Last weekend was a new first for Sea Eagles halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. Helping to spark their team to victory was nothing new, but it was the first time this season the pair were able to match their opposing halves for age and experience.
Between them, Foran and Cherry-Evans have a combined age of 42 years and they have made just 58 NRL appearances. In every game in 2011, until last weekend, this rookie pairing had been opposed to halves with vastly more experience and invariably they have outplayed their rivals.
Uncertainty over the youngsters was one of the reasons Manly did not figure among the top contenders in pre-season betting markets but the maturity of their performances has seen the Sea Eagles’ odds slashed and their position on the competition ladder has risen accordingly.
Last weekend they took on the Cowboys, who – without Queensland star Johnathan Thurston on board – were forced to play Townsville juniors Ray Thompson and Michael Morgan in the halves. Thompson is 19 and Morgan 21, and between them they have played just 24 top grade games, making the Manly pair relative veterans in comparison.
Auckland-born Foran has been widely acclaimed as the best young talent in the game and is in hot pursuit of Johnathan Thurston for the Dally M Medal this season, while Cherry-Evans is a favourite for Dally M rookie honours (although Cowboy Tariq Sims may have the final say).
And many of the sceptics who doubted that such an inexperienced halves duo could get the job done for Manly this season are quickly changing their tune. Foran and Cherry-Evans have played every game and even at the halfway mark of the season it looks a formality that they will spearhead the Sea Eagles’ charge come finals time.
And it is also inevitable that the critics will cast doubt on the capacity of such a young pairing to steer a team to a premiership. If they were to do so, Foran and Cherry-Evans would become the youngest premiership-winning halves combination since Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling at Parramatta in 1982. The Eels’ stars were 21 and 22 respectively at the time. (Foran and Cherry-Evans will also be 21 and 22 come grand final time).
The youngest premiership-winning halves duo on record were St George’s Roy ‘Torchy’ Hasson and Alby McAndrew who were both 20 when the Dragons claimed their first premiership title in 1941.
Manly made a grand final with a younger halves pairing than Foran and Cherry-Evans back in 1968. Then it was two 20-year-olds, five-eighth Bob Fulton and halfback Dennis Ward who helped to propel the Sea Eagles to a premiership decider against Souths.
Coincidentally Foran drew favourable comparisons with Fulton from former Sea Eagles premiership-winner Peter Peters only a week ago. Fulton won his Test spurs earlier in the 1968 season with Australia’s World Cup side and went on to earn Immortal status, while Foran won his first New Zealand jersey as a 19-year-old in 2009. Ward proceeded to play six Tests for Australia and figured in Manly’s 1972 premiership-winning team.
Foran and Cherry-Evans have a lot of football ahead of them – this year and into the future – but if they maintain their present trajectory, the Sea Eagles can be expected to move heaven and earth to keep them together. The youngsters have complemented each other superbly since they teamed up against Melbourne in the opening game of the season. Foran has continually proven himself defensively and has displayed a wonderful awareness with the ball. Inside him, Cherry-Evans is fearless in taking the ball to the line, kicks intelligently in general play and has shown almost no sign of nerves in his first season in the NRL.
Their names might not roll off the tongue like Kenny and Sterling but Foran and Cherry-Evans have huge appeal at Manly and they just might possess the x-factor to carry the Sea Eagles all the way in 2011.