It's 7pm on preliminary final night at Suncorp Stadium. The scheduled kickoff is 50 minutes away, and the surrounding streets are teeming with pedestrians and traffic- some anxious to get to the ground, others ruing that the home commute takes them through the stadium traffic zone. A strong sense of urgency exists, perhaps nowhere more so than on the Manly team bus.
A decision not to relocate to Brisbane on match eve has backfired spectacularly on the Sea Eagles, with officials forced to delay the scheduled 7.50pm kickoff by 15 minutes. Manly taking more than three hours to travel from the Sunshine Coast, requiring an emergency police escort to see them safely through the carpark that is greater Brisbane during Friday peak hour. Eyebrows are raised in the press box as journalists run their eyes over the South Sydney warmup; admiring the composure and cohesion, while whispering "Where's Manly?"
"Yeah.. bit of traffic," recalls Manly coach Des Hasler in his pre-match interview. Having finally arrived at the ground, Hasler exudes the confidence one might expect from a man that had never lost a preliminary final- as player or coach. The bravado is admirable, but there's no escaping the suspicion this setback can only make an already daunting assignment even more nightmarish.
7.43pm. Manly players blast out onto the northern end of the ground for a warmup, looking every bit like a squad racing the clock. Last out of the tunnel is Tom Trbojevic, and almost all of the 26,249 sets of eyeballs in the crowd immediately turn in his direction. "In Turbo we trust," is the unspoken sentiment among the healthy contingent of Manly faithful as they applaud his injection into the slightly frantic routine.
At the other end, only the referees and touchies remain on the field. They're performing some low key shuttle runs with a full half field to themselves, the Rabbitohs having long since departed.
8.01pm and the original kickoff time has now comfortably passed. Manly remain on the field, having a final huddle before walking back to the sheds- attempting to capture a sense of calm. Suncorp Stadium indulges its guests with a lighting and percussion show at 8.03pm. Despite their chaotic evening, Manly are the first to take the field- finally- at 8.06pm. Fire, smoke and team coloured pyrotechnics greet them. For all appearances sake, they're up for the contest.
8.07pm and we're finally underway. It's an energetic start. Tom Trbojevic leading the chase for Manly's first kick, Cameron Murray chasing and smashing Turbo, young Blake Taaffe given a "welcome to the prelims" on his first kick return. Daly Cherry-Evans over running a short pass in the middle of the ruck. One that, if taken, offered wide open spaces. That miss, sparking a scoop and dash from departing Rabbitoh Adam Reynolds, and heralding a sustained early period of attack. The Sea Eagles, defending bravely to first deny Jaxson Paolo, then repel back-to-back repeat sets. Reclaiming the ball, then dropping it inside their own half. Showing signs of a side that may have rushed through its warmup.
Before long the Rabbitohs have 10 completions to 3. Sean Keppie is lost to the Sea Eagles, a HIA ruling him out. A very sharp Cody Walker icing the onslaught after 12 minutes, with the opening try in the left corner. The omens are growing.
It's still early days and DCE is trying to spark them, but there's a frantic sense to his work. Jason Saab is taken over the touch line. The bad stats are mounting.
Reynolds, juggling the mixed emotions of a man playing on a future home ground while desperate to cling to his treasured past for at least one more week, doesn't kick the ball in the opening 25 minutes. Clearly impeded by an alleged groin injury, he gets in front Moses Suli as another Manly left side raid unfolds. Tom Trbojevic slices through on the left edge, sending Reuben Garrick over. Only to be denied by an inside shoulder obstruction call on Suli. Opportunity missed.
And the Rabbitohs' irrepressible attack clicks quickly back into gear, Walker directing them about with the type of authority he's often been criticised for not displaying on big stages; Taking control of a spine missing Latrell Mitchell, and shielding the impeded Reynolds from the kicking duties, while never losing touch with his natural 'eyes-up' flair. His work aiding the rapid early career progression of Taaffe, who produces a tracer bullet pass in the 22nd minute, giving Alex Johnston a 28th try for the season. Taaffe- relieving Reynolds of his goal kicking duties, slotting the conversion from the corner. The Rabbitohs going further ahead, pushed along beautifully by a 67 percent share of the ball.
But Manly weren't ready to succumb to the lopsided stats. Trbojevic raiding on the right edge and crossing the line himself. Cue Fireworks, cheers, a shrill blast on the whistle from Ashley Klein; try time! But Turbo's up on the big screen shaking his head. Replays confirm a dropped ball. Two tries rubbed out, Manly hearts broken.
Campbell Graham is denied in the 28th, with Lachlan Croker bravely getting underneath him. Reynolds finally testing his leg with a bomb two minutes later. Damien Cook scooping it up and grubbering for Walker. 18-0, and the completion count is 18 to 7. It's getting harder and harder to assess this as a contest, with Manly incapable of holding onto the ball. Cameron Murray is tackling himself to a standstill when they do have it, and Walker is putting them on the back foot when they don't.
With just five minutes to go in the half, an increasingly desperate DCE puts a foot into touch. Walker obliges with an error of his own, offering Manly a chance to reset. DCE drops it again. Before you can say "grand final" Reynolds is launching an attack that culminates in a Jaxson Paulo try. Taffe misses the kick, but it's 22-0.
Oh to be a fly on the wall for the halftime speech of Des Hasler. How does he lift a team that's made nine errors, had 36 percent of the ball, and ran for less than half the metres of their opponents?
Whatever he said had some impact, judging by Reuben Garrick's 43rd minute try. Manly's increased intensity lasting for the better part of 10 minutes. But simple errors are pushing the Provan Summons trophy further and further away. A Morgan Harper error just inside the halfway line is punished almost too easily. Souths roll up the field, trademark ball movement happening at typical speed, and Campbell Graham powers over. Taaffe kicks it. 28-6.
The Sea Eagles are working hard to maintain a degree of intent, but it's all a bit lateral. Garrick is given a whiff of space on the left wing, only to be pummeled into the turf by Paulo and Graham. Cook's flat passing out of dummy half is propelling the Rabbitohs over the advantage line time and again. Pregame concerns around Manly's lack of big name scalps in 2021 is proving accurate. In the 59th minute Jaxson Paolo catches a bomb in the ingoal, despite his body facing the opposite direction. It's literally all going backwards for Manly. 32-6.
Now 26 points in arrears and it's more of the same from the Sea Eagles. Errors from both Trbojevic brothers, and frustrations are boiling over, as Josh Aloiai dumps Mark Nichols in the 68th minute. His season ended with a sin binning. A consolation try coming in the 75th minute for Manly, Turbo latching onto a Moses Suli pass to claim his 28th of the year. The fullback equalling the great Phil Blake for the most tries in a Manly season. But by his own imperious standards it's been a quiet night, and the notion that if you stop Turbo, you stop Manly, is only going to grow stronger.
Garrick's own consolation comes soon after and prompts cries of "Where's this been?" from some of the more Manly inclined scribes in the press box. The query fades away when Taafe taps one on to Johnstone in the left corner. 36-16. Manly left behind at Suncorp Stadium, and- given the drama around their arrival- the old football cliche of "didn't turn up" has never been more appropriate.
"They made us pay for our errors, what the good sides do," laments Daly Cherry-Evans in the post-match press conference. "I don't think (the bus) affected us."
"Didn't do ourselves any favours in that first half," adds Hasler. "Tonight was definitely an opportunity missed. You've gotta mentally arrive for big moment games. We didn't manage it. Right from the start of the day things went wrong."
The Rabbitohs bench was up in the final minutes; hugging, cheering, throwing water bottles. Soaking up the occasion at Suncorp, as well they should. There was plenty to like about this performance; Cameron Murray's relentless defence, Cody Walker's inimitable threat and game controlling maturity, Dane Gagai's persistent menace, the rapid development of Blake Taaffe. All very impressive, but the display- coming against an error riddled Sea Eagles- wasn't without patches of attacking clunkiness.
"We needed this game tonight," Bennett tells ESPN post match. "We don't need another week off. We got the game we needed tonight, now we need to play again."
A high scoring dust-off for the Rabbitohs after the oft-debated week off. Their football was upbeat and confident, their stars (with a possible exception of Reynolds) all fit and firing, their momentum commendable. 57 percent of the ball and- despite 11 errors on the stats sheet- a dominant display. As "Glory Glory" belts out around the ground, the time to look ahead arrives. Looming large is a contest against one of the two teams to put 50 point beatings on them this year. Are they ready for that?
"Have you watched us since then?" The supercoach responds with a question of his own. "What we did in week one changed the shape of the finals."
But can you produce yet another beaker of magic dust in your 13th (including three in the now defunct BRL competition) grand final?
"It's a bit hard at the moment to think about next week. I've tried to be disciplined this year getting through everything we've had to do. We've lost three prelims in a row. Once we got to the last ten minutes tonight, and Campbell Graham started missing tackles, then I started thinking about next week."
And what did you think?
"I'll tell you next week."
Wayne Bennett, the first man to coach four clubs to grand finals, then deftly shifts the narrative, taking a shot at his former club the Broncos- long since dispelled from contention in 2021. The campaign to deflect the attention from his players is underway, less than an hour after full time. Bennett knows his charges will face a far sterner test in the big dance. Manly effectively played themselves out of the preliminary final inside the first 15 minutes. Perhaps fittingly, given their peak hour traffic issues, they never really arrived at all.
Congratulations Rabbits, and good luck. Just make sure you turn up on time to face the Panthers.