St George Illawarra have had their Holden Cup season ended after a shock preliminary final loss to Manly.
The Dragons fell 34-18 in the penultimate game of the under-20s season thanks largely to superb individual performances from Manly halfback Cade Cust and lock Haumole Olakauátu.
St George Illawarra, who finished the regular season in third place on the table, had earned themselves a week off after winning their qualifying final a fortnight ago and were favourites to account for the eighth-placed Sea Eagles.
But Manly turned on the style, as they did to eliminate minor premiers Cronulla last week, to run in six tries to three to book their place in the grand final next Sunday.
A number of St George Illawarra mistakes gifted Manly the vast majority of possession and field position in the opening 15 minutes, though the young Dragons also produced some outstanding defence to keep the Sea Eagles out.
Set after set the Dragons turned Manly away until the Sea Eagles finally opened the scoring after 18 minutes. Cust ran to the line before finding Olakauátu who isolated Tristan Sailor to crash over.
Manly were in again from the next set. An attack launched deep in their own half saw Tevita Funa break down the left before producing a sublime banana kick for fullback Jade Anderson to race through and score under the posts.
The Dragons were back in it just before the half hour mark when hooker Reece Robson found a charging Trent Peoples whose brave run close to the line was rewarded with his second try of the season.
But Cust was to have Manly back out to a 12-point advantage at half-time when his superb run and sleight of hand saw Olakauátu barge over for his second try.
The Dragons hit back five minutes after the break when Joe Lovodua scored thanks to good work from TJ Uele, who picked up a grubber kick and beat two players before finding Lovodua.
And St George Illawarra were level on the hour mark when Jackson Willis produced a classy piece of play. Willis dummied to put up a high kick before deciding to run, his grubber eventually finding Jackson Ford to score out wide.
The Dragons could have taken the lead shortly after when they opted to take a shot at penalty goal, only for Willis to pull the kick left. And St George Illawarra were made to pay shortly after when Manly scored an incredible try to wrestle back the lead.
There was nothing on for Cust when he jogged towards the Dragons’ defensive line, only to poke his nose through before finding Olakauátu with a freakish flick pass to complete his hat-trick, scoring his 19th try of the season.
Cust capped a brilliant individual display with two tries in the final five minutes to seal the result. The first came from yet another dummy and run, with the second the result of a Dragons error after Cust had chased his own grubber kick.
Manly Sea Eagles 34 (Haumole Olakauátu three, Cade Cust two, Jade Anderson tries. Tevita Funa five goals)
St George Illawarra Dragons 18 (Trent Peoples, Joe Lovodua, Jackson Ford tries. Jackson Willis two, Reuben Garrick goals)
at Allianz Stadium
Leader man of the match: Cade Cust (Sea Eagles)