SYDNEY ROOSTERS 4 (R Tuivasa-Sheck try) bt MANLY SEA EAGLES 0.
Crowd: 32,747 at Allianz Stadium.
This game was without a doubt the most intense, brutal and exciting game of the year. Both teams tooketh the ball and beateth the living shiznit out of one another, both being left hunched over and out of breath like Clive Palmer after a flight of stairs.
The Roosters won despite not breaking the line once, losing the possession 53-47, missing 37 tackles to 32, conceding four line breaks and dropping the pill 12 times, yet scrambled like Sunday morning eggs to move directly into the grand final qualifier.
The conceded 12 penalties and received just five, but you got the feeling that the penalties never really hurt them as much as the bruising, rushing defence of a brilliant-in-defeat Manly squad that left Allianz having earned the respect of Roosters fans (by and large, anyway) and having been a part of the lowest-scoring semi-final in the past 20 years.
The Roosters scored four points in 80 minutes. Put another way: Brazil scored more points against Australia in the fucking soccer.
And it was somehow enough to win.
Staff here at 26 Rounds are still suffering from stress-induced haemorrhoids brought on by a last 20 minutes when the opposition threw everything they could at a tired, battered Roosters team that was cramping up but found something extra when they had to.
At the end the Roosters were like an old, trusty ’93 Ford Laser with just a millilitre of fuel left in the tank and trying to make it up Arden Street. They’d get to the flat spots, try and build up some energy for the next hillock and managed to get to the top somehow despite the sputtering– and now they’ve earned the right to refuel for two weeks and chill in the garage, get a tune up and a wash before they face another uphill battle.
Manly had their chances, but the Roosters were as dedicated in defence as they have been all year despite a Sea Eagles attack that asked a heckuva lot of questions.
The Roosters’ game plan worked to perfection: force them around and not through, and trust the scrambling defence to be able to figure it out. And Anthony Watmough’s inability to catch a grape with a fruit bowl certainly helped (although it must be said he did well to even play in this one, struggling with a knee injury).
It was a masterful display of defence from both squads — one that both sets of fans are unlikely to forget any time soon.
I’ll rephrase so as to not talk on behalf of everyone else: this writer has never seen a game quite like that and he might never see something like it again.
Man of the Match.
Peta Hiku got the Channel 9 Man of the Match, and he was outstanding so it’s hard to argue. This writer personally felt Jamie Lyon was the best player on the field — epitomised when he put a grubber down a narrow five-metre corridor, making 40 metres before heading out just before the dead-ball line, forcing a scrum 10 metres out. He is one of the all-time great club players and a borderline genius who put David Williams away for three breaks in the first half alone.
But here at 26 Rounds we only judge who the Roosters’ man of the match was, and in a game where no one made a line break for the Bondi squad and defence ruled, the Man of the Match went to James Maloney — whose career-best defensive effort stopped a number of breaks and an uncountable amount of spread plays with an up-and-in rushing effort where his reading of the attack was close to faultless.
He made 26 tackles, five of them one-on-one. They included a chase of David Williams and an Sattler-like ankle wrap that brought the winger down, saving a certain try. He also rattled Daly Cherry-Evans on a few occasions, and had he missed on those efforts the Roosters could have been in trouble.
He kicked perfectly all game alongside Mitchell Pearce, the pair of them finding grass much of the time despite the Manly defence having them camped down their own 40 for the majority of their attacking plays.
He also set up the game’s only try through the unlikeliest of Roosters plays — a grubber — and almost made the only line break for the Roosters but was collared and brought down.
He only just shades two monumental efforts from Shaun Kenny-Dowall — who I will discuss below — and Sonny Bill Williams, who made 41 tackles, seven of those one-on-one, and carried the ball 15 times for 116 metres.
There really wasn’t a bad player for the Roosters, and you could easily throw the sterling efforts of Luke O’Donnell and Sam Moa — who came off in the first five minutes with a dislocated knee cap but somehow returned — into the discussion. Daniel Tupou, Jennings, The Sheck, MP7, they were all good.
But this writer was most impressed by those first three. And he was happiest for the guy in the next section.
Shaun Kenny-Dowall. Incredible.
When Trent Robinson arrived at the club, SKD approached him and said he wanted to improve his defence. It’s taken a while to see the fruits of his labours, but following a year when he has been rumoured to be heading to Cronulla and been picked apart for poor reads and handling, the former backpacker showed that the hard work on his defence has paid off, with perhaps the best game of his career.
He ran the ball, got involved and played straight — but that’s only a portion of the story.
His defence — derided for much of his career and even this season on occasion — was at its absolute zenith against the Sea Eagles as he repeatedly made the right choice against Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua, who were dangerous all night but nowhere near as dangerous as they could have been.
His one-on-one reads were better than we have ever seen from the Kiwi centre. He was not the expected weak link against Manly, but rather he helped make up for the loss of JWH with a superb defensive effort.
He made 23 tackles as the Roosters forwards forced the ball out to the fringes, leading to an increased workload for the centres (Jennings had 24 tackles) — but he made four one-on-one and was involved in the monumental scrambling effort.
He has been criticised, booed, and all but written off this season. He has frustrated many a fan with loose carries and poor reads, and many saw him as the one link in the defensive chain that could be broken. But he’s missed no more than a single tackle in any game since his low point, a six miss performance against the Eels in round 13.
He was averaging 2.7 missed tackles a game at the end of round 13. Since then he’s missed just six tackles in 12 games and his reading has been much improved, meaning RTS no longer has to come in off his wing to assist (well, not nearly as much).
So if the proof isn’t in the pudding, it’s in the stats. SKD has stepped it up of late in defence. His last two weeks have been exceptional, and he is a big reason why the Roosters have come out on top against the Gulls.
I’ve been critical of his play this year, but credit where it is due. And he deserves a ton of credit here.