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DCE and Johnson put on masterclass as Warriors and Manly can't be split after controversial Bunker call

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13th April, 2024
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Manly and the Warriors have fought each other to a standstill in an epic 22-22 draw in Auckland, with Shaun Johnson and Daly Cherry-Evans rolling back the years at Mt Smart Stadium.

The draw was, ultimately, the fairest result in an epic encounter between two sides who barely gave an inch across 90 brutal minutes.

Anthony Seibold might have thought that his side had won it in regulation as a late Johnson field goal came up short, only for the Bunker to spot an infraction from Josh Aloiai, who was adjudged to have made contact with the legs of the kicker.

The call was borderline, but under the interpretations as they are, probably correct. Johnson slotted the penalty to force the extra period.

“It’s probably something I don’t want to make comment on,” said the coach.

“Because if I say it shouldn’t have been a penalty I’ll be called a whinger. 

“If I say it should have been a penalty then potentially I’m not looking after the players in my group. It was adjudicated a penalty and we get on with it.”

Andrew Webster was unequivocal.

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“It’s definitely the right call,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate. I don’t think Josh meant it. He’s trying to charge the ball down. He’s going for a field goal and Josh has to do that. He’s got to go for the ball. 

“It’s unfortunate what happened, but it’s fortunate for us.”

Prior to that incident, it had been a masterclass in halfback play.

Cherry-Evans and Johnson have a combined 569 appearances between them and showed all that experience, running the show for their respective sides.

Johnson burst the game open in the second half with a magic individual try and put Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in for a late one to bring his side to within two.

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DCE scored twice in the first half and kicked impeccably, while finding himself on the spot repeatedly around bouncing balls to lift the pressure off his team.

The Sea Eagles shot out into a 16-0 lead, but were never able to put away a Wahs side that doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.

Manly, however, showed similar qualities in the second half as injuries mounted: Ben Trbojevic, who had been mightily impressive, departed with a hamstring injury, Toff Sipley appeared to dislocate a shoulder, Haumole Olakau’atu was clearly hurt late on and Lachlan Croker left in golden point with a head knock.

The Warriors were less battered, but did lose Jazz Tevaga in the first half to a hamstring complaint that looked severe.

This was a hugely high quality game between two sides that increasingly look like they will feature heavily at the back end of the year.

Manly have impressed early this year with an exciting brand of football and were not cowed by one of the most daunting trips in the NRL, doubling down on an impressive showing in beating Penrith last week with another expansive display.

The Warriors had plenty go against them, not least a few knock on calls that were dubious at best, but never grumbled and instead redoubled in effort.

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Much as draws are currently maligned in the NRL, this was a contest that absolutely deserved to be one. Only Johnson had a realistic effort in ten minutes of ferocious added time, and his effort sailed well wide.

Manly’s two pass trick

It’s hard to imagine Manly playing much better all year than they did in the opening half an hour in Auckland.

They completed at 100%, which helps, but also played with serious adventure, looking to go wide and from deep.

At the centre of it was Jake Trbojevic. Manly have often played off a middle service, but in the past, it was Jurbo as a ball-mover rather than a ball-player, operating too far from the line to make any difference in defensive decision making.

It’s not that he’s particularly interesting the line now, either, but what he is doing is changing the point of attack. Jake is a pivot point, allowing whichever of Taniela Paseka and Toff Sipley is taking the hard yards to play one pass further from the ruck, aiding them to win the floor more frequently.

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When they did get that quick play the ball, Manly were attacking on almost every play the ball that they won.

The second try was a picture perfect example: Sipley won a ruck around 30m out and the attack clicked into gear, with Trbojevics Tom and Jake both up around the footy and able to catch the Warriors defence disconnected.

It was Manly’s middle who were the major difference, Seibold focussed on making Addin Fonua-Blake work hard, both by moving the Wahs around laterally and by rotating his big men to target him.

For the second week running, Paseka began and Sipley came later, with the former catching the early punches and the latter upping the intensity.

Ethan Bullemor replaced Nathan Brown with equal vigour, using his low centre of gravity to hit the line hard and get to the floor.

Having done the fun part in attack, the middle then did everything to hold together late on as the injuries kicked in, first for Ben Trbojevic and then Olakau’atu, who was clearly struggling late on but played to the end.

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The guts were there for all to see. Nobody doubts that they can attack anymore, but Seibold will be very pleased with the intent and organisation his side showed despite significant adversity.

The Warriors attack still not quite there

The obvious place to attack Manly is on their right, where Ben Trbojevic was defending one out from usual at centre and where Jaxson Paulo, who often has a mistake in him, could be found.

Yet in the first half, those two excelled. The Warriors made three early errors in that channel and, when they got their attack together, were regularly stopped by Paulo on the jam and Burbo on the sweep.

It was perhaps a case of the best Warriors edge, the one with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, being up against the Tolu Koula-Tommy Talau combination for Manly.

Both Cherry-Evans and Luke Brooks were intent on kicking to that side and tiring the big guns out, forcing the Wahs to come deep out of that back corner repeatedly.

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The run of the game was largely against the hosts, but they had plenty enough to wrest things back in their direction.

The first try, from Tevaga, was all about Tohu Harris’ ball-playing and while the second was a gift from a Brook intercept for DWZ, the third was individual brilliance again thanks to Johnson stepping through from deep.

But over the course of proceedings, and with the game on the line, it just wasn’t there. Johnson can’t do it on his own and, too often, Te Maire Martin was absent.

With a Manly edge held together by good intentions at the end, Tuivasa-Sheck didn’t see enough ball and Wayde Egan, so often impressive this year, was muted by the huge amount of tackling he was forced to do.

It’s not quite drawing board stage for Webster, but this is now the second time this has happened at home. It might give the coach slightly, if only slight, food for thought.

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