From the sheds… Manly v Western Sydney Two Blues

MANLY 29 (Hunter Ward, Manaia Koko, Harrison Blake, Max Douglas tries; Kemueli Valetini 3 cons, pen) defeated WESTERN SYDNEY TWO BLUES 22 (Tuitakau Kioa, Faiva Faiva, Augustine Mafoe tries, Tom Curtis 2 cons, pen) at Manly Oval – HT 10-17

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A second half comeback secured yet another home victory for Manly at the weekend, as they fought back from 22-10 down at half-time to edge an impressive Western Sydney Two Blues 29-22. After a tit-for-tat opening quarter that saw Tuitakau Kioa’s five-pointer cancelled out by a home score from Hunter Ward, it was the Marlins who held sway as the opening half drew to a close, but they couldn’t find a way past some resolute defence from the visitors. And having belligerently held firm, the Two Blues struck with a clinical finish from Faiva Faiva to lead at the break.

When they then profited from a Manly error to open up a 12-point gap thanks to Augustine Mafoe shortly after the restart, the noise generated by the raucous travelling support hit new levels as the home crowd were stunned into silence. But this new-look Marlins side already has plenty of the hallmarks of their title-challenging forebears, and is very much in the image of returning head coach Phil Blake and assistant Damien Cummins. And having regathered their composure and put their foot on the Two Blues’ throats at scrum time, the pressure eventually told as they came home with two converted tries from Harrison Blake and the always impressive Max Douglas, to snatch the win and a share of top spot on the ladder.

What the hard-fought contest also did – in case there was still any doubt – was rubber stamp both Manly’s return as a genuine title contender, and Western Sydney’s seismic turnaround from a team teetering on the abyss, into a side with a realistic chance of playing finals football.

Behind the Ruck got the post-match reaction, and some reflection on their respective seasons so far, from both head coaches…

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Phil Blake (Manly head coach):

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Phil Blake – Photo: David MacLean

“They almost beat Manly here last year so they would have been buoyant in coming here and getting the job done today. Yes, we were a different team last year but so are they, they’re a completely different beast. They’ve done a remarkable job, as Hunter have, in a short period of time, and they’re winning games of football and knocking over some good sides. They’ve beaten Uni away and Norths and Gordon at home, so we knew this was going to be tough. We spoke all week about this game being a potential banana skin and that they pose a different threat to some of the other sides, and it turned out that way.

“We needed to find something today, because in most of our games so far we’ve been in front by ten or twelve at half-time. So for us to come back and find some courage, hang in the fight and get the win at the end, was very pleasing from my point of view. We’ve only had to do it once before against the Rats and we did it, and we did it again today and showed some character, and we had to because the Two Blues didn’t give us much. They upset our ball, they turned us over and they had a nice kicking game with a very good ten that they’ve got from overseas. I can see them making the eight, and to be honest, I’m glad that we’re not going over to Tweedale Stadium to play them again. To their club and coaches and players, hang in there because I think there’s more success coming.

“We probably had half a dozen entries in the first half and scored once, and the other times we just lost our way, were a little bit impatient, and didn’t look after the ball when we should have when we were on the try line. To their credit they fronted up defensively and we knocked it on a few times and it wasn’t going our way, mainly because of the pressure that they applied. They then scored right on half-time and just after half-time, and that put us behind the eight-ball at 22-10 down. But the message we sent out was that there were still thirty-nine minutes to go, so we just needed to gather our composure and play the Manly way, because we weren’t. We weren’t looking after the ball, we weren’t looking after the breakdown, and we needed to up the tempo because they were slowing everything down.

“Once we got a foothold in the game and scored that second try I thought we were quite dominant in that last twenty-to-twenty five minutes field position-wise. They still made us work hard because we got back to 22-all and we had a period of about fifteen minutes within their fifteen metre line and they had a man down and we still couldn’t break them, but in the end the weight of possession at the right end of the field told. Max Douglas ran a nice line off nine and it’s amazing sometimes how just a simple carry can score a try, but it was a result of all the pressure that we’d built up beforehand. They sucked up a lot in that last quarter and we got our reward in the end.

“‘Turtle’ (Damien Cummins) has done a remarkable job set-piece-wise and it’s been a constant work-on. We brought a tighthead prop over from France, Duke Nginingini, who has played the last two weeks and he’s been fantastic. It’s nice to not only have a set-piece from lineout but also from the scrum and he’s been a really good addition for us. If you can get a platform from set-piece you’re a different animal, and I thought we were quite dominant across the eighty minutes to the point where we were getting penalties on their ball. That certainly brought a smile to all the coaches faces because that hasn’t always been the case this year.

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Manly’s scrum was the platform for their comeback – Photo: David MacLean

“I’ll be honest, if you’d said to me in October that we would win eight of our first ten games in the first block of the season, I’d have told you to calm down! If you’d said five I would have been happy with five and to see how we competed in the others, but it’s a credit to the boys. The first day I met them I said that there were only three things I wanted from them – train hard, don’t whinge and play with a smile on your face. A lot of these guys in our top squad are thirty to thirty-five years old and haven’t been at the club before, or they’re in their first year out of colts or have come from interstate, so we’ve had to just throw them together. But they’re a close-knit and very harmonious group and we do a lot of things together, and if you get some wins it gives you belief.

“It’s not easy to create a program where you want the locals to come through and also add a bit of spice from somewhere else, but if you give yourself to the program then you’re a chance, and our other grades and colts are also doing well, which is great. We’re not like some of the other heavyweights in the competition that have got sides that have been together for four or five years, we’ve been together for ten games and one trial. So to get all these combinations working so well together is remarkable, and again that’s credit to the boys because they’ve knitted together well on and off the field. We have dinners together sometimes on Mondays, and those two or three hours when we’re eating and chatting instead of doing film work or reviews – you can’t put a price on that. Knowing your mate next to you and what makes him tick can make that five or ten percent difference you need in games like today, and we found it.

“I’ve surrounded myself with some really good assistant coaches, which I wanted to do. We train as a squad of thirty-five and their influence has been there for all to see, and I’m in a very fortunate position that I can rely on my assistants to deliver a really good program on the back of what I bring to the table. You need good people around you and they’re smart and they’ve been around. ‘Turtle’ has played overseas and at the Waratahs, and as a coach has been a part of Shute Shield grand final sides at two different clubs and won a comp. Myles Dorrian has got a lot of experience from playing overseas and as a part of the Rats when they won the Shute Shield, and Chris Delooze is very knowledgeable and has been a great addition and a different voice in terms of coaching. He was over in the Munster set-up in Ireland for a while and also at Sydney Uni and just needed an opportunity, and he and Turtle have been great. It was all carefully put together and the club is reaping the benefits at the moment.

“The first thing to do now is for everyone to go away and enjoy the seven days off, but when we come back together we’ll talk about how we’re going to deliver the program for the last eight weeks. We play Uni twice in that eight weeks, in rounds eleven and eighteen, and we know the nature of the beast that if sides can get one person back they could also get several people back. But you can bring six or seven players in and they don’t have the connections, and while we may not get as many back we have those combinations already and they’re only going to get better the more we play. My main focus is just to narrow everything up, make sure our set-piece is good, make sure our restarts are on, and on the back of that, make sure we’ve got enough football in us to score points. If we do that then we’ll be in the best possible state to be more than competitive at the end of the season.”

Sailosi Tagicakibau (Western Sydney Two Blues head coach):

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Sailosi Tagicakibau – Photo: Cecil Cheung

“We were in the game and in a position to win it, and it’s always tough when you don’t get the rub of the green – especially at the back end with the yellow card. But the boys defended well and Manly didn’t score when we had a man down, and their resilience was awesome. We played some really positive rugby and came away with the point, so there are some really positive signs and I think we’ve earned the respect as a club to be a part of this competition. The momentum is there to try and push on as a first grade squad in particular, and to ask questions at the back end of the season in terms of finals footy. A win today would have gone a long way towards that but we’ve still got eight games left, so we’ll have a good rest next week and come back hard against Randwick at home.

“It’s hard to tell with the dark arts of the scrum but I thought coming into this game that we should have been a bit more dominant. But they’ve obviously worked hard around their scrum and brought in some players during the season, and they were surprisingly better than I expected. In saying that, we need to be better at the set-piece as a whole, and that was probably the turning point in this game.

“You could say that we’re not great front-runners yet but it also comes down to game management and decision making on the field. We’re trying to play really positive rugby and have a crack when we get the chance, and in the second half I think we lost the possession and territory battles and that probably hurt us on the scoreboard. If you look at the first half I think we dominated there and they only got into our twenty-two twice, so it is a game of inches and this competition is really tight this year. I’m disappointed we only got a losing bonus point because I actually thought we got four tries but unfortunately it was just three. But that one point could be massive going into the back end of the season.

“A lot of my first grade squad aren’t Two Blues of old and there are a lot of new faces here, so it’s only the jerseys that aren’t used to winning because the players have come from good clubs around the world and here in Sydney, and they are. For us it’s just a matter of getting those new players all together and gelling, so when times do get a bit tough they know who to go to and how to manage those crucial championship moments. It’s all learnings and every week we’re getting better, that’s the positive thing. So we’ll go away and look at today and learn from it and hopefully come back in a better place.

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Faiva Faiva on the charge for the Two Blues – Photo: David MacLean

“Just being competitive is not enough. Being competitive is part of rugby, if you don’t want to be competitive you’re probably in the wrong sport. But given there’s been so many new changes to this club across the board I think we’ve been pretty good so far, especially in grade. We’ve got our second and fourth grade sides both in play-off positions, and we’re chasing that down in first grade as well. So in terms of being competitive I think we’ve answered that question already, now we’ve got to ask ourselves how good we are. I think the Two Blues jersey has a bit of a stigma attached to it and everyone maybe falls asleep and underestimates us a bit, but I think if you review our footage we’re a decent side. We’ve also got a good fanbase now and you can hear the chants and there’s a bit of a schoolboy footy vibe with everyone getting behind us, and that’s something the club hasn’t had in a very long time. It’s awesome and I think it makes grassroots rugby more entertaining for everybody.

“I’m not too surprised by how we’re going so far. I think I put pressure on myself to only get out what you put in and we work hard behind the scenes, and that was the responsibility I took on when I accepted this role. I have high standards for myself, as a player and now as a coach, and I’m trying to instil that into my playing group and into the club. Liam (Winton) is here and he’s already been a part of a championship winning program as a player and a coach, and we’re all trying to create something that can leave a mark and leave this club in a better place.

“Top eight was our goal at the beginning of the season and I think we’re fortunate enough to still be there after today because of other results. But I don’t want to just rest on that, I want to push on. I want us to be in control of that as a team and as a club, so if we can keep winning games of footy then we can keep pushing forward, and that takes a bit of pressure off the back end of the year and means we won’t be relying on other results to determine where we finish up. Every week has its own challenges but I’m enjoying it and I think we’re exactly where I wanted us to be. Now I want to see how far we can go and I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.”

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