MANLY'S title defence is still alive despite a dodgy calf and thanks to a dodgy call or two. Or at least that is certainly what North Queensland will argue, after the class of centre Jamie Lyon gave the Sea Eagles a win, and a date with Melbourne.
Sea Eagles coach Geoff Toovey has complained long and loud about the quality of the officiating this season, wondering in the process whether it would cost a team a final. He might offer a smirk after his Sea Eagles found themselves in a preliminary final on the back of controversial refereeing. His side were on the wrong end of one poor decision, but by the end of the game it was the Cowboys cursing loudest following two benefit-of-the-doubt decisions by the video officials.
That said, the Sea Eagles deserved the win. They weren't at their best but they were the best side on the night. Lyon had a lot to do with that.
The build-up had focused on the centre, and many Manly fans would have been holding their collective breath that he emerged from the opening half with his calf OK. He got an early test when he stretched his legs in the Sea Eagles' first set.
Lyon not only proved his fitness, but proved how important he is to the Manly side. After only five minutes, he leapt high to bat five-eighth Kieran Foran's bomb back to second-rower Glenn Stewart, who showed soft hands to send the ball to Michael Oldfield. So not only had Lyon made an immediate impact, but the player who replaced Steve Matai scored their first try.
The Sea Eagles had no reason to doubt themselves after such a start, or the man who stood off Lyon's right shoulder (Dean Whare had been shifted to Matai's left centre position). Oldfield does not possess the mongrel of the suspended Kiwi, yet he is probably the quickest player in the club. He found himself in space down the right touchline, and only a slightly errant pass to halfback Daly Cherry-Evans prevented the Sea Eagles from scoring again.
The Sea Eagles' decision to opt for a penalty goal after 18 minutes appeared peculiar but it worked; Lyon kicked the goal, and from the restart winger Jorge Taufua quite literally pulled the ball out of his bottom before sending fullback Brett Stewart over for the try.
The Cowboys weren't in the contest in the first half hour. But little things can lead to significant momentum shifts. There's nothing little about prop James Tamou, but there was certainly little on when he was given the ball 10 metres out from the Manly line. Tamou stepped, stretched and single-handedly dragged the Cowboys back into the contest. Suddenly they had been pumped full of life.
And luck. Just after the half-time break, Cowboys winger Ashley Graham's cheeky hand dislodged the ball from Taufua as he wrestled to play the ball. The officials missed it, and North Queensland five-eighth Johnathan Thurston's cut-out pass hit his winger Antonio Winterstein on the major sponsor and the Cowboys levelled the scores.
Manly's response was almost immediate. The same two players involved in the earlier controversy clashed again; Taufua barged into Graham and was somehow able to reach out and score, even he needed the benefit of some significant doubt. Eleven minutes later, there was even more doubt about Oldfield's second during which Foran was ruled not to have touched the ball after Cherry-Evans's kick was allowed to bounce.
MANLY 22 (M Oldfield 2 B Stewart J Taufua tries J Lyon 3 goals) bt NORTH QUEENSLAND 12 (J Tamou A Winterstein tries J Thurston 2 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Referees: Shayne Hayne, Ben Cummins