Just one more win needed to make our 2nd consecutive grand final, but could we overcome a brewing Storm down south?
The only way to describe this bizarre mess is to document it via a time line.
17 seconds: 2nd tackle Watmough spills the ball cold. Why on earth was Watmough taking the 2nd hit up of the game? Error no 1.
2nd minute: Melb put a grubber through but Watmough stabs a foot at it gifting Melb another set of 6. Error no. 2.
2nd minute: Brett Stewart pulls off a typical brilliant try saving tackle in the corner.
4th minute: Matai takes a penalty tap and turns a ball inside to T Rex who spills it so badly that Cronk picks it up runs 30 metres rolls over Foran's tackle and scores. Are we asleep? Error no 3.
5th minute: Smith oddly mises the conversion. 4-0.
8th minute: Taufua ambles back to pick up a rolling 5th tackle kick, but somehow incredibly trips over the ball which cannons off his knee and into touch. He looks positively frozen. Error no 4.
8th minute: Slater at dummy half on our line. Matai and T Rex are the markers but as Slater collects the ball Matai decides to protest to the ref, T Rex is still in hibernation, and effectively both of them commit the ultimate sin of turning their backs on Slater who plants the ball past them for a try. Replays show Slater has in fact lost control of the ball over the line, but apparently not enough for the idiots in the video box. Video ref error or not, it's still another very poor mental mistake. Error no 5.
9th minute: Another bizarre Smith conversion miss. 8-0.
13th minute: Cramped back line move sees the ball roll across the deck for Taufua to collect but he spills it cold. Again. Error no 6. (Yep after just 13 mins).
13th minute: In the same play Matai comes out hobbling badly and continues to do so for the rest of the game rendering him all but a passenger. (See alarming final stats)
18th minute: Proctor is tackled by King, Watmough and coming in to help Ballin. King and Ballin are the two markers but Watmough has stood watching like a lamp post and now realises he can't get back 10 and is forced to stand aside leaving us suddenly a man short. Seeing this like hawks Cronk and Slater put on the lethal inside ball for Slater to go straight through the gaping hole. Matai tackles Cronk, Foran covers Slater, but an outside ball to Chambers leaves Taufua with two to cover and the damage is done. Chambers is away and not even Brett has any hope of stopping him. Try. Error no 6.
19th minute: Smith incredibly misses 3 in a row. We are being hammered but it's only 12-0.
22nd minute: We pass the ball out to the right but Glenn Stewart is barrelled one on one and spills it. What is going on? Error no 7.
26th minute: Taufua is tackled 30 metres out from Melb line. Matai at dummy half passes left to right to Foran onto T Rex who's still doing nothing and nonchalantly passes onto Ballin (hang on why is Ballin out there?) who bullets a pass straight at Guluvao's head. Naturally it cannons forward. Is this for real? Error no 8.
27th minute: Cronk perfect grubber for Taufua to be trapped in goal. Another set to Melb. Why? Go back to the bizarre Ballin pass.
28th minute: Brett saves another try with another courageous tackle into touch, aided by Lyon.
29th minute: Ballin leaves the field with a hamstring injury. Big problem. Buhrer on.
30th minute: Buhrer chases a kick downtown to Slater and is penalised. Holding down apparently. Really? Lyon calmly questions but deputy headmaster Cecchin announces "you've got no more respect as captain if you keep doing that". Sorry keep doing what? Cecchin is an idiot.
32nd minute: Cross field bomb is gathered by DCE. "They're just hanging on" is the commentators call.
33rd minute: Ballin in the dressing has ice straight to his calf. The same calf from a few weeks back? Probably.
34th minute: Manu grapples Buhrer and we get a penalty. Smith does his best to deflect it back onto us (but then again Ennis makes Smith seem like a really good guy)
36th minute: Our first decent chance to attack. Foran pilots a dead accurate 5th tackle cross field kick and Lyon times his leap to absolute perfection. How good is Jamie Lyon. Try.
37th minute: Lyon concerts for 12-6.
HALF TIME: We could not have played worse yet due to Smith's 3 rare conversion misses we are unbelievably right in this game. So much so I predict we will react to a massive Toovey spray and go on to make Melb pay.
41st minute: Lyon penalised for putting Hoffman in a dangerous position. Are they joking? Appalling decision. Again we start on the back foot.
41st minute: Smith dies with the ball on the 5th tackle. You don't see that mental error often. Bullet dodged.
43rd minute: DCE plants an excellent deep kick.
44th minute: Melb attack to the right on their 30 metre line and the ball goes out to Chambers who brushes past a simply awful Matai tackle attempt to run 70 metres and despite completely messing up the timing of the pass inside to Cronk the little halfback evades any hope of Brett grabbing him. It's a diabolical try conceded. Error no 9 (not counting penalties conceded).
45th minute: Smith doesn't miss. 18-6.
46th minute: Lussick is penalised for hands on the ball in the tackle. Archer says it's two in a row from Guluvao and now Lussick. Apparently he's serious. 4 replays later and I still can't see it. Another damaging blow with Melb gaining yet another free set of 6.
48th minute: Great defence in the face of more Cronk/Slater gunfire but Brett has to concede a drop out. Yet another set of 6 to Melb. This is killing us.
49th minute: Manu hits up the drop out. Rose and Guluvao swing him round the back yard and concede a penalty. Toovs is about to implode in the box.
50th minute: Smith lobs the penalty over. Manly heads slump. 20-6.
51st minute: A perfect short kick off is easily tapped back by T Rex but instead of going to a Manly player it's Smith, scrambling to get into position after his penalty kick, who takes the fluke possession. When the chips are down they are really down. Another set of 6 to Melb.
52nd minute: Matai makes a strong tackle but it only makes his leg worse. Limping badly now but can't be replaced.
52nd minute: Another Melb wave of attack and Cronk has another opportunity to plug the inside Slater ball but he goes wide to Widdop and it's a shocking pass. Lyon pounces and has a 55 metre run to the line with no Slater at home. Cronk can't catch him.
53rd minute: Lyon concerts. 20-12. We are hopelessly out of the game everywhere except for the one vital place. The scoreboard. If we can play any sort of football at all and get any sort of territory at all we can steal this game. Crazy but true.
56th minute: Brett expertly defuses a bomb and we get the 20m tap. On the 3rd tackle Buhrer at dummy half passes to King who drops it dead stone cold. It's not a terrible pass but it's a fraction too low and in front for the lumbering King to catch. A monumental momentum killer. And of course another free set to Melb. Error no 10.
57th minute: Cross field attacking kick targets the shell shocked Taufua. He catches it but the ball is bumped from his grasp. He regathers. Drop out and yes another set of 6 to Melb. We are drowning in a deep, deep Melbourne lake.
57th minute: DCE signals a short drop out. It's a horrible, horrible attempt that fizzles 7 metres across field. Penalty Melb from right in front. Error no 11.
Time out. Where are our minds? What the hell are we thinking going for a one in a million Brookie miracle short drop out when the score is 20-12??? The blank faces standing on the goal line confirm the answer. We are the mentally walking dead. Parish and Toovey in the box are apoplectic. Nobody coaches brain snaps like that.
58th minute: Melb ignore the penalty shot and Bromwich has a 3rd tackle play on our line. He fumbles it. Another lifeline.
59th minute: DCE feeds a scrum and leaves it for Glenn to collect. He ever so slightly fumbles it. Another lethal self injection. Error no 12.
60th minute: Melb on attack in our 20 for the millionth time. 3rd tackle Cronk finds Bromwich on the burst who goes sails through a Sydney heads sized hole between Glenn Stewart and DCE. Brett has no chance of stopping the bigger man who crashes over. Error no 13. But then again I may well have lost count.
61st minute: Smith converts. 26-12. There's still a mile of time left but we need a lifetime to turn this around.
Time out. We've missed 26 tackles to their 4. That's not an ability thing it's purely mental. The question of course is why?
63rd minute: We're going nowhere stuck in our 20 but get a penalty.
65th minute: Matai fumbles a play the ball. He tries to blame the opposition but the replay confirms it's his mistake. Error no 13.
66th minute: Melb set a scrum on their 20 metre zone. The injured Matai goes into the 2nd row and Brett into lock as the fullbacks oddly tend to do these days. But wait Slater stands back directly behind the scrum. DANGER. We only have Foran at half and Taufua on the left wing. Slater times the scrum win to perfection going to the short right side with two Melb men on his outside. Foran has to cover the two outside men and Slater knows it. He steps inside Foran and is too quick for Brett and Matai breaking for the scrum. Stepping inside Brett he's away running 70 metres to score. It's the final lethal injection from the best player in the world brilliantly out thinking our defence. Error no 14.
67th minute: Smith converts. 32-12.
68th minute: Short kick off batted forward by Taufua. The implosion sinks deeper.
69th minute: We attack from a scrum win in our 20 and the ball goes out to Oldfield on the right wing. Oldfield's electric pace sees him beat his opposition and race down the touchline. The Melb cover flies across but Oldfield decides to put in the hail mary cross field kick. it sails way right over the touch line. Another horrible mistake from a mentally shattered side. Error no 15.
71st minute: A Cronk in goal grubber is inch perfect. Taufua fumbles it once, twice, three times. His nightmare continues. Slater pounces on it but the ball has just made the in goal chalk. No try.
71st minute: DCE attempts yet another short drop out. Does anyone know why? It's as bad as the previous one. The look on his face ays it all. Penalty Melb in front. Error no 16.
72nd minute: Watmough leaves the field, sits on the bench, puts his mouthguard into his sock, and buries his head in his hands. It says it all.
73rd minute: Smith lobs it over. 34-12. This is getting even uglier. If that's possible.
74th minute: 3rd tackle Buhrer at dummy half passes to King who redefines the term dropped it dead stone cold. It's a howler. Toovs is ash white in the box. Error no 17.
75th minute: Melb set the scrum and put Slater in the lethal seat again. This time we leave Matai in the centres so there's no hole and Slater can't get through. Matai is still beaten but Foran cleans up.
75th minute: One the 3rd tackle Slater injects again (has there ever been a more brilliant fullback who involves himself more?). Slater keeps the defence guessing long enough for a great ball to go out to Proctor who sails over for the try.
77th minute: The ever thinking Smith gives Widdop a match kick practice. He converts. 40-12.
79th minute: 2nd tackle from a scrum in our 20 King passes to Kite who, yes, drops it stone cold. Error no 18. But I've more than likely lost count.
FULL TIME: Melbourne 40 Manly 12.
Brett Stewart: One of only a few to hold their head high.
Jorge Taufau: Couldn't catch a cold. Horrible nightmare of a game with a frozen face that said it all.
Steve Matai: Injured early and a passenger from that moment on. 13 metres, 9 tackles, 7 missed tackles including the lethal Chambers miss. Ouch.
Jamie Lyon: Ditto Brett. Never a foot wrong.
Michael Oldfield: Not in the game. Not his fault.
Keiran Foran: No forward momentum leaves Foran with very little opportunity.
Daly Cherry-Evans: Ditto Foran. The horrible drop outs can't be blamed the game was well gone by then.
Glenn Stewart: A mere shadow of the 2011 model. Something was seriously missing but perhaps simply never recored from the injury.
Tony Williams: From the moment he signed with the Dogs the cue was in the rack with no more than a few fleeting glimpses of what could be. The disappointment of 2012 by a country mile.
Anthony Watmough: Have to say very large shades of Glenn. Never once shirks his work rate but a long way from the tearaway danger man of seasons gone by.
Jason King: Surely pulled one over the trainers. Clearly unfit. Dreadful metres. Diabolical knock ons. Looked like a 50 year old.
Matt Ballin: Injured early and never made it back.
Brent Kite: Worked hard but made zero impact.
Jamie Buhrer: Tried hard.
Joe Guluvao: Thank you faithful servant. Time to pass the baton to a youngster for 2013.
Darcy Lussick: Seriously was there ever a single game this year when you could say "wow how good was Lussick". Sadly the most over rated player in our 17 by some distance. Good luck Ricky.
George Rose: Little impact. Rose v Mauro? I don't know either.
Absolutely nothing good about the worst Manly performance in recent memory.
Footy is 70% mental but our minds were clearly and oddly somewhere else. Why? One game too many? Forward pack with nothing left in the tank? Half the team battered, bruised and broken? Intimidated by AAMI park? Out thought by a brilliant Cronk/Slater show? Tick all of the above.
I could go on about the complete lack of impact our forwards had, but let's just go straight to the stats:
Metres: Melb 1633; Manly 774
Players gaining over 100 metres: Melb 8; Manly 0 (NB. Slater 200)
Line breaks: Melb 8; Manly 1
Tackles: Melb 200; Manly 321
Hit ups: Melb 44; Manly 28
Errors: Melb 7; Manly 18 (or possibly more pending how you count them)
Missed tackles: Melb 8; Manly 42 (have we ever conceded a worse count than that?)
Possession: Melb 64%; Manly 36% (impossible to win with that stat)
Let's look at the players missing in 2012:
Tony Williams - 11 weeks (and mentally missing for the rest)
David Williams - 11 weeks
Glenn Stewart - 10 weeks
Steve Matai - 8 weeks
Brett Stewart - 6 weeks
Keiran Foran - 6 weeks
Jason King - 5 weeks (and should not have played against Melb)
COMBINED TOTAL FOR 7 STAR PLAYERS: 57 weeks
Yet despite this diabolical injury toll and the crippling T Rex 7 week suspension disaster, we somehow, miraculously, made 4th place and all the way to the week 3 preliminary final before the engine finally coughed, spluttered and imploded.
The Bulldogs week 1 loss was the critical turning point. A state of origin slug fest that took the monumentally vital weeks rest away from us. Its no surprise how incredibly fresher Melbourne and the Dogs looked.
There are many who can't take anything but a grand final win and as a result want to point the finger at the coach. That is a totally ridiculous reaction. Geoff Toovey has done a magnificent job defying all odds to take us to an incredibly impressive 4th place.
Take a look at how Brisbane finished. Or last years Grand Finalists the Warriors. Or the other 8 teams who didn't even make the 8 with plenty of talent including the disintegrating Tigers, Roosters, Saints, Parra etc.
Put all of that into perspective and we've had a magnificent year.
Finally a huge thanks to the staff including Donny Singe for his heroic efforts to nurse the wounded back to somehow playing, and enormous praise to the absolute quiet achiever David Perry. 11 months ago most people thought our team was going to be ripped to shreds by the Desdogs saga. Instead we have a champion coach who's done more in his first season than most in their first 5 years, plus superstars Foran, DCE, Brett, Ballin and Matai all re signed on top of some very promising rookie talent. Bravo David.
There's a lot to look forward to in 2013. I just wish we didn't have to wait 6 months for it to come round.