Stunning late surge sees lowly Wests Tigers ruin Manly's NRL top-four hopes
These were the kind of scenes you would routinely see at Leichhardt Oval when Benji Marshall was here in his pomp. The Tigers have a long way to go to re-establish themselves as a premiership force but it is for evenings like this that the veteran premiership winner of 12 years ago is returning to the club.
A dramatic come-from-behind 30-26 victory against September-bound Manly had the iconic inner-west venue jumping, Tigers supporters who have done it tough during a challenging season retreating to the waterholes of Balmain Road with smiles from ear to ear.
The Sea Eagles had a chance to re-enter the NRL top four with victory on Sunday but the Ivan Cleary's men had their own ambitions in mind. In a battle with Newcastle to avoid the wooden spoon after the Knights' victory over Parramatta on Friday night, and down 20-6 at halftime, they stormed home as if it was them headed for the semifinals.
When wing Malakai Watene-Zelezniak crossed and ran around to plant the match winner with only 80 seconds left on the clock it triggered party time in Tiger Town.
"It's been ages since we've actually had a game where the crowd has been behind us. It probably spurred the boys on a bit," coach Ivan Cleary said.
Things were somewhat more muted as the Tigers seemed headed towards the wrong end of a thrashing at half-time. However, a pair of intercept passes thrown by Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic and taken by Tigers winger David Nofoaluma soon after the break swung the game away from that course.
The hosts had been erratic in the first half, Cleary said, but halves Luke Brooks and Tuimoala Lolohea grabbed the controls as they surged back, lifted by the atmosphere. Crowds don't win games but on Sunday it almost felt like this one had.
"The boys just get goosebumps," Tigers captain Aaron Woods said. "They start getting a lot more energy, they start running a lot harder and tackling a lot harder. They were enormous for us today, especially that last 15 minutes. It feels like people are right on top of you."
With Josh Reynolds arriving at the club as well next year Marshall will be a back-up to other playmakers but the symbolism of his return is not lost on Cleary.
"It's a good story," Cleary said. "I've mentioned a lot of times that there is a real change taking place but it's nice to have a link to the past. Benji has probably contributed to the club on the field as much as anyone and the thing is he wants to contribute in the future."
There were 12,208 at Leichhardt and the old girl was rocking early as the hosts, entering the match equal last on points differential with Newcastle, took a lead and set up camp at the northern end.
All they would come away with, however, was a rare try for back-rower Elijah Taylor, who pounced on a Brooks grubber in the eighth minute. Manly, meanwhile, were nothing if not opportunistic.
Five minutes later Api Koroisau ducked and weaved out of dummy half and sprinted away and Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic appeared on either side of him as he confronted fullback James Tedesco.
He went with the captain, who strolled over to score. The rest of the first half had the makings of a thrashing as Cherry-Evans and a powerful Akuila Uate started and completed doubles.
The pair of Nofoaluma intercepts then turned the game, however, as Cleary acknowledged. While he was successfully pursued the determined Tigers seized on their fortune. They narrowed the gap to two as centre Kevin Naiqama crossed moments after the second occasion Nofoaluma plucked a Trobjevic pass out of the air and then Lolohea showed his speed and strength to score soon after.
Tedesco's spill of a re-start gifted Manly a chance to hit back and they did just that when the smart Koroisau sent forward Lloyd Perrett in under the posts.
The Tigers, their spirit not dented, refused to give in, however, and a frenetic period featuring three tries in five minutes was capped by Sauaso Sue's jinking run to the line, beating Martin Taupau, Koroisau and Frank Winterstein on his merry way.
Then came the pulsating finale. Manly centre Brad Parker coughed up the ball in the visitors' own 10 metres with two minutes remaining and Brooks swung it wide to Tedesco and Naiqama and finally Watene-Zelezniak. The Tigers celebrated as if it was they had won the grand final.
Wests Tigers 30 (Tuimoala Lolohea, Kevin Naiqama, Sauaso Sue, Elijah Taylor, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak tries; Lolohea 5 goals) Manly Sea Eagles 26 (Daly Cherry-Evans 2, Akuila Uate 2, Lloyd Perrett tries; Matthew Wright 3 goals) at Leichhardt Oval. Referee: Chris James, Grant Atkins
- Sydney Morning Herald