NRL: NZ Warriors survive Manly Sea Eagles onslaught to consolidate playoffs position

Safely into the NRL playoffs for the first time in five years, NZ Warriors have taken a huge step towards cementing a top-four position on the table, surviving a 29-22 test from Manly Sea Eagles.

Playing at their renamed homeground of Daniel Anderson Stadium, with a soldout crowd imploring them on, the Auckland side had to rally from a halftime deficit in a dress rehearsal for post-season footy, scoring the only two tries of the second half to emerge with the win.

Flying winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak had a hattrick of tries, boosting his season tally to 21 from 16 games to tie with South Sydney's Alex Johnston atop the competition.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scores a try in the corner against Manly.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak scores a try in the corner against Manly. Photo credit: Photosport

Recalled to the top side for injured Mitch Barnett, front-rower Bunty Afoa could not have made a worse start to the contest, spilling the very first pass to gift Manly field position and then cited for a late tackle, as five-eighth Jake Arthur scored in the third minute.

Warriors five-eighth Luke Metcalf seemed to butcher a try opportunity, swallowing the ball with men unmarked outside him, but captain Tohu Harris made no mistake with the next carry, slicing through the Sea Eagles defence to cross next to the posts.

With Shaun Johnson still carrying a quad niggle, centre Adam Pompey retained kicking duties to convert.

When Harris pounced on a Manly turnover in their own half, the Warriors quickly moved the ball right, where centre Rocco Berry batted a delightful one-touch pass to flying winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who soared over in the corner.

Moments later, Watene-Zelezniak showed his power, as well as pace, beating six tacklers to grab his second try further infield.

Just as the game threatened to slip away from the Sea Eagles, captain Daly Cherry-Evans created an overlap for winger Jason Saab to score in the right corner.

Manly's indiscipline presented their hosts with a flood of possession and from another set restart, winger Marcelo Montoya charged within metres of the tryline, before finding Metcalf in support, but the try was disallowed, with second-rower Jackson Ford impeding a defender.

At the other end, fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad barely beat counterpart Reuben Garrick to force a loose ball behind the Warriors goal-line, but next time down the field, Saab found the corner again for his second. Garrick's sideline conversion levelled the scores at 16-16 after half an hour. 

On the stroke of halftime, Saab had his third from a misdirected Cherry-Evans pass that bounced across the face of the Warriors defence for the winger to scoop up and score. After trailling by 10 points midway through the opening half, the Sea Eagles led by six at the break.

After the restart, the Warriors had the first scoring chance, but Hamilton-born centre Morgan Harper dragged Montoya into touch, as he dashed for the left corner.

Seconds after entering the game, forward Josh Curran helped force a turnover in the Manly half and then run onto Johnson's short pass, but was held up over the tryline. When the set resumed, Nicoll-Klokstad put Watene-Zelezniak over in the corner for his second hattrick of the season.

Pompey's sideline conversion levelled the scores again.

Second-rower Haumole Olakau'atu was held up over the tryline for Manly, but Watene-Zelezniak snaffled a loose pass and hared upfield to relieve the pressure.

Addin Fonua-Blake in action against Manly Sea Eagles.
Addin Fonua-Blake in action against Manly Sea Eagles. Photo credit: Photosport

When Nicoll-Klokstad was penalised for stripping Garrick in a two-man tackle with 10 minutes remaining, Garrick lined up a kick at goal to break the deadlock, but pulled it left of the posts.

Ford was pinged for a lifting tackle and from the penalty, Cherry-Evans had an early drop goal attempt charged down. From the next set, Johnson found second-rower Marata Niukore cutting back through the defence and sprinting 40 metres for the go-ahead try.

As Manly desperately chased a converted try to force extra time, Johnson calmly settled into the pocket to pot a field goal and deny them that chance.

On a night honouring stricken former Warriors coach Daniel Anderson, his old team have now compiled a six-game winning streak - their longest since the eight straight that guided them to the 2002 minor premiership under Anderson.

The result promotes them to 15 wins from 22 games, sitting third on the ladder, four points ahead of Cronulla Sharks, who have already played and beaten North Queensland on Thursday, and Melbourne Storm, who face St George Dragons on Saturday.

That Cowboys loss means no-one outside the top eight can catch and deprive the Warriors their first playoffs appearance since 2018. A top-four finish would guarantee them a home game during the post-season. 

Their final two games are at home against the 16th-placed Dragons next Friday, followed by the Dolphins (14th) at Brisbane on September 2.

NZ Warriors 29 (Watene-Zelezniak 3, Harris & Niukore tries; Pompey 4 conversions, Johnson drop goal) Manly Sea Eagles 22 (Saab 3 & Arthur tries; Garrick 3 conversions)

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