The Wash-Up: Preliminary Final – Manly v Sydney University
Photo: Adam MacDonald
With only two losses in 19 games and the boost of home advantage, Minor Premiers Manly came into this one in pretty good shape. But they faced a Sydney University side chock-full of Super Rugby talent and smarting from last week’s Qualifying Final defeat at the hands of Southern Districts. The Marlins had their own powerhouse on board in the shape of Wallaby Wycliff Palu, given licence from Michael Cheika to wreak havoc from the bench. But perhaps the biggest obstacle for Manly was the weight of history, as they aimed to be the first Marlins side since 1997 to reach the big dance.
Uni looked like a team on a mission in the warm-up – fired up, feisty and ready to rip in. And they wasted no time in playing on the potential big game nerves of their opponent’s and their supporters with two strikes in the opening quarter of an hour. Captain David Hickey was perhaps the surprising name on the scoresheet on both occasions. But he was certainly the right man in the right place as Uni’s ball carriers carved a swathe through some less than stellar defence.
But just as the Students looked to be building an unattainable head of steam, Manly hit back. A Matt Lucas speculator down the line was scooped up by a rampaging Cadeyrn Neville, and the loose forward showed a clean pair of heels to find the corner. And two minutes later the Marlins were gifted a way back into the contest, Jim Stewart adjudged to have taken a Marlin in the air and sent to the bin to mull it over.
Lucas knocked over a penalty and four minutes later, Alex Northam was on hand to finish off a simple lineout play that preyed on soft defence. The conversion gave Manly the lead for the first time, but their resurgence was soon halted when Harry Bergelin saw yellow for cleaning out the Uni halfback. However, a penalty apiece for Angus Roberts and then Lucas left the home side ahead by one, 18-17, at the break.
Uni got a dream start to the second stanza, winger Matthew Narracott plucking a clearing kick from the air before leaving a trail of defenders in his wake as he scorched his way to the chalk. Roberts missed the conversion, but if you’d told anyone present that that would be the last time Uni troubled the scoreboard, you would have elicited a few furrowed brows in response.
And yet that’s how it played out. Manly stayed patient, stuck to their structures, and rode home on the wave of a boisterous home crowd and the enthusiasm, physicality and passion produced by super sub Cliffy Palu, to cross four times in the last 27 minutes with no reply.
Melbourne Rebels-bound centre Reece Hodge crossed first, before speedster Northam grabbed his second and Manly’s fourth after terrific work from Lucas. BJ Hartmann soon added a fifth, but it was the final five pointer, a charge down and runaway score from Palu, that brought down the house and saw Manly reach that elusive Holy Grail at last.
It’s been a long time between drinks for Manly and a place in the Shute Shield Grand Final, a fact perhaps not lost on head coach Damien Cummins more than most. He was a part of that Premiership winning team in 1997, and had been an assistant coach for the last four years as the Marlins fell one week short of the final day. But in his first year in charge, he’s helped break the 18-year curse.
“I’m relieved I suppose to get past today,” he admitted at the final whistle. “As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the semi-final has been a hoodoo for us in the last five years and it’s good to get that monkey off our backs.”
Two tries down after a quarter of an hour, it looked like the hoodoo was in full swing once again. But Cummins says the difference this time out was the ability of his team to stay calm, focused and committed to the game plan.
“14-0 down – in years gone by you’d probably panic and start to push stuff. You feel like the oxygen has been sucked out of the game and you feel like you’ve got to try and do something that you don’t actually have to do. But we were as cool as out there,” he smiled proudly.
“To be honest, it looked like Uni were having a bit of a training run for the first quarter, they controlled the ball really well. But as soon as we got some ball and applied pressure to them, we showed them what we’re made of too. Another score at 14-0 would have hurt but 14pts in rugby isn’t a big margin, as you saw with them last week at Souths. They didn’t really look like scoring after they got that try after half-time, and we left 9pts out there with kicks as well.”
“We showed a lot of belief,” said skipper Matt Lucas when asked what got the Marlins home. “We had the wind in the first half yet were down 14-0 in about 10 minutes, then straight after half-time they scored on us in about 20 seconds, so there were times when it would have been quite easy to say ‘Things aren’t going our way’. But there is a belief amongst this group that we had to get it done and that losing wasn’t an option. We just had to find a way and we did, we came out at the right end.”
The relaxed approach adopted this year by Cummins, his coaching staff and the leadership group, clearly paid dividends.
“It’s my third year here and in my previous two years, we’ve gone down in this exact game, so for myself and ‘Turtle’ (Cummins) and Kotoni Ale, who’s been a huge part of this group and still is, it’s been more about enjoying our footy when it comes to these big games,” Lucas continued.
“We had a little laugh, both at the 14-0 mark and again straight after half-time, where we stood under the posts and just said ‘Well that didn’t go as planned!’ It was just a case of sticking to what we know and if that happens, we’re a fair chance of coming back. We were out there to potentially play our last 80 minutes together as a group and hopefully, enjoy that 80 minutes. And if we enjoyed it, there’s a good chance we would win it and we did.”
One man who certainly had fun out there was Palu. The Wallaby no.8 gave a masterclass in the second forty minutes, of exactly how to lead by example when afforded the chance to show your wares at a lower level than normal. He played to his potential, and it showed.
“He wasn’t out there just to get some match fitness, he knew how much it meant for the club,” confirmed Lucas. “As soon as he came out there he demanded a lot from the group. He wasn’t there to fill a spot and have a trot, he was out there to get a win. He demanded the ball, he asked a lot from the boys, and they responded to what he brought.”
Given that his omission from the Wallaby squad meant he missed out on what would have been his last Bledisloe test in his home city, Palu was more than happy to do his bit for the Marlins’ cause instead.
“It’s a good second best,” he beamed as a bevy of young autograph hunters circled at full-time. “’Cheik’ asked me yesterday if I was keen to either train or play and I said it would be good to play. I haven’t played for a while so it was good to get 40 minutes out there.
“The last couple of years we’ve gone down in this game so I was quite nervous before kick-off, I didn’t want to let anyone down. But the boys really showed up today, that first 10 minutes they shocked us a bit but the guys fought back well and it was an awesome win.”
The moment of the match however, was undoubtedly the test veteran’s run to the line with 15 minutes to go. Realising he still had a fair distance to cover once he’d found himself in open space with ball in hand, he looked back a number of times in the hope of a speedy support runner before accepting the fact that he was on his own. But it was the sight of a familiar face that spurred him on.
“I had a look on the inside and saw Dave Dennis and I thought ‘I’ve got him covered!’ so I pinned back the ears and went for the corner,” he laughed. “But I was gone after that run mate – I was doing a fair bit of walking!”
If the try wasn’t enough of a memory to cherish from his first club match in a few years, the Damien Cummins-style pre-match experience won’t be forgotten either.
“It’s a bit different, yeah. Before the game, one of the boys got up and told a few jokes and that’s not the pre-game speech that I’m used to with Cheik!” he smiled.
Palu’s former Waratahs team mate Tom Carter was on the opposing side on this occasion. But he only had positive things to say about his old cohort.
“He was unbelievable, it was a great try and it’s great to see him out there. It obviously adds a lot of thrust having a world class no.8 on board and he did a tremendous job.”
But reflections on his own side’s performance were understandably downbeat.
“It’s shattering,” an emotive and brutally honest Carter admitted. “They exposed a pretty soft underbelly, which we’ve now developed. When the heat comes on, target our set-piece and then attack our wide breakdowns and turn our ball over.
“You don’t lead semi-finals 14-0 and then get rolled, and I reckon that’s probably been University’s biggest problem this year, we’ve had leads and let them down. We’ve let ourselves down in the biggest game of the year two years in a row now, so it’s very much back to the drawing board.”
Asked to elaborate on why the Students fell away for the second week in a row, the veteran centre felt that they simply didn’t have the same levels of patience and discipline as their worthy conquerors.
“I just think it’s the concentration of playing 1st Grade footy. We’re a younger side but that’s not an excuse. In big moments you’ve got to be able to go back to what you know and execute, whether that be a lineout, a scrum, a starter play, or a breakdown.
“They isolated us at the breakdown consistently and slowed our ball down and turned us over, and all credit to Manly. They’ve had the pain of two years ago and then last year, but they’ve been the best side all season. They deserve to be there and first and foremost, I want to congratulate them. They’ve gone 17 and two, and Eastwood and Souths have beaten us once and twice respectively, so they probably deserve to be there as well. Fourth again – it’s a pretty disappointing result.”
Uni head coach Chris Malone, in charge for the last time before he takes up his assistants role with the Waratahs, also paid tribute to a deserving Marlins. But he was also left ruing a couple of decisions he felt went some way towards deciding the outcome.
“Credit to Manly, they scored three opportunist tries and put us to bed in one swift patch in the second half. I think the fact that they went bang-bang-bang – we had opportunities to score after that – but it was probably a bit too late by then,” he conceded.
“We made such a great start but then let them back in, and it was only a couple of things that went wrong. We turned the ball over at the lineout in their 22 but if we score again there, who knows what happens. It then went back-to-back penalties, Manly score off a kick and Jim Stewart gets sin-binned for a dangerous tackle when both players were going for the ball and the game swung.
“It then swung back to us early in the second half and, had we got reward for a dominant scrum on their line when we actually get given a penalty when we’re about to score, that’s an 11pt lead and the game could have been completely different,” he continued. “But Manly have been very good all year. They believed in themselves and they came back and won. They’ve played well and it should be a great grand final. It’s just very disappointing from our perspective.”
The danger for Manly of course is that – having crossed a hurdle they’ve been trying to overcome for almost two decades – they may have played their Grand Final a week early in doing so.
“There is that danger,” agreed Cummins. “But all we can do is keep everyone grounded and just tell them to enjoy the moment, because you have a right to celebrate it. Then it’s a case of getting our feet back on the ground and worrying about next week.”
The key word – as it has been all season for the Marlins – is enjoyment. It is an approach that has clearly served them well thus far and as the old saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.
“The end of the season is what you should enjoy, it’s not a time to put pressure on yourself or for there to be a lot of anxiety,” insisted Matt Lucas. “You play the big games and have fun together as a group, and we’ve been trying to instil that all year. We had fun today, we weren’t concerned about the result and there was no pressure on us as a result.
“Grand Final week is a big week, everyone wants to be there and we’re the ones that are there, so it’s about enjoying it. It’s half the battle getting to the Grand Final and it’s another half to go on and win it. We’ve put ourselves in a position to win it, we’ve just got to enjoy the week, enjoy our last 80 minutes together as a group, and let the cards fall how they fall.”
MANLY 42 (Alex Northam 2, Cadeyrn Neville, BJ Hartmann, Reece Hodge, Wycliff Palu tries; Matt Lucas 3 cons, 2 pens) defeated SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 22 (David Hickey 2, Matthew Narracott tries; Angus Roberts 2 cons, pen)
Originally published by Rugby News on August 11th, 2015