An inspired Wests Tigers have stunned the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles with a thrilling comeback at Leichhardt Oval, stealing a 30-26 win on Sunday afternoon.
The home team had to overhaul a 20-6 half-time deficit as Manly's Daly Cherry-Evans and Aku Uate raced in first-half doubles and it all came down to the final minute as the Sea Eagles clung desperately to a 26-24 advantage only for a slick Tigers left-side move sent Malakai Watene-Zelezniak over for a heart-stopping match-winner.
Api Koroisau was immense for the visitors and arguably the best player on the field, laying on two tries and tackling his heart out but it was a pair of David Nofoaluma intercepts from wayward Tom Trbojevic cut-out balls that swung the momentum early in the second half.
Despite losing hooker Matt McIlwrick early to concussion the Tigers battled on with Jack Littlejohn and Elijah Taylor at dummy-half; five-eighth Tui Lolohea and fullback James Tedesco also starred for the home side.
Nofoaluma's efforts helped the Tigers land a double blow to go from 20-6 to 20-18 in the blink of an eye and bring the crowd back into the contest.
The loss is a heartbreaker for a Sea Eagles side that had every chance to finish the weekend in fourth place but are left clinging to the edge of the top eight. A loss would have seen the Tigers drop to 16th but instead kick a win clear of Newcastle.
The home had initially side raced out of the blocks to the delight of the packed 12,208-strong home crowd, dominating the early exchanges and camping themselves on the Manly line, earning first points when Elijah Taylor touched down a Luke Brooks grubber.
While the Tigers had easily the best of the opening 15 minutes their last-tackle options proved a big problem and Manly's resilient goal-line defence shut down everything else the Tigers threw at them.
Against the run of play, a mid-field line break from Koroisau set up a runaway Cherry-Evans try and the skipper had a double in the 25th minute when he pounced after Tom Trbojevic's attacking grubber hit the post.
The Manly skipper then fired a lovely cut-out ball to send Uate over in the right corner and the ex-Knights flanker had a double of his own when he was on the end of a nice Dylan Walker flick pass and powered over the top of opposite man Watene-Zelezniak to make it 20-6 at half-time.
The Tigers needed something special to get back into the game in the second half and they got it in the shape of Nofoaluma. Aside from some huge carries, the winger twice in consecutive sets jammed up on Tom Trbojevic cut-out balls and plucked an intercept before racing downfield.
The first attacking set he generated finished meekly with a poor Tedesco grubber into the Manly defence but on the second time of asking a left-side shift – well executed by Terdesco – saw Kev Naiqama cash in on an overlap.
When Lolohea charged over five minutes later made it a two-point ball game and the previously muted crowd exploded into life, however a Tedesco drop from the restart handed the momentum back.
Lloyd Perrett promptly scored from some wonderful dummy-half work from Koroisau but went from hero to villain with an error of his own off the restart, Jesse Sue burst through and at 26-24 and grandstand final 15 minutes was on offer.
Some thrilling end-to-end footy saw each team scramble desperately to deny their opponents a killer blow but with the full-time siren drawing closer, a drop from Manly rookie Brad Parker near his own line handed the home side a final chance to steal the win.
Manly were unable to hold out the full set and when Tedesco chimed into a left-side play, Watene-Zelezniak got outside his man to run around for the match-winner that sent the home crowd into raptures.
Wests Tigers 30 (Taylor, Naiqama, Lolohea, Sue, Watene-Zelezniak tries; Lolohea 5/5 goals) defeated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 26 (Cherry-Evans, Uate 2, Perrett tries; Wright 3/5 goals) at Leichhardt Oval