Patched-up Marlins edge Eastwood to claim top spot
Photo: David Maclean
Manly have fought against the odds to record a 34-32 victory over Eastwood at the Village Green and take top spot on the Shute Shield ladder, despite the loss of an incredible 52 players across the club as the result of a flu outbreak that severely tested their strength in depth. With a makeshift forward line-up that saw James Hilterbrand pack down on either side of the front row whilst also performing hooking duties at lineout time, the patched up Marlins scrapped and battled their way through an error-strewn contest that ebbed and flowed, and ultimately took their chances when it mattered to edge home.
Leading 24-17 at the break, they also had to contend with a ‘try-that-never-was’, awarded to Eastwood when winger Sam Dolores dropped the ball whilst grounding. But they were helped somewhat by the Woodies’ insistency on letting them back in for a score every time they looked like assuming control, and a level of ill discipline that further quelled any growing momentum. In spite of this, it was Eastwood that looked to have struck the decisive blow with a Chris Bell penalty in the 74th minute, only for Manly to go up the other end for Kemueli Valetini to slot home what proved to be the match-winning three points, when Bell then missed a final shot at the posts in the closing stages.
With Hilterbrand at prop alongside a hooking debut for Gordon Stokes, a season start for Maciu Natarau with Langi Gleeson on Super Rugby Pacific duty, and Valetini shifting to the centres, it was perhaps understandable that the visitors enjoyed the better continuity early doors, with some patient phase play testing some impromptu combinations. And from their first break into the opposition 22 they struck the first blow, Michael Icely kick-starting the move with a slick reverse pass to send Sam Dolores down the right wing, who fed inside for Josh Noonan to find everywhere-man Icely backing up for the opening score.
However, their advantage proved to be short-lived, Manly working infield off a lineout for Hilterbrand to rejoin the fray and power towards the line, and Dion Spice sending Hunter Ward into traffic, where the dynamic flanker was driven over under the posts with a little help from his friends. Valetini succeeded where Bell had failed in terms of conversions, and the Marlins had their noses in front by two after 12 minutes.
Buoyed by the score it was the home side that carried the fight for the next period of the match, and surprisingly increased their lead before the end of the first quarter. With Hilterbrand doing an admirable job at tighthead and Manly’s set-piece moving through the gears, they worked themselves into striking distance once again to set up a rolling maul. And when a potent drive was illegally felled by Icely a couple of metres from the line, there was to be no first warning for the Woodies as referee Tom Nicholl ran under the posts to signal a penalty try, and send Icely to the bin.
A man down, a slightly stunned Eastwood needed to settle and limit any further damage as their hosts continued to ramp up the pressure. Despite the slight reshuffle, Manly’s shape and structure across the park wasn’t faltering, and their desire to front up in the tackle and quell any chance the Woodies had to break free of their shackles was contagious. Time and again a dominant hit forced an opposition jersey backwards and pinned them in their own half, and the frustration was compounded by a penalty conceded just after the half hour, that allowed Valetini to make it 17-5.
Eastwood needed something tangible, and quickly, and they got it through the unlikely avenue of Ratu Tuisese. Picking possession up just over halfway, the bustling flanker fended off Semi Camaisala to carve a path down the sideline, and had enough air in the lungs and strength in the arms to further see off a scrambling Nic Benn and find the corner.
Another missed conversion from the normally reliable Bell kept the home side a score in front. But if Eastwood thought that would be the try that turned momentum in their favour, they got a rude awakening from the restart. A deep kick-off was chased hard by an eager swathe of Marlins, and after Max Douglas charged down a box kick from Noonan, the elusive Benn showed some impressive leg drive to get within range, and Maciu Natarau was in support to crash over for Manly’s third.
There was barely time for another kick-off as the clock ticked towards half-time. But if home coach Phil Blake was rightly proud of his makeshift side’s efforts in the first forty, they blotted their copybook right at the death by switching off and letting the Woodies in for an immediate retort. Back-to-back penalties got the visitors in position, and playing on with a penalty advantage their weighty pack ploughed ahead, their power game finally coming to the fore to open the door for Willie Leoso to flop over the chalk from a metre. Bell finally added the extras, and having had precious little ball to work with Eastwood found themselves just seven behind at oranges at 24-17.
No doubt lifted by that late try they began the second stanza with far more purpose and intent, Tuisese getting through plenty of work in the loose as they looked to get their ball runners – specifically Enoka Muliufi – into the contest. But having played their way into enemy territory, it was either a sloppy ball behind the support or some problematic handling that scuppered their chances of levelling the scoreboard. That and yet another stellar defensive effort from Waratah Douglas, who was proving to be a real a menace at the breakdown with his long levers.
The Woodies continued to press, their scrum now enjoying considerable success against Manly’s underpowered eight and squeezing out penalties with which to sustain good field position. Successive infringements had the home side in danger of a yellow card, but playing the advantage, Bell put up a crossfield kick with a shade too much on it for Dolores to gather in with no-one home. But a similar scenario from the next engagement resulted in the next score, albeit controversially.
Yet another penalty had the referee’s arm in the air, again Bell played on and this time fired it wide through the hands for the unmarked Dolores to dot down. Except he didn’t, he unfortunately dropped it cold. Seemingly, the only two people who failed to notice this at the Village Green were the referee and touch judge, who contrived to rule a try, despite the rather obvious clue given by Dolores putting his head in his hands in a ‘Whoah is me’ moment after his error.
The five points stood nonetheless, and despite another miss by Bell it was a two-point ball game with Eastwood firmly on the front-foot, until – and just as they looked to be assuming control of proceedings – they coughed up another soft score. Shifting it wide the ball went through the hands of Muliufi and Fabian Goodall, who looked to free his outside man only for the pill to spill to the floor and be scooped up by the alert James Ohmsen, who jinked his way into open space and showed a clean pair of heels to race 40 metres and dive home for the Marlins’ fourth.
The home side thought they were over again a minute later. A line break created by a pop pass from Douglas ended with Camaisala racing to the corner for what looked like his fifth try of the season, only for Goodall and Lachlan Shelley to combine and pull him up short of the line. But when fullback Ollie Horne was on hand to pick up the loose ball and dive home, the referee was in prime position to chalk it off for a knock-on, albeit one that wasn’t entirely clear. The gnashing of teeth in the grandstand was audible.
The see-sawing nature of the contest didn’t abate, and a yellow card for loosehead Kiernan Rabie on the hour for one too many scrum collapses gifted Eastwood another opportunity to take advantage. They didn’t waste it, some lovely handling stretching the tiring Marlins defence from one flank to another on their next visit to the red zone, and this time Goodall’s final pass found it’s mark for centre Kemeti Tuilagi to run in, and Bell to get them back to 31-29.
A penny for Ben Batger’s thoughts then, when he saw his lock Charles Granger eradicate that man advantage from the next passage of play after a late hit on Ohmsen as he cleared upfield. The ensuing penalty gave Manly field position with 14 on 14, but as they went in search of another timely hit back, a crucial turnover inside the 22 allowed the Woodies to clear their lines, and for everyone to take a well-earned breather.
With propping stocks at a premium, Rabie’s absence left Manly with no option but to bring on Inoke Fakai for what I believe was his first scrum in 1st Grade, and the flexible Hilterbrand to switch to loosehead to accommodate – both admirable efforts that negated the need for uncontested scrums. But it was after Rabie returned and Eastwood got another shove on to force a penalty, that Bell took the opportunity to put the visitors back in front for the first time since their opening score, with a thumping kick over the black dot. 32-31 with six minutes remaining, but what else could this curate’s egg of a match produce?
Well, for starters Hunter Ward almost matched Tuisese’s first half effort with a rampage down the touchline before being reeled in, only for replacement Eastwood prop Max Stewart to be sent to the naughty chair for skewing the ball into touch as Ward looked to recycle. Then Manly almost crashed home, only for an Eastwood offside to assist a turnover, and play to be called back for Valetini to restore the Marlins’ lead.
Totally in keeping with the mayhem that had preceded it, Eastwood promptly went up the other end and earned a late, late shot at glory when Manly were pinged for holding on. Up stepped Bell, three from six at that point and faced with an almost exact replica of his previous kick. But this time he had to contend with a barrage of good natured boos from the Manly faithful and the pressure told, the ball sailing past the uprights and the Marlins holding on for a victory against the odds that will be talked about for years. Their remarkable start to the season continues, while Eastwood will be left to lick their wounds and possibly reflect on their inability to control a game that had played into their hands so many times.
MANLY 34 (Penalty Try, Hunter Ward, Maciu Natarau, James Ohmsen tries; Kemueli Valetini 3 cons, 2 pens) defeated EASTWOOD 32 (Michael Icely, Ratu Tuisese, Willie Leoso, Sam Dolores, Kemeti Tuilagi tries; Chris Bell 2 cons, pen) HT 24-17 at Manly Oval
MANLY: 1. James Hilterbrand; 2. Gordon Stokes; 3. Kiernan Rabie; 4. Max Douglas; 5. Clement Fontaine; 6. Hunter Ward; 7. Maciu Natarau; 8. Manaia Koko; 9. Dion Spice; 10. James Ohmsen; 11. Fraser Toohey; 12. Kemueli Valetini; 13. Nic Benn; 14. Semi Camaisala; 15. Ollie Horne – Replacements: Wilson Dulieu; Inoke Fakai; Zac Barnabas
EASTWOOD: 1. Willie Leoso; 2. Ed Craig; 3. James Wayland; 4. Jordan Sharp; 5. Charles Granger; 6. Ratu Tuisese; 7. Harry Turner; 8. Michael Icely; 9. Josh Noonan; 10. Chris Bell; 11. Sam Dolores; 12. Enoka Muliufi; 13. Komiti Tuilagi; 14. Fabian Goodall; 15. Lachlan Shelley – Replacements: Max Stewart; Jack Parsons; Josh Nercessian