Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Sea Eagles claw their way into contention

Manly's Steve Matai is wrapped by the Titans defence last night. Photo / Getty Images
Manly's Steve Matai is wrapped by the Titans defence last night. Photo / Getty Images

The Silvertails are back in the hunt for gold.

It would have seemed unlikely just over a month ago but the Sea Eagles are now a genuine chance of defending their NRL crown.

The premiers had a difficult start to their 2012 campaign and at one point this season won just one match in five.

But they are peaking nicely coming into the finals and this comprehensive win sealed a top four spot, which under the new playoff system seems an essential prerequisite for glory.

Manly have the best defensive record of any team over the past four weeks; they have conceded the fewest tries, least points and fewest linebreaks.

They have also regained their familiar attacking mojo, in winning the last six games on the bounce.

It would be no comfort to Warriors' fans but the springboard was probably that unlikely round 21 win in Perth, where Brian McClennan's team collapsed in the last quarter after holding significant leads throughout the game. Since then the swagger and confidence is back. They remember how to win and are particularly good at getting ahead and killing games off - only once this season, against the Storm at Brookvale - have the Sea Eagles been overhauled after holding a halftime lead.

Their forward pack is an imposing mix of brute force, mobility and skill while Daly Cherry Evans and Keiran Foran are arguably the best halves combination in the NRL.

Jamie Lyon is enjoying a marquee season complemented by Steve Matai out wide while Brett Stewart is showing glimpses of the form that saw him rated as one of the best fullbacks in the sport two years ago. Geoff Toovey's team can hurt you from anywhere and lead the NRL for tries scored from kicks.

The first half was an even affair, though the Titans somehow found themselves 18-4 down at halftime, despite enjoying plenty of possession and territory.

The home side had opened the scoring in the sixth minute through Kevin Gordon but Stewart got the Manly juggernaut rolling just before the end of the first quarter.

It continued a remarkable record for the Manly fullback against the Gold Coast, as he has now scored seven tries in five games against the Titans.

Workaholic hooker Matt Ballin touched down 10 minutes later before Foran scored right on the halftime buzzer - how many times have the Sea Eagles managed that in the last two seasons - after a beautiful cross kick at full pace (and near the sideline) from Jamie Lyon.

The second half was pure entertainment. A sweeping backline move saw Jorge Taufua cross in the corner early which gave Manly a 22-4 lead but the Titans refused to lie down, replying with tries to Beau Falloon and Kevin Gordon.

Jamal Idris appeared to be heavily concussed after a brutal head clash but stayed on the field, engaging a running battle with most of the Manly backline.

Manly are set to play the Bulldogs in the first round of the finals - get set for an week of incredible hype as Des Hasler comes up against his former club.

Titans 16 (K. Gordon 2, B. Falloon tries; S. Prince 2 goals) Sea Eagles 24 (B. Stewart, M. Ballin, K. Foran, J. Taufua tries; J. Lyon 4 goals). Halftime 18-4.

- Herald on Sunday

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