Students fight back in classic to end Manly’s home run

Photo: SPA Images

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It’s crunch time in this year’s Shute Shield competition, with the field jostling for position as it nears the final bend. But who will strike for home? Manly – having led the comp for three-quarters of the season – have lost four of their last six games. But their last run out at Gordon showed a return to something like their early season form, and they were eager to test themselves against the benchmark of the comp in Sydney University. There was also the small matter of completing an unbeaten home season, a feat that hasn’t been achieved for 103 years.

The Students came into the game on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run. And after being pushed all the way by Eastern Suburbs two weeks ago, they were looking to knock-off another of their title challengers, and add to the momentum that has gathered pace as the finals series and a potential fifth straight Premiership looms ever closer.

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The Marlins came out of the blocks firing, and desperate to impose themselves early on against their in-form opposition. They played with pace and used the full width of Manly Oval to stretch the Students, and with Josh Gamgee back in the starting role at no.10, they added some composure and control to the tempo of their attacks. Brian Sefanaia was proving to be a handful, while Tyrone Smith was at his bustling best alongside him in the centres.

With a healthy crowd urging them on, the Marlins’ domination in the early exchanges finally bore fruit, and they were able to open up a bit of a gap. Hard-working winger Luke Johnson grabbed the first five-pointer of the day after good work from Smith and Sefanaia put him over. And points-scoring sensation Adam D’Arcy maintained his kicking prowess by slotting the conversion and adding a penalty for good measure. 10 minutes gone and the scoreboard read 10-0 to the home side. So far, so good.

The Students were a tad shell-shocked, and had clearly been knocked out of their rhythm by the Manly assault. It was key that they got a foothold in the match to steady the ship, and from their next attack they were given the chance to set the ball rolling, Daniel Halangahu calmness personified as he struck 3pts on a day when a swirling sea breeze would punish any complacency from the kickers.

The home side were not about to shrink into their shell, and from the restart they continued to lay siege to the Uni 22. A terrific move down the right flank saw a superb tackle from the diminutive Jacob Taylor, as D’Arcy tried to step and take him on his outside. But it was only a matter of minutes before the visitor’s defence was breached once more.

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Adam D’Arcy bagged another 15pts but was singled out for aerial bombardment – Photo: SPA Images

Quick ball along the line found Sefanaia, who set off at a right angle with his run before cutting back inside. He made good metres before being out-numbered by tacklers, but still managed to turn and pop up a pass to the ever available D’Arcy, who said thank you very much to scoot over for his 22nd try of the season. The persistent gusts pulled his conversion wide, but a lead of 15-3 was still nothing to sniff at with a quarter of the match gone.

Uni had to stop the rot, and it was the experienced head of Halangahu that settled the situation as he began probing the corners of Manly’s half, turning them around, and taking the sting out of their attack. He also adopted a ‘bombs away’ policy for D’Arcy, applying pressure and testing his handling skills through a series of high kicks.

A tidy positional kick off the back of a penalty then got Uni down in the red zone with a chance to strike themselves. And a set-play from the back of a scrum saw Scott Stumbles feed quick ball to his supports, who carved through the defensive line and found the hands of Mitch Inman for a run to the line.

Halangahu’s conversion left Manly looking over their shoulder at 15-10, while his peppering of D’Arcy continued after the restart, backed-up by an aggressive kick-chase. The Manly fullback tried to meet fire with fire by putting up his own bomb, but came off second best in attempting to regather, and the game was halted for a couple of minutes to allow treatment following a hefty collision. Much to the home crowd’s relief, he rose to his feet and gingerly made his way back into position. But was his head clear?

The sign of a clinical killer is to punish the weak, and it was no surprise that with Halangahu’s next possession the ball was sent hurtling skyward once more. Whether he was still feeling the effects of the recent challenge, or whether he had one eye on Tom Carter, who was bearing down on him like a leopard that’s just spotted a lone antelope, D’Arcy spilled the ball forward off his chest and straight into the arms of his opposite number Nathan Trist, who sidestepped him and accelerated into the clean air behind to help Uni into the lead for the first time in the match.

Both sides went at each other with renewed ferocity as they tried to wrestle control of the game, with Wallaby discard Wycliff Palu doing his utmost to make a mockery of that decision as he brought his best ‘wrecking ball’ technique to the party. Uni applied some territorial pressure with no end product, before Manly took their opportunity at the other end from a penalty. D’Arcy’s condition had recovered enough for the simple task of knocking it over in front of the posts and they had their noses in front once more at 18-17.

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Nathan Trist celebrates Uni’s opening try with Nick Edwards and Mitch Inman – Photo: SPA Images

An action-packed opening half didn’t abate with a yellow card for Leon Bott just before the break, after the Manly winger had deliberately impeded a rampaging Trist. Tempers boiled over briefly in the aftermath, with Gamgee and Carter pulled apart and spoken to at length by referee Stu Dickinson. But Uni skipper Tim Davidson’s decision to turn down a routine 3pts and instruct Halangahu to kick for the lineout, didn’t pay dividends as the hosts held firm, and both teams went to the sheds just a point apart.

It’s hard enough to send a team out after the break against the reigning champions knowing their historical success rate in the second stanza, without then seeing current Waratah captain and 78-test veteran Phil Waugh take the field to replace Jono Jenkins. And his arrival coincided with a lift in intensity from the Students as they set about laying down a marker for the rest of the game.

Good early pressure drew a penalty, competently dispatched by their reliable no.10, to regain the lead. And they should have increased their advantage when Davidson found a gap, exploited it and drew the last man, before the offload to his inside runner was knocked on with the line begging. It was a let-off for a Manly side whose defensive line was looking increasingly fragile with each attack, and another penalty after they failed to clear the lines had the visitor’s up 23-18.

The game reached the hour mark with no further score, but there was no let-up on the big hits in the battle for possession, and watching Palu and Waugh go head-to-head at the breakdown was a feast for the senses in itself. Replacements became a factor for Manly as firstly James Lakepa – a tower of strength as always in the front-row – took a hobbling departure from the fray, before halfback Chris Cottee was given an early bath by coach Phil Blake as he reshuffled his deck for a final assault. Josh Gamgee moved into the vacant no.9 spot, with Tyrone Smith replacing him at 10.

But the changes didn’t have the immediate effect required, as Manly seemed to lose their way for 10 minutes and allow Uni to hit the accelerator and seemingly make the game safe. Halangahu waltzed through some static defending before feeding fellow Waratah Tom Carter on his inside for an all too easy score, and the ensuing conversion created a 12pt gap that didn’t look like being bridged.

Having watched Uni a number of times this season, and witnessed their uncanny ability to bounce back from a position of adversity in a match and turn it around in the second half, there didn’t appear to be much hope for Manly. Once the Students are in their pomp, they steamroll their opposition into submission. However, I was to be pleasantly surprised as the Marlins – in a display of mental as well physical strength – clawed their way back into contention, and showed reserves of sheer bloody mindedness that would have left coach Blake very upbeat about their resolve going into finals football.

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Wycliff Palu was at his devastating best for the Marlins – Photo: SPA Images

With 10 minutes left on the clock, they pushed the ball down inside the opposition 22 and set about disrupting Uni’s scrum and pushing them back towards their own line. The front row of Elvis Taione, Eddie Aholelei (on for Lakepa), and recent acquisition and new Western Force recruit Tim Fairbrother, really stepped up to the mark and applied intense pressure on their counterparts. By contrast, Uni prop Jerry Yanuyanutawa seemed to be carrying an injury, and was having problems with his bind as they packed down.

Sensing a potential weakness, the Manly pack drove relentlessly and caused the Students pack to buckle. And after the ref had reminded Yanuyanutawa and his captain of their responsibilities at the engagement and threatened cards, another almighty shove saw Palu break off and drive for the line, before a couple of recycles created an extra man for replacement John Payne to scamper through and touch down near the posts. The parochial crowd were still abuzz as D’Arcy slotted the extras to bring it back to 30-25.

The last five minutes were all Manly as they rumbled the ball up through their dominant forwards looking for a possible winner. As the siren neared they set up camp in the Uni red zone, and with shouts of encouragement ringing around the Village Green they worked themselves a golden opportunity, only for the tireless Palu to spill the ball as they neared the line, the chance was lost, and Uni had done it again.

What a fantastic game and yet another fantastic advert for club rugby. Two sides going at each other hammer and tongs with brutality and determination, but plenty of skill, finesse and high quality execution sprinkled into the mix. Uni’s nous and experience held sway, and Manly’s proud unbroken home run fell at the final hurdle. But they should take plenty of heart from the fact that they pushed the new Minor Premiers all the way.

There were some fine performances across the park for the Marlins with Palu, Fairbrother and Gamgee notable standouts. Gamgee had been a key figure in Manly’s fine start to the season, before a poor run of form saw him relegated to the bench. It just might have been the spark he needed to recapture his best, and on this evidence he could yet prove to be an invaluable figure as they head into the play-off’s.

The Uni juggernaut rolls on, but they certainly aren’t going to have it all their own way en route to the Grand Final. There’s going to be five top class sides alongside them in the finals, and all will fancy their chances of taking down the favourites. However, what remains is what this team has over their rivals in terms of the experience of having been there and done it all before. And when the going gets tough, they simply don’t know the meaning of the word defeat.

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SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 30 (Mitch Inman, Nathan Trist, Tom Carter tries; Daniel Halangahu 3 cons, 3 pens) defeated MANLY 25 (Luke Johnson, Adam D’Arcy, John Payne tries; Adam D’Arcy 2 cons, 2 pens) HT 17-18 at Manly Oval

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FINAL THOUGHTS:

Sydney University head coach Damien Hill:

“It was a fantastic game. I don’t think Manly have lost here all year and they aimed right up. We’re lucky that we’ve had Easts last week, Manly today, and Eastwood next. We couldn’t ask for a better run in terms of the toughness of our games going into the finals.

“We’re still building. Our lineout wasn’t as sharp as it should have been, our scrum was a little bit inconsistent, and our phase play could have been a lot better. We’re never really satisfied with what we’re doing, and we know we’ve got to keep improving because other teams are always catching us up.

“The ability to play for 80 minutes reflects the hard work that these guys put in. If you can stay within reach of the other top teams for the first 20 minutes, then we know we’re in with a real good chance. But I think it’s a good reflection on our strength and conditioning, and how hard these guys actually work.

“Eastwood haven’t got much to lose so they’ll be throwing everything at us next week. I don’t think it particularly matters if we played them at Eastwood or at home, they’ll be coming with all guns blazing, so we expect another hard battle.”

Manly assistant coach Matt McGoldrick:

“They somehow just keep finding a way to win don’t they? Halangahu carved us up in the first round but I thought we did an ok job on him today, although he set up a try which is par for the course. D’Arcy got caught just being a little bit deep at times, and Halangahu’s so smart he just kept throwing it up there. But the little fella showed plenty of courage, he was good for us today.

“We were really our own worst enemy at times. We played great footy for probably 70 minutes, but as everyone keeps saying, 70 is not going to do it. It was a great game of footy. They got up but our guys are all sitting there going ‘You know what, we can give this thing a shake’.

“I don’t reckon any other team in the comp would have beaten us today. We’re probably close to where we want to be and we’ve still got a long way to go. But I think we’re going to take some beating moving forward. If we win next week at Easts, we’ll be fine. We’re in the six and that bonus point could be important.”

Sydney University captain Tim Davidson:

“Full credit to Manly, they really stuck it to us, especially in that first half. We were really run off our feet and they were coming at us with speed, and it was hard to defend against. Fortunately, we were pretty patient and we’ve got quite a bit of experience in this Uni side which has held us in good stead, and we knew if we just kept chipping away that we’d find the holes out wide. It could have gone either way, they got a pretty good sniff at the end there and there was only a few points in it. But I think that’s the closest game to finals-type footy that you’ll see.

“They’ve been undefeated here all year, which is a really hard task and they weren’t going to lie down for us. The crowd support here’s fantastic and it’s like having 16 players on the field. We know that if we’re in the game at half-time we’ve just got to tweak a couple of things, and maybe lift the intensity that extra five percent that we’re finding teams are struggling to keep up with. But having said that, if Manly had got the bounce of the ball in that second half and especially towards the end, it could have gone the other way.”

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Manly: 1. James Lakepa; 2. Elvis Taione; 3. Tim Fairbrother; 4. Will Munsie; 5. Ryan Melrose; 6. Daniel Collins; 7. Cristobal Westernenk; 8. Will Brame; 9. Chris Cottee; 10. Josh Gamgee; 11. Leon Bott; 12. Brian Sefanaia; 13. Tyrone Smith; 14. Luke Johnson; 15. Adam D’Arcy

Sydney University: 1. Jerry Yanuyanutawa; 2. Ben Roberts; 3. Paddy Ryan; 4. Dave Dennis; 5. Ben McCalman; 6. Pat McCutcheon; 7. Jono Jenkins; 8. Tim Davidson [c]; 9. Scott Stumbles; 10. Daniel Halangahu; 11. Jacob Taylor; 12. Tom Carter; 13. Mitch Inman; 14. Nick Edwards; 15. Nathan Trist

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First published by clubrugby.com.au on September 1st, 2009

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