for the first try, while Damien Cook and Cam Murray combined well for the second.
Somewhat expectantly, the ever resilient Sea Eagles did what they have done consistently over the past month and refused to succumb.
Brad Parker crashed over on the left edge from a deft Dylan Walker pass in the 18th minute and after an Adam Reynold’s penalty goal for the Bunnies in the 23rd, Corey Waddell found the line for the Sea Eagles to bring them within two.
At 12-10 Cody Walker was sent to the sin bin for another foolish and irresponsible act that continues to blight his game and the Sea Eagles capitalised in the 36th minute when Daly Cherry-Evans scored after superb work down the right side from Moses Suli.
After Reuben Garrick’s conversion, the Sea Eagles took an unlikely 16-12 lead and the hopeful/prophetic words emanating from north of the Sydney Harbour Bridge appeared to be taking a physical form.
It took a late try from Cam Murray in the final minute of the first half to restore South’s lead. Against the run of play; it sent the cardinal and myrtle into the sheds with a slim and precarious 18-16 lead.
Podcasts of Des and Wayne’s half time addresses would be worth their weight in gold for those looking to forge a career in NRL coaching, with the final message so vital for both teams as they took to the field with their seasons on the line.
It was Manly who would take the early initiative in the second half when Suli scared the heck out of Dane Gagai for the umpteenth time and strolled across to score a compelling try.
The Sea Eagles 20-18 lead was short lived and the northerners were pushed well and truly up against the wall when Brad Parker was sent to the sin bin. His infringement saved a try yet saw the Bunnies draw level at 20 after a penalty goal to Reynolds.
Again, the resiliency of Manly was on show. Despite being down to 12 men, Jack Gosiewski scored off a perfectly weighted kick and the Garrick conversion sent the Sea Eagles to a potentially match winning 26-20 lead with just 22 minutes remaining.
Soon after, Jake Trbojevic held back a South Sydney player to commit himself to a stint of ten minutes in the sin bin.
That was the only invitation required by the Rabbitohs to make their stand. Sutton blasted his way across the line to score before Murray scored his second try and Reynolds extended the lead to 32-26 with his conversion.
The brave Sea Eagles effort appeared to have been extinguished with just five minutes remaining.
A late penalty after a Manly shot clock infringement sealed the deal and the final 34-26 score line sends the Rabbitohs down the highway to take on the Raiders next weekend.
Frankly, they need to be far better than they were against the Sea Eagles. Bar the late sin binning of Trbojevic the result may have been different, especially considering the earlier 10 minutes given to Parker.
The Bunnies advance, yet the Raiders will be licking their chops at the prospect of facing Souths on their home deck.
As for Manly? Nothing more needs to be said other than well done. For a side often tipped for the wooden spoon, Des Hasler moulded his troops and took them deep into the finals.