Manly fullback Brett Stewart is not the only one making a return to Brookvale Oval this Sunday after a long absence. The Newcastle Knights will play at the northern beaches venue for the first time since 2006.
Understandably the media has focussed on Stewart this week and his “homecoming” to Brookvale for the first time since September 2009 but the return of the Knights after five years’ absence adds an intriguing element to Sunday’s game.
From 2007 to 2010 Manly chose to transfer their home games against the Knights to the Central Coast where they attempted to boost attendance numbers with Newcastle fans who might not ordinarily make the longer journey to Brookvale.
But Stewart’s comeback from knee surgery and the impressive early form of both clubs should create few concerns for Sea Eagles’ officials with an eye to the gate this week.
Like most visiting teams, the Knights have found Brookvale an intimidating venue over the years and testament to that is their moderate record of two wins from 11 visits. It took them 10 years to notch their first win there, and not surprisingly it was the Knights’ peerless scrumbase duo of Matthew and Andrew Johns who called the shots.
In a rematch of the unforgettable 1997 grand final, the Knights dominated from the outset, piled on five tries to lead 30-6 at fulltime and went for the jugular in the second half to run up a final score of 50-16. They became the first visiting team to put 50 points on Manly on their home turf.
The influence of the Johns brothers will extend to both teams this Sunday. Matthew has returned to the Knights this season in an assistant coaching role, working with halves Jarrod Mullen and Beau Henry, while Andrew has played a similar role at Manly, where he has helped in the development of rookie halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and five-eighth Kieren Foran.
This Sunday marks the 23rd anniversary of the Knights’ first big match in Sydney. In only their fourth match of premiership football, the novice outfit of 1988 was no match for the defending premiers who scored a resounding 44-12 win. The Sea Eagles lost two of their stars, Dale Shearer and Michael O’Connor, early in the contest but five-eighth Cliff Lyons and second-rower Noel Cleal stepped up to play leading roles in the win. Current Manly coach Des Hasler played halfback for the Sea Eagles while current Knights chairman Rob Tew was Newcastle’s five-eighth.
The Sea Eagles were largely untroubled by the Knights in Brookvale clashes over the next decade. The Knights invariably put up a strong physical challenge but Manly’s class told repeatedly as Lyons, Geoff Toovey, O’Connor and Hasler produced the winning plays.
The first appearance of the Johns brothers in 1994 did little to break the nexus as Manly won a fierce physical battle 32-16, and not even the sight of Andrew Johns sporting a garish red hairdo in 1996 could upset Manly’s rhythm. Not surprisingly Johns’ fashion statement attracted plenty of stick from the Brookvale faithful as the Knights were pumped 28-12.
The contests became increasingly intense as Newcastle established a bulwark around Paul “Chief” Harragon and fellow front-rowers Tony Butterfield and Mark Sargent, while the Sea Eagles boasted giants of their own such as Mark “Spud” Carroll and David “Cement” Gillespie. The teams met in a top-of-the-ladder clash at Brookvale in 1997 and there was tension from start to finish. Young Knights backs Matt Gidley and Darren Albert copped a barrage of sledging from Manly pair John Hopoate and Craig Field while Newcastle’s English hooker Lee Jackson and giant Manly prop Billy Weepu clashed in the Brookvale tunnel after both had been sin-binned for fighting.
Manly won that match 22-8 to extend their dominance over the Knights to nine straight games. Newcastle claimed their ultimate revenge in the final seconds of the ’97 grand final and then returned to Brookvale a year later to kick sand in the Sea Eagles’ faces.
The Knights have played at Brookvale only three times since – losing decisively in 2004 and 2005 but claiming a 26-12 victory in 2006, when the mercurial Andrew Johns claimed man of the match honours.