It was a hard-fought battle in the heat at Campbelltown Stadium, as the Wests Tigers hosted the Manly Sea Eagles in their first-round encounter. After weathering the storm throughout the first half, however, the Tigers were able to put on a convincing display through a Josh Drinkwater masterclass to emerge Round 1 winners.
Tensions threatened to boil over early in the contest, when Manly prop Josh Starling was put on report for a late shot on Jesse Parahi. Opting not to take the two points, the Tigers were held out by a solid Sea Eagles defence.
The home side returned the favour 10 minutes later, holding up Starling in-goal as the game developed into a grind. Fatigue began to set in for both sides and so too did the errors; the Tigers were let off after absorbing pressure on their line after a knock-on, before Manly were gifted a similar fate. The game was locked at nil-all going into the first drinks break.
With the game still truly in the balance, the visitors suffered what would be a killer blow; a heartbreaking wrist injury to key recruit Tim Moltzen prevented him from exacting revenge on his former club as he left the field and didn’t return. The home side would be unable to replace Moltzen’s experience at the back.
Tigers’ winger John Tohi looked certain to score shortly after the break, but was held up once again. It took until the 28th minute for the home side’s fullback Watson Heleta to break the deadlock with a simple charge from dummy-half, converted by Drinkwater for a 6-nil lead.
The Sea Eagles would soon hit back, however, through a simple set play to the left-hand side. Winger Halauafa Lavaka crossed in the corner, but it went unconverted and the home side retained a 6-4 lead at half-time.
Scoring started early in the second stanza; Heleta combined nicely with much-hyped flyer Josh Addo-Carr to bag a long-range try under the posts. The damage was later compounded as halfback Josh Drinkwater put Nathan Milone through to score, unconverted for a 16-4 lead.
It was after almost an hour of play in the heat of South West Sydney that the Tigers really began to exploit the Sea Eagles’ defence; new recruit Drinkwater showed his worth once again as a second good short ball found centre Chance Peni, who extended the lead before the second drinks break.
In the final quarter, Manly tried desperately to mount a comeback; a slick ball to Ben Fritz had him certain to score, but was called forward. The Tigers made them pay soon after, marching downfield before Drinkwater set up Peni once again, this time through a neat grubber in-goal to register an insurmountable 26-4 lead.
NRL late scratching Feleti Mateo eventually found space for a consolation try in the 70th minute, with Dylan Kelly adding the extras. A break from Addo-Carr almost saw the home side hit back, but the Manly defence was too strong. They couldn’t contain him minutes later, however, showing scintillating speed and a handy chip-and-chase to score his second of the afternoon. Drinkwater converted to bring up 34 points for the home side.
The visitors weren’t giving up yet and with just one minute remaining they regained the ball from the kick-off. A nice ball from Tom Symonds saw Mateo grab his second, with the extras added for a 34-16 full-time score.
There were promising signs in patches for the Sea Eagles, but coach Luke Williamson will look to address their obvious fatigue in the second half – while also worrying about the availability of Moltzen. The Tigers took some time to find their form, but with Drinkwater steering the team around and providing good service to Peni and Addo-Carr, they looked very threatening late in the game.
The Tigers host the New Zealand Warriors in their Round 2 encounter, while the Sea Eagles travel to Ringrose Park to take on the Wentworthville Magpies.