Three tries in the final 13 minutes, including a highly controversial match-levelling four-pointer awarded to Kieran Foran, allowed Manly to escape with a 26-21 win against the Toyota Cowboys at Gosford tonight.
Playing their best football of the season, even though they were contesting their third match in just 12 days, North Queensland led by 10 points – and looked to be in control – until the game turned against them in a couple of minutes.
Barnstorming back-rower Jason Taumalolo was grounded just centimetres short of scoring – the no try ruling on the field confirmed by replays – and Manly broke out in the next set, going almost the length of the field to start off their late charge.
Even when they lost their lead, and were level at 20-all with eight to go, the Cowboys managed to get back in front via a Johnathan Thurston field goal under enormous pressure, but the real drama was to follow.
A contentious six again call on the final tackle inside the NQ 20-metre zone followed by an even more controversial ruling by video referees Bernard Sutton and Paul Mellor to allow Foran’s try when it appeared Ray Thompson had been obstructed in defence sunk the unlucky Cowboys who have had their share of bad calls in recent matches against Manly.
North Queensland now have a 2-5 win-loss record heading into a home game against Parramatta next Saturday.
For the Cowboys, Kane Linnett didn’t travel south, succumbing to a back injury to give Kyle Feldt another chance in the top grade. Matt Wright shifted in from the wing spot to play at left centre. Curtis Rona made his NRL debut on the wing while Glenn Hall came on to the bench in place of Joel Riethmuller. Manly reshuffled their backline after losing Daly Cherry-Evans to a leg injury. David Williams was recalled to the starting 13 from NSW Cup.
The Cowboys may have forced an error out of the Eagles on their first set, but it was Manly who managed to post the first try through a not unsurprising source.
Centre Steve Matai provided the finishing touches for his ninth try of the year after the Eagles attacked via always dangerous fullback Brett Stewart down their left.
North Queensland matched Manly set-for-set in the first 20 minutes and finally grabbed their first reward thanks to winger Kyle Feldt who leapt above David Williams before planting a Thurston sixth tackle crosskick.
With JT troubled by a hip injury, Feldt also had the goal kicking duties but his shot to convert went wide, leaving the Cowboys 6-4 down.
Tate’s double followed in a five-minute period to give the Cowboys a well-earned lead at half time.
Robert Lui and Thurston provided the lead-up to the first with the centre running into a gap between Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua and he then bobbed up again in the 32nd minute for his 80th career try.
Back as goal kicker, Thurston converted the Cowboys’ third try to put them 14-6 up.
With Manly making plenty of errors, NQ had a 60%-40% possession advantage in the opening 40.
Rona’s first half of NRL football was full of good touches as he ran for 83 metres and was responsible for a couple of fine tackles on Taufua.
Not long after the restart, the Cowboys tried to extend their lead to 10 but saw a Thurston shot from almost in front miss to the right.
In the end it was Manly who scored first in the second 40 with winger Jorge Taufua finding his way over in the corner in the set after the Eagles received their first penalty of the night.
Rona marked his outstanding debut with a try in the 56th minute.
Tate ran into space and found Morgan on his inside and as the fullback was going to ground, Rona appeared to his left and plunged over for NQ’s fourth for the night.
Thurston’s best kick of the night, from near the sideline, built the lead to 20-10.
One of the Cowboys’ best on the night, Jason Taumalolo, came close to adding to the advantage with 15 to go but was stopped just centimetres short, the video referees confirming the on-field 'no try' call by referee Gavin Badger.
With a possible 14-point difference gone, Manly struck back thanks to a runaway Taufua who capitalised on Matai and Stewart’s build-up work.
Kieran Foran clawed back another four points in the 72nd minute with his controversial try and then provided the killer pass that led to Jamie Buhrer’s match-winner when just about everyone in ground expected Manly to shoot for a last-tackle field goal.
The Cowboys managed to regain their final kic koff but were unable to find the try they needed to salvage a win.
Cowboys 21 (Brent Tate 2 Kyle Feldt, Curtis Rona tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals, 1 field goal)
Manly 26 (Jorge Taufua 2, Steve Matai, Kieran Foran, Jamie Buhrer tries; Jamie Lyon 3 goals)
North Queensland Toyota Cowboys: 1. Michael Morgan 2. Matthew Wright 3. Brent Tate 19. Kyle Feldt 5. Curtis Rona 6. Johnathan Thurston 7. Robert Lui 8. Matthew Scott 9. Rory Kostjasyn 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Jason Taumalolo 13. Tariq Sims. Interchange: 14. Ray Thompson 16. Ashton Sims 17. Scott Bolton, 18 Glenn Hall.
Manly Sea Eagles: 1. Brett Stewart 2. Jorge Taufua 4. Steve Matai 5. Peta Hiku 19. David Williams 3. Jamie Lyon 6. Kieran Foran 8. Josh Starling 9. Matt Ballin 10. Brenton Lawrence 11. Anthony Watmough 12. Justin Horo 13. Glenn Stewart. Interchange: 14. James Hasson 15. Dunamis Lui 16. Jamie Buhrer 18. Jesse Sene-Lefao.