Manly and Queensland captain Daly Cherry-Evans has made a classy admission about Nathan Cleary after being dethroned as Kangaroos halfback by his rival playmaker. Cherry-Evans couldn't have done much more for Manly in Sunday's thumping NRL victory over the lowly Canterbury Bulldogs, as he provided another reminder to Australia selectors ahead of the end-of-season Tests.
DCE has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, having led the Maroons to another State of Origin series victory and being arguably the player of the season for the Sea Eagles. On Sunday at Accor Stadium, the 34-year-old combined superbly on the right-edge with second-rower Haumole Olakau'atu to help his side snap a three-game losing streak.
With Manly out of finals contention for 2023, it was the second-last game of the year for Manly and DCE, who set up one try, had a hand in another and went 40 metres from dummy-half to score one of his own in the second half. The Manly skipper finished with 145 metres and eight tackle busts, with his only blemish coming in the form of a wayward pass that led to a Jake Averillo try for the Bulldogs in the second half.
While a masterclass against a Bulldogs side that missed 44 tackles and are languishing in 15th on the ladder is hardly the best Test audition, DCE will be hoping he's at least in the conversation when Australia selectors pick their side for the end-of-season Pacific Championships.
The veteran playmaker went into last year's triumphant World Cup campaign for Australia as the incumbent halfback for the Kangaroos, before seeing Cleary usurp his No.7 jersey and ultimately lead the Aussies to glory in the World Cup final. Cherry-Evans admits the pain of losing his Kangaroos jersey has been a massive motivator in 2023, but concedes that Cleary still deserves to be considered the first choice halfback for the Kangaroos.
"I definitely came back extremely motivated that I had lost the Australian halfback jersey. So that's definitely fuelled this season," Cherry-Evans said. "No doubt about it. If I get dropped, I want to get back in there. I'm always ambitious to play rep footy. But I do understand where I stand on the pecking order. Nath (Cleary) is probably the first priority for Australia, and I get that."
DCE and Olakau'atu star again for Manly
Manly coach Anthony Seibold refused to weigh in on the Kangaroos selection debate, but said he had no doubt Cherry-Evans had been Manly's standout player this year. In a frustrating year for the Sea Eagles - punctuated by another season-ending injury to superstar fullback Tom Trbojevic - Manly's wrecking ball edge forward Olakau'atu has been a close second to Cherry-Evans.
It was Olakau'atu's soft hands that set up Manly's first try after they went behind early against the Bulldogs. The second-rower threw a long ball dummy, before going short to Morgan Harper in the lead-up to Jason Saab's opening try for Manly.
The Sea Eagles scored another first-half try through prop Toff Sipley, while Tolu Koula was solid at fullback in place of the injured Reuben Garrick - helping Raymond Tuaimalo Vaega over just before the break. Canterbury, in contrast, were poor as their difficult season took another hit.
Matt Burton failed to find touch on a penalty kick in the plays leading up to Cherry-Evans's try in a play that summed up their day. Coach Cameron Ciraldo was also left seething with players walking on kick chases, threatening to swing the axe if they do not aim up for the last week of training.
"If I get any smell that someone is not up for the game, I will find someone who is," Ciraldo said. "We have a Jersey Flegg crew going well and are getting ready for finals, so if there are kids in there who want to have more of a go, I will throw them in."
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