Manly coach Des Hasler has plenty of reason to respect the Penrith Panthers, not least of which a habit of finding himself on the wrong side of a lop-sided contest against the men in black.
Manly might be short-priced favourites to win Sunday afternoon’s clash with Penrith at Centrebet Stadium but that doesn’t mean that the Sea Eagles will offer their hosts anything less than 100 percent respect.
Coach Des Hasler found out the hard way in the first year of his coaching career what can happen when a team drops its intensity against the Panthers – his Manly side was pulverised 72-12.
Sea Eagles veterans Jason King and Anthony Watmough also carry the scars of that game played at Penrith on August 7, 2004. It was the night that Craig Gower led the Panthers to the biggest win in the club’s history and at the same time inflicted Manly’s heaviest defeat (subsequently surpassed 12 months later by Cronulla).
It was sweet, delicious revenge for every Panthers’ follower old enough to remember the 70-7 pasting that Manly handed Penrith at Penrith Park way back in 1973.
There was no sign of the points avalanche that would follow when the Panthers led 20-12 after half an hour’s play that night but by halftime they had extended to 30-12 and the Sea Eagles, battling along near the foot of the competition ladder, lost heart.
Luke Lewis, who scored two tries that night, and Trent Waterhouse are survivors of that Penrith team, while interchange Shane Rodney has since swapped camps and will return with the Sea Eagles this Sunday.
It was a difficult period for Manly, still recovering from the excesses of the Super League war and the disastrous Northern Eagles joint venture while off the field a bitter struggle for control ensued as powerbrokers Max Delmege and Scott Penn waged war over the club’s ownership.
Hasler took over the coaching reins from Peter Sharp at the start of the 2004 season with a moderate roster of players and was forced to build his team from the ground up. The walloping by the Panthers was one of four games in which Hasler’s team conceded 50 points or more that season.
Hasler was not in the coach’s seat but he had a good view of another occasion when the Sea Eagles let their guards down against Penrith in a match at Brookvale in 2003.
He was trainer at the time, carrying the water bottle onto the field along with running instructions from coach Sharp. On a bizarre afternoon, the Sea Eagles trailed 12-0 after 12 minutes of play but appeared to get their game back on track when they charged to a 26-12 lead by halftime. But for the next 40 minutes the Panthers dominated and ran in a point-a-minute without reply to win 52-26. King, Watmough and Glenn Stewart all played in that Manly team.
As a Manly player, Hasler found himself on the wrong side of the Panthers on a number of occasions through the 1980s and 1990s, most notably in a mid-week play-off in 1985. Penrith were fighting for a place in the finals for the first time and finished the regular season locked with the Sea Eagles in fifth place. In those days finals berths were not decided by for and against so the teams were forced to play-off on a Tuesday night, just 48 hours after the completion of Round 26 matches.
A titanic struggle ended in a 6-all stalemate, forcing 20 minutes of extra-time. Manly second-rower Paul Vautin kicked a field goal early in the overtime period to give the Sea Eagles a 7-6 lead but two penalty goals to Penrith’s 20-year-old halfback Greg Alexander secured the Panthers a 10-7 win.
Hasler has more even reason to respect his opposition this week – he started out as a Panther, playing 12 top grade games for the club through 1982 and 1983. He played his junior football at St Dominics College and his father John was one of the founders of the St Dominics junior rugby league club, now known as Penrith Brothers.
So if Manly don’t win this Sunday a lack of knowledge or respect for their opposition should not be the root cause.