It’s only three years since Manly last tasted premiership success with their 40-0 thrashing of Melbourne but that must seem a lifetime ago for those returning for another shot at glory this weekend. The Sea Eagles have been battered by injuries and off-field dramas in the years since that memorable day, yet it has taken just 12 months to put those worries behind them and get back to the business they know best – winning.
In 2011 the Sea Eagles have welcomed back strike weapon Brett Stewart, unveil a bright new halfback in Daly Cherry-Evans and resume their intense rivalry with old foes Melbourne. They have also taken back their crown as the side that everyone else loves to hate – a fact that will be of little concern to the club and coach Des Hasler this Sunday as the strive for their eighth grand final win. We take a look back at the defining moments in Manly’s triumphant 2011 season.
Foran Leads from the Front
Boasting one of the youngest halves pairings in the NRL, Manly were begging for someone to stand tall and lead the way when the 2011 season kicked off. That man was Kieran Foran. The inspirational five-eighth is renowned for his toughness but it was his performances with the ball in hand that proved decisive during the early rounds as he guided them to five wins from their first seven games. Foran was the Sea Eagles’ best in wins over Sydney Roosters, the Warriors and Penrith.
Courage Under Fire
Rugby league Immortal and Manly legend Bob Fulton described the Sea Eagles’ 27-16 win over Sydney Roosters in Round 2 as one of the club’s greatest ever performances. Heading into the match missing both co-captains, Jamie Lyon and Jason King, as well as big name players Glenn Stewart and Steve Matai, Manly also saw backs David and Tony Williams forced to play with injury yet still managed to conjure a remarkable result against the 2010 grand finalists. Youngsters Jamie Buhrer, Tim Robinson, Vic Mauro and Daniel Harrison were among those to stand tall on the day while Kieran Foran and William Hopoate crossed for crucial tries.
Return of Brett Stewart
There is no doubt that the Sea Eagles pose a far greater attacking threat when fullback Brett Stewart is on the field. Finally putting two seasons of injury woe and off-field dramas behind him, Stewart didn’t take long to be back to his old tricks in 2011 after returning in Round 1, scoring 14 tries and producing 14 try assists, 13 line-breaks and 10 line-break assists in his 19 games so far in 2011. A brilliant support player who thrives on sniffing around the rucks in search of an opportunity, he also provided one of the plays of the year with a remarkable pick-up and pass for Daly Cherry Evans to score from a Kieran Foran kick against Brisbane in Round 12.
The loss of promising young half Trent Hodkinson – who joined the Bulldogs this season – had the potential to stop Manly in their tracks, but Daly Cherry-Evans had other ideas. The 22-year-old was thrown straight into the thick of it in 2011 after playing Queensland Cup for Redcliffe last season but he exceeded expectations with a series of match-winning performances that eventually saw him win both the Dally M and RLPA Rookie of the Year awards. Showing maturity beyond his years, Cherry-Evans has blossomed as the season has progressed with 18 try assists, nine line-break assists and 107 points.
Manly’s rivalry with Cronulla is the stuff of legend – a deep-seated resentment that stems from their famously brutal grand final battle of 1973. And while the Sharks have struggled in recent seasons, they have typically lifted whenever they’ve faced their old rivals. That was certainly the case when they led Manly 13-0 with 20 minutes remaining of their Round 5 clash at Toyota Stadium – until Manly conjured a miracle. Tries to Kieran Foran in the 61st minute and George Rose in the 67th closed the gap to one before Daly Cherry-Evans levelled the scored with a 79th-minute field-goal. And just as the game looked set for golden point, the Sea Eagles stunned the hosts in the last play of regulation time as Jamie Oldfield collected Jamie Lyon’s speculative chip to race 50 metres and score.
Manly have always thrived on an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality and they called on all of the old tricks to again lay the platform for their success in 2011. The Sea Eagles have been critical of the NRL, the media and pretty much anyone else that has dared set foot inside the Sea Eagles compound this year as they look to call on the ghosts of seasons past and add an eighth premiership to their long list of achievements. Certainly Manly remain reluctant when it comes to media commitments with the Stewart brothers, Anthony Watmough and even coach Des Hasler preferring to steer clear of the public eye. But hey, if the formula works, why change?
Much like Warriors winger Manu Vatuvei, Tony ‘T-Rex’ Williams is somewhat of an enigma in the Sea Eagles line-up yet there is no doubt that he has made a huge impact in his side’s run to the 2011 grand final. His versatility has proved a Godsend for coach Des Hasler, who has used Williams on the wing, in the centres and in the second row at various stages of the season. However, back row may well prove this 118kg giant’s long-term position with his greater involvement bringing his unique talents to the fore in recent months. The human wrecking ball is almost impossible to stop close to the line
Battle of Brookvale
One of the great rivalries of the modern era – having met in consecutive grand finals in 2007 and 2008 (for one win apiece) – the Round 25 top-of-the-table clash between Manly and Melbourne was always going to produce fireworks. As it was though, nobody quite expected this outcome. From the moment the whistle blew this game looked ready to explode and it did in spectacular fashion in the 26th minute after forwards Glenn Stewart and Adam Blair were sent to the sin bin for running into a fight. The pair only made it to the sideline before the fists started flying again with players from both sides running in to join the brawl. Stewart and Blair were sent off but the impact of that moment would be felt weeks later with Blair suspended for the remainder of the season and Stewart rubbed out for three weeks (returning for the grand final). Blair’s presence was sorely missed in Melbourne’s loss to the Warriors on Saturday night but, perhaps more tellingly, Manly’s 18-4 win at Brookvale that night gave them the confidence and momentum to go all the way to the decider.
Injuries No Problem
Winning a premiership requires as much good fortune as good management with injuries arguably the key factor in remaining in contention come September. So it comes as no surprise that Manly have used fewer players than any other club in 2011 with just 25 enjoying time on the field. In fact, of the regular starters only winger David Williams (12 games) and forward Shane Rodney (11) have missed a significant number of games. Crucially, 13 players have played 20 games or more including Jamie Lyon, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans, Matt Ballin, Brent Kite, Steve Matai, Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough.
Manly finished the regular season two competition points behind minor premiers Melbourne but it took just a week for them to take over as premiership favourites following a second-half rout of North Queensland in Week 1 of the finals. While Melbourne battled to a gritty 18-8 win over Newcastle, the Sea Eagles were all class in scoring seven second-half tries to turn an 8-0 deficit into a 42-8 win. Aside from being the most points ever scored in a half of finals football in the NRL, it shifted the balance of power in Manly’s favour as confidence continued to soar at the right time of the year.