By Adam Lucius
And then there were six.
After 22 rounds the Shute Shield finalists have been settled, with Eastwood topping the table from Sydney Uni, Manly, Easts, Randwick and Northern Suburbs.
The Marlins will take on Norths in the first elimination semi-final at Coogee Oval on Saturday after signing off with a hot-and-cold 39-33 victory over Randwick at Manly Oval.
If ever there was a game of two halves, this was it.
Ben Seymour scored after just 30 seconds and it looked like the most comfortable of afternoon for the locals.
Manly went on to led 31-5 at the break and the half-century and beyond beckoned.
But the Wicks came out and scored 28 points to the Marlins' eight in the second half to almost steal the most unlikely of wins.
The hosts, playing in front of a big Ladies Day crowd, steadied to round off a near perfect year at home (10 wins from 11).
"They clocked off in the second half which is disappointing. We did a lot of good things but then just let them in for some soft tries," coach Tim Lane said.
"It's probably just a mental thing. We will be right next week."
Manly beat Norths in both regular season games, but both were slender five-point wins.
"I'm sure they would have changed a bit since last time we played them," Lane said.
"We've just got to get our discipline and defence right."
Hooker Anthony Hegarty added: "Norths are a good side and it will be a tough encounter.
"They've got a number of Brumbies boys so we know what we're up against.
"We can't relax in the second half (like we did against Randwick). We need to take every opportunity that presents itself."
Manly will finally get classy centre Robbie Coleman back after weeks out with injury, leaving Lane a full contingent to choose from.
The coach was particularly happy with Seymour's performance at fullback, the No.15 contributing 19 of Manly's 39 points.
The Marlins made the finals in three of four grades - fourths missed out by just two points - and all three Colts grades.
By Adam Lucius
Finally, Manly are through to the second week of a Shute Shield finals series after defeating Northern Suburbs 34-23 in the first elimination semi on Saturday.
After five years of heartache and disappointment after falling at the first hurdle, the Marlins came from 14-0 down to overpower Norths and earn a shot at Sydney Uni for a right to enter the 2011 grand final.
The early portents were not good at a cold and windy Coogee Oval.
Norths came out full of intensity and Manly could not go with them early.
The Shoremen went bang, bang to score two converted tries and lead 14-0 after as many minutes.
But as possession finally started to flow Manly's way, so did the points.
Two Ben Seymour tries cut Norths' lead and even though the Shoremen added a penalty, it was the Marlins finishing the stronger.
A try right to Chris Cottee on half-time - scored while prop Dane Maraki was in the sin bin - gave Manly the lead for the first time.
The move was started deep in Norths' territory, with Andrew Smith, Michael Hooper and Willie Ripia handling before skipper Cottee crossed.
The Marlins controlled the game from that point on, adding second half tries to Cadeyrn Neville and Anthony Hegarty while keeping the persistent red and blacks at arm's length.
"The first 20 minutes they wanted it more than we did but it's reassuring that we can compose ourselves and get going again," said lock Neville, who was outstanding once again .
"Hopefully now that we've won in the first week that is in one ghost laid to rest."
Fullback Ben Seymour added: "This has been our bogey game the past couple of years so it's nice to get through it.
"But there is a lot to improve on.
"Norths came at us pretty hard and we didn't defend that well early.
"We put ourselves under pressure but the thing is we knew we could come back strongly."
Coach Tim Lane, who gave his side an old-fashioned bake after they clocked off the previous week, was full of pride following the drought-breaking win.
"It was very sweet," he declared.
"We didn't have the ball early but once we got our hands on the ball we put a couple on them.
"It was always going to come. I think five tries to two was a fair reflection of things."
Now, it's onto six-time premiers Sydney Uni at TG Millner next Sunday.
Manly beat the Students 25-19 back in round 10 before going down 32-14 in the return bout a fortnight ago.
Asked how it felt to be just 80 minutes away from a grand final berth - the club's first in 14 years - Neville responded: "I don't think we can think about it like that.
"We need to be thinking about trying to win the game.
"We exposed some chinks in their armour a couple of weeks ago but you've got to do it for 80 minutes against Uni."
Lane has maintained all along that Manly is capable of matching it with this much-vaunted Uni side.
"They will be hard to beat but I don't think they are unbeatable," he said.
"We showed two weeks ago we were capable of beating them.
"We're where we want to be. We've got a big challenge next week but we've got to go out with a good attitude and get the little things right."
The Marlins Army will converge on TG Millner Field in increased numbers for Sunday's elimination final against Sydney University thanks to the generosity of the club's major backer.
The Mounties Group, which includes the Harbord Diggers and Manly Bowling Club, has purchased 200 tickets to give away to fans wishing to attend the game.
The extra turnout of fans will ensure a pro-Manly crowd for the club's biggest match in years.
The winner of the Manly-Uni semi will meet either Randwick or Eastwood in Saturday week's Shute Shield grand final.
"The Mounties have offered tremendous support all year and this is just another example," Manly captain Chris Cottee said.
"Manly fans have always got behind the team and to have another 200 extra there on Sunday will give the boys a huge boost.
"Uni is the biggest challenge in club rugby so if we can turn the crowd red and blue then that will be a massive advantage."
Coach Tim Lane added: "It'd be great if we could turn Millner into a mini version of Manly Oval.
"The support really lifts the boys and we're very grateful for the Mounties coming onboard like this.
"Hopefully we can repay everyone with a grand final appearance."
Diggers general manager Dale Hunt said: "We are a very community minded organisation and love the fact Manly rugby has such a close affinity with the local rugby fraternity and wider population.
"We are delighted to be able to help in the club's push for the 2011 premiership and urge as many supporters as possible to get there on Sunday."
*The giveaway will be conducted at the Harbord Diggers (in the outdoor restaurant area) from 12.30pm Friday until all tickets are gone.
To be eligible you need to be a member of the Diggers or Manly Bowling Club or be signed in by a member.
There will be a limit of two tickets per person.
By Adam Lucius
By Adam Lucius
Courageous. Committed. Outstanding
Manly were all of the above and more but it still wasn't enough to stop the Sydney University juggernaut rolling on to a seventh straight grand final, the Students ending the Marlins' title dreams with a 31-16 win in Sunday's elimination semi-final.
On a warm spring day at TG Millner Field, Uni jumped out to a 14-0 lead after as many minutes before Manly reeled them in to go to the sheds behind 14-13 after a Kotoni Ale try and eight points from Willie Ripia's left boot.
The Marlins were always chasing the scoreboard in the second half, trailing 21-13 before Ripia pulled it back by three points with a penalty on the hour.
That set the scene for a fantastic finish.
But despite throwing everything at the Students - and with the big Marlins Army roaring them home - Manly just could not pull back the deficit.
Uni piled on late points to clear out to a 15-point win but they will be relieved to see the back of the red and blues.
"We worked hard, the effort was there but Uni was just a bit too good on the day," prop Eddie Aholelei said.
"It's disappointing to get this close and not make it but we will live to fight another day.
"The future looks pretty good. There are a lot of good young players coming through."
No.8 Tevita Metuisela added: "I think Uni fear us the most out of all the clubs because of our physicality and the effort from our guys was fantastic.
"The two early tries cost us a fair bit and it was disappointing for them to score two mauling tries.
"But we recovered from that and had our chances but they played better at the end.
"I am looking forward to next year and hopefully we can go a step further."
Coach Tim Lane was rightly proud of his team's effort.
"We weren't that far away. If we'd taken two or three opportunities down the right side in both halves it could have been a different story," he pointed out.
"But they are a strong side, particularly at the set piece, and that was the difference in the end.
"We created a lot. We were very competitive but I suppose their experience told in the end.
"The scoreline at the end didn't flatter us. It certainly didn't reflect the effort and the tightness of it."
There was some gold among the dust, with Aholelei, Cadeyrn Neville (both Rebels), Metuisela (NSW) and Ben Seymour (Western Force) all eying Super Rugby contracts next year.
And hooker Anthony Hegarty, who turned in an unbelievable performance against Uni, may have won himself a new deal with the Queensland Reds.
The good news didn't end there, with Lane confirming he was likely to have another year at the Manly helm.
"I will be here as it stands. There are a few things happening (elsewhere) but nothing concrete," he said.
"I have enjoyed it. It's been a great year with a good bunch of blokes.
"We weren't good enough but we weren't too far.
"We're close to the mark and we're getting closer."