Manly coach Geoff Toovey again has NRL referees in his crosshairs after a late, off-the-ball tackle on Daly Cherry-Evans went unpunished in the Sea Eagles' 24-16 win over Gold Coast.
The reigning premiers locked up fourth spot and a first-up qualifying final match-up against Canterbury-Bankstown with their sixth straight victory on Saturday night at Skilled Park.
But while conceding his side still has plenty of room for improvement, Toovey took another potshot at referees for the 49th-minute incident involving Cherry-Evans.
The 23-year-old halfback was dumped on his head by Titans star Greg Bird, but officials failed to whistle for even a penalty despite several replays.
It left the Manly coach incredulous after the match, even calling for a handful of experienced referees to helm the NRL finals by themselves.
When asked what areas his side needed to improve on, Toovey took the opportunity to deflect attention away from his side and onto the men with the whistles.
"Put it this way - I hope they get the best officials going forward to the next semi-finals," he responded.
"I hope they get the same four or five to clear the video box for the six matches that are on. They've got to do that, because I just think it's very vital that they get the best out there."
When a reporter followed up on that question by asking how many match officials Toovey thought were capable of controlling a final, veteran prop Brent Kite warned: "Shouldn't have gone there mate."
"I have no idea," Toovey said.
"I'm just amazed at some of the things that go on. I had a young half dumped on his head in a dangerous position and nothing happens.
"I just don't understand. I'm dumbfounded. I don't know. Did anyone see it differently from me? Obviously the video ref saw it differently."
Toovey said his latest round of referee criticism was admittedly 'a bit of a throw-off' to his side's seemingly laconic performance, which should be his real concern.
Manly clearly took the foot off the pedal in the second half and let the Titans back into the contest - but awestruck Gold Coast forward Nate Myles said they could afford to.
"They're probably doing enough in the first half at the moment," Myles said.
"I sort of felt tonight they were in second or third gear. They're a brilliant side and you can just see them turn it on from nothing."
Titans coach John Cartwright also said the Sea Eagles were the best team in the competition on paper and likely to go back-to-back, although his counterpart confessed that more work needed to be done.
"It wasn't a great win by any counts, but it was a win. But obviously if we want to go any further we'll have to improve on what was performed tonight," Toovey said.
"We're a quality side, we're a smart side, and I'm sure we'll step up when required. Our boys are experienced and they lift when necessary."
Toovey wants refs to double up for finals
Manly 24 Gold Coast 16
MANLY will kick-off the finals series concerned about refereeing and the lack of protection match officials are giving to their halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.
After the Sea Eagles breezed past Gold Coast last night in what Titans prop Nate Myles described as second or third gear to secure a top-four finish, coach Geoff Toovey called for referees to control more than one game during the finals series if it meant a lift in standard. He said he was astonished Titans second-rower Greg Bird escaped action for a late tackle on Cherry-Evans in the 24-16 win.
"Put it this way: I hope they get the best officials going forward to the semi-finals. If they have to get the same four - or five including the bloke in the video box - for the six matches that are on [in the next two weeks], then they've got to do that," Toovey said. ''I think it's … vital that we get the best out there.
"I'm just amazed at some of the things that go on. We had a young half dumped on his head in a dangerous position and nothing happens. I just don't understand … the video ref … I'm dumbfounded, I don't know.
"Did anyone see it differently than me? Obviously the video referee saw it differently."
There were reports last night Toovey was planning an official complaint over the Cherry-Evans incident but he told the Sun-Herald it should be picked up by the match review committee without prompting.
Cherry-Evans said: "I haven't seen it because I was down with a sore head. I have no doubt it was late because I passed the ball and I was watching the play and I was quickly put on my back. I'm sure the intention wasn't there to hurt me."
The angst defected attention away from the only other issue thrown up by a game Manly led 18-4 at half-time: the fact they have scored just 10 points in their last three second halves.
Cherry-Evans explained this phenomenon succinctly, however. "We've been ahead by good margins in the last few weeks and it's hard to stay motivated when you're ahead by such good leads," he said.
Toovey, who reckoned his men played "poorly at times" and "in attack, were pedestrian', nevertheless agreed it was not a concern. "We're a quality side, we're a smart side and I'm sure we'll step up when required," he said.
Gold Coast coach John Cartwright said the Sea Eagles remained premiership favourites in his view. "I think they're the best side on paper and I think they're finding form at the right end of the year," he said.
"They win the ground very well. They've got everything covered, Manly. They've got size, they've got the halves, the fullback looks like he's coming ahead pretty well, their back row's very strong."
Manly back-rower Anthony Watmough's persistent neck problem flared again, forcing him off in the first half and he did not return. Toovey said he would not be in doubt for next week's qualifying final against Canterbury.
"He's fine - it's more of a precaution than anything else," Toovey said. "He'll want to be out there, he'll be doing his best to be out there and I'm sure he will be."
Earlier, the captain's challenge was trialled in Manly's 46-10 under-20s win, the final ledger reading captains 1, referees 1.
Manly skipper Josh Drinkwater challenged a referee's decision that the Sea Eagles had fumbled, arguing a strip. The fourth official agreed, play restarting via a Manly scrum-feed. In the second half, Drinkwater believed his side should have been awarded a try after stripping a Gold Coast attacker near the Titans' line.
The referee had penalised Manly for an illegal strip with more than one defender in the tackle - and that call stood after the video referee was consulted.
MANLY 24 (M Ballin K Foran B Stewart J Taufua tries J Lyon 4 goals) bt GOLD COAST 16 (K Gordon 2 B Falloon tries S Prince 2 goals) at Skilled Park. Referee: Gerard Sutton, Phil Haines. Crowd: 14,927.