“The Prince is back”.
It’s not clear who said it but it was a Manly player, as Brett Stewart walked down the tunnel after scoring a hat-trick in his comeback at a sodden Brookvale Oval.
The curtailed Round Nine of the NRL finished on a night of sharp contrasts. The rain, the crowd affected by not just the inclement weather but the fact the opponents were Canberra, the withdrawal of Josh Dugan before kick-off with an infected boil under his arm, all suggested a low-key evening.
Even as the Manly team warmed up in the downpour, there was something missing. Stewart had been named for his comeback from injury but he was nowhere to be seen. Then, with just a few minutes left before kick-off, he was cheered onto the field by the western grandstand throng. He’d been avoiding aggravation of a hamstring injury on a bike in the dressing-room.
This was going to be no normal wet-weather slog. It might have been the night Canberra ended a seven-match losing streak – at least when Blake Ferguson miraculously kept the ball alive on the western touchline only for Joel Thompson to fumble as he attempted to pick up the Steeden in the 15th minute.
From that moment it was going to be Manly’s night. Another eight minutes passed before Stewart – who had been on 98 tries for 611 days – scored off Kieran Foran’s pass; he mimicked a jockey whipping his horse in the straight as he celebrated in the in-goal. Try no. 100 came six minutes after halftime, the third of the night from a scrum 15 minutes from fulltime.
That’s six hat-tricks in 122 games for Stewart, whose 2009 and 2010 seasons were wrecked by suspension and injury. He’s scored 55 tries in 56 games at Brookie.
So ended a weekend of football which was low on game-time but high on thrills – and comebacks.
Australia came back from the ignominy of the Four Nations defeat by beating the New Zealand 20-10 at Skilled Park on Friday night, Greg Inglis’ injury misfortune giving new rival Jamal Idris a leg-up to NSW selection.
Ryan Hinchcliffe came back from Albury – the long way - after being man of the match for Country in the 18-12 win over City at Lavington Sports Ground on Friday. Three hours in the car to Melbourne, forty winks, a two hour flight to Brisbane and a key role in the thrilling 29-22 win over Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium the next night.
It was fitting that Cooper Cronk - backing up from the Test - kicked his 40 metre field goal with a symbolically bandaged head.
The next day, Nathan Fien, Jason Nightingale and Jamie Soward didn't come back from their representative commitments - but there was also no comeback from North Queensland in a 22-8 defeat to the Dragons at WIN Jubilee Oval.
For personal comebacks, only Brett Stewart eclipsed that of Manu Vatuvei. OK, he wasn’t at his wrecking-ball best but his appearance did foreshadow the big 34-14 Warriors win over Gold Coast at Skilled Park on Sunday. It was the Aucklanders’ first win over the Titans.
The rep season is underway. We got our Prince back, we got our Beast back. Now give us Origin.
Control the action. Watch the NRL’s best bits or full match replays with NRL.com’sGame Analyser.