Shark pounces … Cronulla's John Williams tackles Manly's Michael Oldfield at Toyota Park last night, closely watched by Todd Carney. Photo: Steve Christo
We are told that rugby league is a great leveller. Praised just about every day of the first three weeks of the season, Manly players will wake this morning feeling around for a significant chink in the armour. Not only were they outplayed by Cronulla last night, but one of their most dangerous weapons, Tony Williams, faces a suspension for an ugly dangerous throw.
A week is a long time in rugby league? Try 80 minutes is a long time in rugby league. Two wins from the opening rounds had everyone wondering whether the loss of Des Hasler was such a great one, but now there will be some doubts surfacing. New coach Geoff Toovey will face a stern test to regather his team after his first defeat. Is it merely a blip on his club's famed radar or a sign of things to come? By the looks of his reaction from the coach's box, Toovey felt every tackle, as well as every dropped ball - especially the final two that ultimately killed off his team's late - and certainly great - fightback.
"While halfback Daly Cherry-Evans ... suffered a blow to his early-season confidence, the former bright young thing Todd Carney experienced the opposite." Photo: Steve Christo
And while halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, the new young star of the competition who was the subject of so much speculation last week, suffered a blow to his early-season confidence, the former bright young thing Todd Carney experienced the opposite.
Put the Sharks up against the premiers on a wet Monday night and they suddenly look stronger and faster and wiser. Last year, in round two, the Sharks defeated St George Illawarra 16-10 on a similarly putrid night at Toyota Stadium.
On this night they were even more dominant. The Sea Eagles were not even in the contest for much of the first half. The Sea Eagles' nerves were frayed early when Williams was placed on report after flinging Sharks hooker Issac De Gois not only beyond the horizontal, but back to horizontal. With Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah charged with a grade two dangerous throw yesterday, the match review committee have shown their desire to crack down even on accidental lifting tackles. Williams should thus be nervous.
Sharks defeat unwary Sea Eagles
The Sharks edge ahead of the Sea Eagles 17-14. Photo: Steve Christo
Perhaps he already was - his game was certainly well below the high standards he had set in the opening rounds; he struggled to hold onto the ball, let alone barge over defenders close to the line.
The Sea Eagles were regularly rushed off their game, partly by the conditions but mostly by the up-tempo play - but more so the desire - of the Sharks, who scored a minute after Williams's indiscretion through second-rower Jason Bukuya and kept their foot down thereafter.
The Sea Eagles' only opportunity of the first half came when winger Michael Oldfield accelerated down the left sideline, but his ball inside went well over the head of the support player, Brett Stewart.
Either side of that, it was all Cronulla. The balls that hadn't stuck against the Tigers and Newcastle were suddenly sticking; Paul Gallen's offload went to ground but even in the conditions De Gois regathered and flicked the ball to Nathan Gardner. Centre Ben Pomeroy's try and Carney's late field goal further took the game away from the Sea Eagles.
The conditions improved in the second half and so did Manly, who scored their first points of the contest through winger Michael Oldfield after the hour-mark. They came alive in the second half but it was not enough; they scored two tries in two minutes in the closing moments but knock-ons by Darcy Lussick and Jamie Lyon were the catalyst for rare roar for these parts. Their opponents were too committed; their fingers - in the case of Pomeroy - were disjointed, but their resolve never was. Carney combined well with halfback Jeff Robson and Wade Graham, shifted to lock as Gallen made a move to prop, excelled in the position.
There might be some positive news for the Sea Eagles - last year, after their defeat against the Sharks, the Dragons won nine straight. Time will tell if the Sea Eagles can bounce back as quickly and successfully.
CRONULLA 17 (J Bukuya N Gardner B Pomeroy tries T Carney 2 goals T Carney field goal) bt MANLY 14 (M Oldfield 2 B Stewart tries J Lyon goal) at Toyota Stadium. Referee: Gerard Sutton, Ben Cummins. Crowd: 8,652.