Fullback duel recalls classic battle

Roosters and Sea Eagles supporters are in for a rare treat this Sunday when two of the great fullbacks of the modern era, Anthony Minichiello and Brett Stewart, go head-to-head at the Sydney Football Stadium.

It is a rare treat because long-term injuries to both players have meant that four years have elapsed since “Mini” and “Snake” last stared at each other across the halfway line.

Minichiello lost a major part of four seasons (2006-09) due to disc problems that affected his back and neck while Stewart was sidelined by knee injuries for the majority of the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

The last time they clashed was on April Fool’s Day 2007 when Stewart scored Manly’s first two tries in an emphatic 30-8 victory. The Sea Eagles were building that season to the first of two grand final appearances, while the Roosters were struggling to adjust to the coaching style of Chris Anderson. Their season unravelled spectacularly, and after Manly handed them a 56-0 humiliation at Brookvale, Anderson was sacked and grand final hero Brad Fittler installed as caretaker coach.

Manly’s team for the first clash included a number of players who will reappear on Sunday, including Brett and Glenn Stewart, Michael Robertson, Matt Ballin, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough and George Rose. Apart from Minichiello, the Roosters featured Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Sam Perrett on the wings, Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce in the halves, Nate Myles in the back row and Mitchell Aubusson on the bench.

A personal bonus awaits both Stewart and Minichiello this Sunday if either can cross the try-line twice. Stewart remains two tries short of his century, while Minichiello is poised to equal the Roosters’ all-time tryscoring record, currently held by blockbusting winger Bill Mullins, who crossed for 104 tries for the club between 1968 and 1978.

The duel between Stewart and Minichiello recalls another classic fullback confrontation involving these clubs back in 1974. It was the first time that the Roosters’ glamour recruit from rugby union, Russell Fairfax, lined up against Manly’s young Kangaroo Graham Eadie.

It was one of several mouth-watering confrontations that had fans of both clubs clamouring for tickets for the May 4 clash at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Manly were the undisputed champions of the competition, claiming their first premiership title in 1972 against the Roosters and backing it up a year later with a legendary grand final victory over Cronulla.

The Roosters presented the biggest threat to the Sea Eagles’ dominance. Jack Gibson had returned as coach of a club that was building into an awesome combination and his stable of stars included the peerless Arthur Beetson, Ron Coote, John Brass, Mark Harris and the aforementioned Mullins on the wing.

Although 1974 was the first year of genuine home and away football, replacing the old match of the day at the SCG, interest in this match was so great that NSWRL officials and both clubs agreed to transfer the Roosters’ home game from the Sydney Sports Ground to the Cricket Ground.

A crowd of 50,130 supplied a grand final-type atmosphere and Gibson’s Roosters showed Manly how serious they were about claiming their crown when they won 15-5. Beetson’s contribution was hailed by former Test captain Keith Barnes as “the greatest front row performance of our time”.

The attendance figure remains an all-time record for a Roosters’ home game.

Writing in the Sun-Herald, former referee Col Pearce declared “the long-awaited clash between fullbacks Graham Eadie (Manly) and Russell Fairfax ended with honours even. Eadie was one of the few shining lights for Manly and Fairfax showed grit and determination”.

When the first representative teams of the year were chosen a fortnight later it was Eadie who won selection for City Firsts, while Fairfax had to be content with the City Seconds job.

Fairfax had the last laugh in ’74 when he shared in the Roosters’ first grand final triumph since 1945 but it was Eadie who prevailed at representative level and further premiership titles awaited him in 1976 and 1978.

Rep jerseys may not be at stake at the Football Stadium this Sunday but there is every chance that the opposing number ones will have a major influence on the outcome.