The Sea Eagles drove out to Parramatta to take on the table-topping Eels, hoping to provide them with a true test of their much-hyped premiership credentials. Manly gave the home team a costly 16-point head start before winding them in and were desperately unlucky to go down 19-16, with a last-minute try ruled to contain a marginal forward pass.
It was also a test of whether home ground advantage means much in a stadium devoid of fans. This game would have seen a packed house at Bankwest Stadium and 30,000 fervent Eels fans are known to put more pressure on opponents and officials than any other group in the NRL. The five thousand cardboard fans, including a white budgie, were mostly silent with no "get 'em onside" calls or "Parra, Parra, Parra" chants.
The opening exchanges saw plenty of hard running up the middle as Eels Props Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard took on Sea Eagles big guns Martin Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake. Both teams were playing it cautiously, but still managed to make enough handling errors to frustrate both coaches. Campbell-Gillard in particular was having issues with his hands.
It wasn't until 15 minutes into the game, following back-to-back attacking raids, that the first points were scored with the Eels taking advantage of a penalty right in front to take a 2-0 lead. Five minutes later the Sea Eagles were afforded the same opportunity and levelled the game up again.
The Sea Eagles had one of the better scoring chances, 15 minutes before the break, as Tom Trbojevic put a charging Curtis Sironen through a gap ten metres out. He was met by a try-saving head on shot from Eels fullback Clint Gutherson.
With the Sea Eagles on the attack, Daly Cherry-Evans put a kick through which rebounded off the foot of Mitchell Moses. Moses was well clear of the pursuing Sea Eagles defenders, but instead of soccering it further downfield he attempted to dive on it and knocked it on. The Sea Eagles were on the attack again, but the Eels defence held them out again.
The next time the Eels were down the attacking end of the field a slick backline movement saw Gutherson cut Michael Jennings out to find Maika Sivo. Tom Trbojevic stopped him in cover, but he was able to shuffle the ball back inside to Jennings who somehow managed to catch it against his hip before diving over out wide. Moses kicked the conversion off the right upright to take the Eels to a 8-2 lead.
The Sea Eagles were having enough chances at the Eels line, but were being frustrated by the Eels defence and several of their attacking raids ended in handovers. With a six again call two minutes from halftime the Sea Eagles looked to be heading for the Eels line, but Tom Trbojevic tried to force a pass around the back of a defender and the ball was handed over to the Eels to give them the last shot of the half.
The Sea Eagles knocked on from the Eels' last-tackle kick and from the ensuing scrum Jennings passed it to Sivo who had Dylan Brown lurking outside. He managed a one-handed pass and Brown was over in the corner as the siren sounded. Moses missed the conversion, but the Eels went to the sheds happy with a 12-2 lead.
The second half started with a Sea Eagles' handling error, and with the possession, the Eels crossed for their third try of the night with Kane Evans spinning out of a tackle to crash over next to the posts. There was some doubt over the grounding, but the bunker sided with the referee and the converted try took the Eels out to 18-2 lead.
The Sea Eagles were in danger of losing touch, but an Eels error on their next possession gave the visitors a chance for their first try. The ball was spread from the scrum and Tom Trbojevic passed the ball to Jorge Taufua who slammed it down after tumbling over the line. The referee sent the review to the bunker as a "no try" thinking he had bounced the ball, but slow motion replays showed that he had done enough to get the four points. The conversion attempt faded away, but the Sea Eagles were now just 12 points behind.
Both sides exchanged sets until in the 13th minute of the second half Dylan Walker showed some individual strength, dummying and stepping off his left foot before reaching out in the tackle while on his knees to dot the ball down. Reuben Garrick converted from almost in front and it was game on with the score 18-12 in favour of the Eels.
Four minutes later the Sea Eagles chased hard on a clearing kick. Gutherson gathered the ball and threw a thirty metre pass infield to Blake Ferguson. He managed to scoop it up and face a wall of maroon and white jerseys, but fumbled in the tackle, putting the Sea Eagles on the attack again. The Eels defence held as the Manly attack broke down out wide.
With twenty minutes remaining Sivo took a high kick on his own 20 metre line. He took off down a narrow sideline gap before slipping the ball to Jennings, who weaved and stepped his way well into Manly territory. On the last tackle Eels hooker Reed Mahoney put a kick through from dummy half and Oregon Kaufusi was first to the bouncing ball, but was ruled to have fumbled the grounding. Another Eels try at this stage of the game would surely have pulled the curtains closed on the Sea Eagles fightback.
The big hits continued as this fast-paced, high quality game headed towards fulltime. There was plenty of feeling in defence and both teams scrambled desperately to end dangerous looking plays.
A handy penalty on their 20 metre line saw the Sea Eagles launch another attack on the Eels line, but the defence was rock-solid, Manly finishing the set once again without a kick.
With nine minutes to go a bust by Joel Thompson saw the Sea Eagles on the attack again, but a poor last tackle kick from Cherry-Evans ended the raid and the Eels worked their way back down the other end of the field. With a six again call, Moses took the advantage from right in front to take the Eels to a seven-point lead. His field goal taking the score to 19-12 with time rapidly expiring.
The Sea Eagles tried a short kick off and Eels centre Waqa Blake was ruled to have knocked the ball on. The field goal was looking like a very good idea as the Sea Eagles peppered the Eels line. That set ended in yet another terrible last tackle option, with Cherry-Evans dribbling a kick straight into the Eels defender's arms.
Next time down there though, the Sea Eagles ran the ball on the last tackle and slick passing saw Taufua beat three defenders to ground the ball in the corner. There was just over 3 minutes remaining as Garrick missed the conversion, leaving Manly trailing 19-16.
From the kick-off the Sea Eagles spread the ball right then left where Ferguson knocked down a looping Tom Trbojevic pass. It came down to a final set of six for the Sea Eagles and they were positioned well enough to take the lead. They passed the ball to the right and a Tom Trbojevic pass was controversially ruled forward as Garrick crashed over in the corner for what would have been the winning try.
Replays showed the ball drifting forward as Trbojevic was slammed backwards in a tackle. He appeared to have passed the ball backwards from his hands, but the 20 metre line made for compelling visual evidence of where the balls started and finished. Technically the pass was probably fine, but it was a call that could have gone either way.
The final siren sounded and the Eels celebrated a 4-0 start to the season. It was a great test of their resolve and they will no doubt gain a lot of confidence from the win. These two teams will both be playing finals football this year and another meeting would provide a further chapter in this great rivalry.