Manly 17 - 18 Bulldogs – Saturday 20th September 7.55pm Allianz Stadium
It has taken me a few days to get my head around writing the post-match review for this game.
Before the game, I felt strangely calm, knowing that Manly had their backs to the wall and would need to produce something special to win. Our forward depth was tested to the max and nobody really thought we could win this game.
Personally, I was just hoping we would win, but realistically hoping we would improve on the previous few weeks and be “competitive”.
This calmness turned to dust as soon as the game started, and I went into Finals mode. I was screaming at every half break, cursing at every error and swearing my head off. It was a terrible start by Manly, with the Bulldogs scoring down both flanks, then a soft try up the middle.
But even at 16-0 I never really felt Manly were throwing in the towel, I just put this bad start down to a few positional changes and new faces. Horo playing dummy half, Harrison coming into the side, no Watmough defending in the middle, and our two tackling machines out for a couple of weeks in Ballin and Buhrer. Plus we had our key play-maker kicking out on the full and knocking on. I just felt we needed to score next to gain some confidence.
Then out of nowhere, young Jayden Hodges ducked between a couple of forwards and scored a soft try from dummy-half, right near half time. This gave Manly an emotional lift going into the break, after the Bulldogs had completely dominated the opening half, cutting Manly to shreds particularly down the Manly left side. It really could have been 28 or 30 nil at one stage if the Bulldogs showed some patience. Tim Lafai is going to be a real handful in the next few years.
But now the game had changed, and the next try scorer in the second half would be extremely important.
Manly had the better of the running, and gained in confidence, but it still took over 20 minutes for them to crack the Dogs line. It was Brett Stewart, with a brilliant individual try, in his 200th game that ensured we would have a grand stand final 15 minutes or so.
The momentum was clearly with Manly now, and when Ennis had the whoopsies and gifted Blair a try, all of a sudden it was 16 all and Lyon had a chance to put Manly in front for the first time. But alas he missed, and not too surprisingly, given he is not one of the genuine sharp shooters in the NRL.
For the Final 9 minutes, the Bulldogs would have to do this without Maitua, who landed a punch on Hasson after the Blair try. Manly managed to hang on when Starling was sin binned earlier, so the Bulldogs had to show similar grit now.
Some fortune went the way of the Dogs when Reynolds kicked on the last tackle, straight into the referee, who had no option but to award the Dogs a scrum. A crazy rule in the modern game, but the rule none the less. The Bulldogs, with luck on their side, kicked the Field Goal to lead 17-16.
But when Manly looked out, an inspirational run from deep in his half from Hiku put Manly on the front foot, and Cherry-Evans was able to level the scores with a Field Goal of his own. With just around 1 minute on the clock, we were destined for Golden Point.
Manly continued to have the momentum in this game, but missed a couple of opportunities for a Field Goal. Cherry-Evans had a clear shot on the 4th tackle right in front, but opted to pass. The very next play, with Reynolds a mile offside, Cherry-Evans passed to Stewart, who missed from right in front. The referees were clearly afraid to penalise Reynolds, despite calls from the touch judge to he was offside.
From the next set, the Bulldogs marched down-field, and the Iceman Hodkinson slotted the Field Goal.
Just like that, the season was over.
I was left stunned. I sat in total darkness and silence for a good 10 or 15 minutes, wondering what just happened. That is why we love our League. No other game in my life brings out these emotions.
I am proud of Manly for coming back, showing real grit and spirit.
But at the same time I feel hollow, because I want them to win, and win at all costs, and shove it to the doubters and the haters.
But now, us Manly fans can relax and enjoy the rest of the season, stress free.
Was this the most dramatic Manly Finals game since Manly lost to Newcastle in 1997?
What sticks out most for you in this game?