There hasn’t been a swing to the right in the Sutherland Shire this dramatic since Scott Morrison got elected.
Manly won in a landslide at Cronulla on Sunday after peppering the Sharks’ toothless left edge to convert a 24-0 half-time advantage into what turned out to be a cliffhanger 30-26 victory as the visitors tired due to a glut of injuries.
Daly Cherry-Evans clinically and continually targeted Cronulla’s defensive weak link with the Sea Eagles running riot with five unanswered tries in the opening 40 minutes.
The upset triumph reinvigorated the Sea Eagles’ playoff hopes, lifting them to a point off eighth spot, while the home side is now staring down the barrel of missing the finals after being third a fortnight ago.
Cronulla have plummeted to sixth and with a trip to Penrith and a much further journey west to Perth the following week against Souths, they could be out of the finals equation.
Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon overhauled his left edge after their 44-12 shellacking at the hands of the Warriors the previous week.
Siosifa Talakai, Wade Graham and Matt Moylan were replaced by Connor Tracey, Jesse Colquhoun and Braydon Trindall, but their defence remained just as flimsy and disorganised.
“It was a new left edge, obviously combination needs more work,” he said.
Cronulla had a strong southerly at their backs in the first half but the Sea Eagles flew in the face of expectations to keep the ball deep in enemy territory for the overwhelming majority of the first half.
Tracey made a bad read in defence, rushing out from the goal line to create an overlap for Manly and Cherry-Evans found Josh Aloiai to barge over for a 4-0 lead in the sixth minute.
They were up 10-0 at the mid-point of the opening half when Cherry-Evans sidestepped his way into the backfield and his chip ahead was fumbled by Nicho Hynes to gift Lachlan Croker a try.
The Sea Eagles soared to a 14-point advantage on the half-hour mark when a seemingly innocuous Josh Schuster chip over the line bounced away from three Sharks into the arms of Haumole Olakau’atu.
It was 20-0 a few minutes later when Cherry-Evans spun the ball wide to Jason Saab, whose desperation flick enabled Tolu Koula to join the right-side raiding party.
Cherry-Evans knew which way to go with the last play of the first half, sending a bullet pass to Koula, who linked with Saab to send Garrick away for 24 unanswered points before the siren.
When Koula sprinted over for his second try four minutes after the interval, a cricket score looked on the cards with former Test captain Steve Waugh watching on from the stands.
The Sharks finally stemmed the bleeding with a Ronaldo Mulitalo try in the 46th minute and fellow winger Sione Katoa cut the scoreline to 30-8 midway through the second half but it was just window dressing.
Hynes was lucky not to be banished to the sin bin after he abused touch judge Belinda Sharpe when she ruled an overhead pass to Katoa was forward with referee Peter Gough remonstrating with the Cronulla halfback about his theatrics.
A Cameron McInnes try nine minutes from the final bell gave Sharks fans a glimmer of hope and when Jesse Ramien scored another a short time later, the deficit was back to 10 points.
Tracey put Mulitalo flying down the flank to kick infield for Will Kennedy to make it a four-point margin with five minutes left to make the Sharks fans who had left early to beat the traffic start second-guessing their decision.
Fitzgibbon was pleased about the second-half comeback but not happy with the first 40 minutes, or the refereeing.
“I don’t normally complain about the officials but I’ll have to talk to somebody (at the NRL) during the week because of what was going on there,” he said.
“If I start raising which issues I thought were hard calls we’ll be a while.”
The disallowed try to Katoa in the second half appeared to be a pain point but Fitzgibbon didn’t want to go into specifics.
“There was a real flat energy about us to start the game and I was bitterly disappointed. It ended up costing us. The ball never bounces your way when you’re not in control of the energy and it kept happening.
“We showed some resolve to get back in the game – we ran a bit harder, tackled a bit harder and that’s what we’re capable of when we do.”
Manly coach Anthony Seibold said he was nervous during the final stages and conceded his team gave Cronulla a bit of a sniff but “I thought for 55 minutes we were outstanding today”.
“We were left with one on the bench and they were coming to get us but we set up the game really well,” he said.
“We didn’t have much petrol left, I’m really proud of the guys.
“We scored 30 points in 50 minutes against a pretty fair side so I’ll take that every day of the week. I just need to fix up the back-end stuff.
“If we’d lost today it’s a long road ahead for us. I think we’re one point outside the eight now so we’re still alive.”
Big prop Taniela Paseka hobbled off with a grade-three MCL sprain after a three-man Sharks tackle bent his leg back at a dangerous angle midway through the first half so he is unlikely to play again this year.
There was conjecture that it may have been a wishbone style tackle but the bunker cleared the defenders of any illegal play.
Aloiai joined Paseka on the sidelines in the 62nd minute clutching at a dislocated shoulder.
Seibold said it had actually come out twice prior earlier in the game and he is also looking at a “significant amount of time” on the sidelines.
A third forward, Jake Trbojevic, was sent to the sidelines for a HIA late in the piece but he did not seem too troubled despite copping a high shot from Royce Hunt.
With mid-season recruit Matt Lodge making his club debut, his addition to the roster could be even more timely for Manly as they try to sneak into the finals.