With chief playmaker Daly Cherry-Evans rested, youngster Josh Schuster added to his bulging reputation by helping the Sea Eagles to a 32-18 win over the Dragons at Cbus Super Stadium.
The Sea Eagles actually overcame the double blow of losing both their skipper in Cherry-Evans and Wally Lewis Medallist Tom Trbojevic to outlast St George Illawarra.
Manly coach Des Hasler said the decision to rest the captain was based on his workload through a tough Origin series combined with some bumps and bruises picked up along the way.
"Chez has had a big six weeks," Hasler said.
"Origin's a very tough arena, he's put his body on the line a few times and we thought now was a good time for a rest. The boys took on the challenge and they stepped up."
It was a huge confidence boost, with Manly (10-7 record) moving within sight of the top four with a fourth win in five games despite being without their two leaders in attack.
But 20-year-old Schuster, who played a lot of his junior football in the halves, took over No.7 duties and combined superbly with veteran Kieran Foran.
Schuster’s no-look passes, and power on the edges – he busted out of six tackles, made two line breaks and two try assists - proved too much for the Dragons. Foran scored a try, had a hand in another, and worried the defence all night.
Match: Sea Eagles v Dragons
Round 18 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
Hasler praised the control displayed by the youngsters in the absence of their Origin stars after last week's loss to Canberra with those same players in Origin camp.
"We wanted to improve on what we had last week," Hasler said.
"Against Canberra we thought we were in a position to win the game and made a few costly, not so much errors but more the way we managed the game, I thought we were very good at managing the game this week and a couple of young player we had coming through really stepped up.
"It's a good reward for them because they've worked pretty hard."
It was another blow for the Dragons (8-9 record) who were trying to remain in the top-eight mix in their first game since Paul Vaughan's infamous BBQ led to one-match bans for 12 players staggered over four weeks.
The Dragons overall had six out on Friday night following the bubble breach with Vaughan sacked and Matt Dufty, Tyrrell Fuimaono and Kaide Ellis the first to take their medicine and be sidelined for a match.
Zac Lomax and Daniel Alvaro were also out, yet to verify statements made to the NRL Integrity Unit and make their way back into the bubble.
St George Illawarra at least received some welcome news with State of Origin players, Queensland hooker Ben Hunt and NSW back-rower Tariq Sims, cleared to return at Cbus Super Stadium, barely 48 hours after Game III at the same venue.
But it wasn't enough for the Dragons who failed to kick on after leading 14-12 at halftime.
The Sea Eagles didn't waste time erasing the halftime deficit, grabbing two tries in the first six minutes of the second half to leave the Dragons shell-shocked.
Foran first finished off a sublime movement sparked by Moses Suli to score in the 41st minute.
Then Cade Cust created something from nothing, defying four defenders to somehow reach out and keep the ball on finger-tip control over the try line. Suddenly the score had swung out to 24-14.
Wiley playmaker Foran was it again in the 54th minute, setting up Brad Parker's four-pointer and blow the deficit out further to 30-14.
Olakau'atu is in a mood tonight
The Dragons reduced the gap to 30-18 when Gerard Beale latched on to a clever Hunt kick in the 72nd minute.
But the Sea Eagles iced a vital win with a Reuben Garrick penalty with four minutes left on the clock, give him 6-6 with the boot.
St George-Illawarra scored first through Tyrell Sloan - who replaced the suspended Dufty at fullback - in just the sixth minute to have the Sea Eagles on the back foot.
But Manly appeared to find their groove with two tries in six minutes.
Hulking back-rower Haumole Olakau'atu was monstrous for the Sea Eagles, bumping off defenders before setting up Morgan Harper in the 13th minute.
Olakau'atu did it all himself six minutes later to make it 12-6, only for Dragons bench forward Josh McGuire to level the scores when he burrowed over in the 24th minute. It was his first NRL try since 2017.
His efforts drew particular praise from Hasler.
"I thought the back-rower Haumole was really strong, the last two weeks he's been really good," Hasler said.
"Our forwards, they played through them at the start and allowed Foran and Schuster to play off the back of it.
"I thought Dylan Walker was really good and provided some good impact off the bench. This week we were much more controlled."
Meanwhile, the Dragons' Poasa Faamausili was placed on report in the 50th minute for a crusher tackle.
And Sea Eagles back-rower Karl Lawton was taken to hospital during the halftime break after suffering sharp back pain, although Hasler said the injury was unlikely to be serious.
"He's just got a cork in his back so we'll get the necessary scans done and he'll be right to go," Hasler said.