UNDER-fire Manly fullback Brett Stewart put his off-field woes behind him in the best way possible with a match-winning three-try performance as Manly finally broke their duck 23-10 against Wests Tigers at Brookvale Oval.
Suspended for four weeks by the NRL for breaking their code of conduct – and having fronted court midweek on sexual assault charges – Stewart showed that he remains the most crucial cog in the Manly machine with three scintillating tries in his first game of the 2009 season.
Down 4-0 early, the Sea Eagles burst to life late in the first half with Glenn Hall giving them the lead before Stewart set about making amends for his absence. He began in the 24th-minute by leaping highest to haul in a Matt Orford bomb, added another just three minutes later when he sliced through a staggered defensive line, then topped it off in the second half with a brilliant low catch from a Watmough offload to score between the posts.
His jubilation was there for all to see as he celebrated with team-mates, themselves clearly ecstatic to have their number one strike weapon back.
Stewart’s second try was his 50th at Brookvale and enough to signal a long afternoon for the visitors.
Although the Tigers scored the first try of the game in just the 3rd minute, they had to wait another 68 for their second and never looked like claiming the points as they slumped to their third loss from five outings.
The Game Swung When… Brett Stewart decided it was time to impose himself on the game. One minute the Tigers were in a contest, the next Stewart was back to his devastating best with two tries in three minutes to snatch the game away from the visitors.
Who Was Hot… Stewart was clearly the difference, scoring a hat-trick and running for a game-high 172 metres in his first game of the season.
Back-rower Anthony Watmough also made a telling contribution, running for 120 metres and breaking through late in the game to send Stewart over for his third with a sublime offload.
Who Was Not… Tigers captain Robbie Farah was being harsh when he blamed the kicking games of himself and five-eighth Benji Marshall for the visitors’ loss, but certainly they were lacking in attack against a Manly side that have improved but still look a long way from their best.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… The Sea Eagles’ attack may be a long way from refined after five rounds but their fourth and final try of the afternoon was classic Manly.
Running off a perfectly timed Matt Ballin pass, Watmough broke through the line and then threw a superb no-look offload as he was tackled by Tigers five-eighth John Morris that Stewart scooped up to score between the posts.
Refs Watch… The sin-binning of Tigers back-rower Todd Payten for an innocuous professional foul must have been the last straw for a frustrated Wests Tigers side – as would a crucial disallowed try to Benji Marshall for an obstruction on Jason King in the lead-up. It was unlikely that King could have made any serious impact on the play.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Brett Stewart (Sea Eagles): Scored three tries, ran for 172 metres and showed why he has been so sorely missed over the opening three rounds; 2 points – Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles): Bent the line at will, set up a try and ran for 120 metres in a welcome return to form; 1 point – Chris Heighington (Wests Tigers): The Tigers’ best by a long way, running for 155 metres in an otherwise lacklustre display by the visitors.
Sea Eagles 23 (B Stewart 3, G Hall tries; M Orford 3 goals, field-goal) def Wests Tigers 10 (B Ryan, J Morris tries; B Marshall goal) at Brookvale Oval. Crowd: 17,942.