- Match report: Sea Eagles pull off miracle escape against Panthers
- Time not on Panthers side in Manly loss
Manly will fly to Townsville this week with one hand on the minor premiership, but only after hanging onto the competition lead by their fingernails.
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The Manly Sea Eagles fought back to grab two competition points in the final minute from the luckless Penrith Panthers.
A one-point win over top-four rivals Penrith had just about everything. A jam-packed Brookvale Oval crowd, a thrilling climax and even a timekeeping debacle.
Unfortunately for the Sea Eagles it had a few things they could have done without – a season-ending ACL knee injury for lock Jamie Buhrer and the reporting of 200th gamer Steve Matai for an alleged shoulder charge for starters. Hooker Matt Ballin also did not play the second half because of leg soreness, and front-rower Brenton Lawrence pulled out before kick-off with a knee injury.
If there will be concern on Monday, though, there was only celebration on Sunday night.
Veteran prop Jason King completed a lap of honour after his final appearance at Brookvale having not only played in the come-from-behind win but played a key part in the match-winning try finished off in the right corner at the Fulton-Menzies Stand end by second-rower Tom Symonds.
The game was also a goodbye for another departing club favourite, Glenn Stewart. After having surgery, the South Sydney-bound forward could not be at the ground, the roll-up of 18,654 on the last day of winter having to be content with a pre-match video package featuring the dual premiership winner.
He may not have been there, but his absence did nothing to dull the mood of brother Brett, who exploded to life after a mainly quiet first half to be central to the escape.
Trailling by 16 points midway through the second half, Manly still looked like the match was within their grasp if they could just hold onto the ball and when the passes began to stick they proved just that with two tries in the last three minutes.
They visit North Queensland on Saturday only having to win to be crowned minor premiers for the first time since 1997. If they are beaten, the winner of Thursday's showdown between South Sydney and Sydney Roosters will take top spot leading into the semi-finals.
"We're not playing our best football but I don't think we've lost two games in a row this year, so we've got a bit of consistency there," coach Geoff Toovey said. "We just need to turn up come semi-finals time.
"We've seen a very topsy-turvy year this year in regards to teams that are meant to beat other teams and they come up with duck eggs. You need to be on your game, every game."
There is plenty on the line against North Queensland. The Cowboys, should they defeat Cronulla on Monday night, are one of three teams (the others are Melbourne and the Bulldogs) that could potentially pinch fourth spot from Penrith, who host the New Zealand Warriors on Sunday night.
In a final round with myriad permuations, the Warriors have much to play for, too, being one of two teams – the other is Parramatta – outside the top eight on points difference.
At the head of the pack, Manly are in the box seat, but Toovey is not getting carried away. "It would be a great achievement but it's a long way off," he said. "There are so many teams vying for it still. That's how close the competition is.
"We're not focused on it but it would be a terrific reward for the boys if it does happen. But I'm sure North Queensland next week will be a very, very hard job for us up there."
If Toovey was restrained after Sunday's win, captain Jamie Lyon was relieved.
In a mixed display, he threw two intercept passes for tries – one to Jamal Idris, the other to Jamie Soward – but hit back by setting up the first of Symonds' two tries, scoring one of his own, then executing the crucial tap-back from a Kieran Foran bomb that led to Symonds crossing for the winner with 68 seconds remaining.
"I was having a shocker there," Lyon said. "I kept thinking it couldn't get any worse at one stage. But the boys were good behind the try line there and talking a bit of sense, so it was good. We hung in there."