Manly set to cement five-year domination
They were a rugby league juggernaut in the mid-1990s before a failed merger brought them to their knees. Now the Manly Sea Eagles have returned to the summit and are on the verge of cementing their legacy as one of the most dominant forces the game has seen.
The Sea Eagles have appeared in three of the last five grand finals – and when Manly haven't made rugby league's grandest stage, they have been knocked out by the eventual premiers.
It has truly been a golden five years for the Sea Eagles, reaching the summit in 2008 with a premiership and World Club Championship to boot.
In that time, Anthony Watmough has transformed himself from unknown to representative star, Brett and Glenn Stewart have become household names and Jamie Lyon returned from England to win a grand final at five-eighth before re-establishing himself as one of the game's premier centres.
It is a far cry from where the club was in 2003. They had just returned to Brookvale after a tumultuous stint as the 'Northern Eagles' and had finished the season in second-last place.
The team that dominated the mid-'90s, winning three consecutive minor premierships and making three consecutive grand final appearances (winning the big one in 1996), had become a shadow of its former self, struggling with a forced merger with North Sydney and languishing at the bottom of the ladder.
Injured co-captain Jason King was born in Manly, went to school across the road from Brookvale Oval and played all his junior footy on the Northern Beaches. While thrilled to make his first-grade debut for the merged Northern Eagles, King can now reflect on how the club was struggling at the time.
“It was an enormous buzz to achieve first grade, but looking back these days, the club was in a pretty tough spot,” King told NRL.com.
“It was a difficult time for the club. There was the forced merger with the North Sydney Bears, who were our healthiest rivalry, and it didn't work out.
“I think the Manly based fans found it very hard to identify with the Northern Eagles and I think the same could be said about the North Sydney Bears supporters.”
The Manly Sea Eagles name returned in 2003 and while the club was still struggling on the field, the season was notable for the debuts of the Stewart brothers and Watmough.
“It was like a fresh start,” King said.
“From a personal point of view, I only ever wanted to play for the Sea Eagles. For them to go back and be called the Manly Sea Eagles again, that was an awesome feeling for me being a local junior. It was good for the fans as well.”
Little did Manly supporters know that the trio who had made their debuts in 2003 would go on to create the backbone of an era of dominance.
“I think everybody knew that they (Stewart brothers and Watmough) were really good kids,” King recalls.
“They certainly have made the most of it. They have always been really competitive and it is a credit to them and the coaching staff where they are now.
“You can never really predict how good players are going be, but when they came into first grade they played really well, obviously these days they are powerhouses, but back then they were just young kids.”
Des Hasler arrived as coach in 2004 but the team was still languishing at the bottom of the ladder, finishing the season in third last. But things were about to change in a hurry.
Ben Kennedy signed in 2005 and the damaging forward was an instant sensation on the Northern Beaches, leading the side to their first finals series in seven years. The Sea Eagles were back in finals football, but not yet on the radar as far as a premiership force.
“Des brought an enormous amount of professionalism and hard work to the team,” King said.
“He is very thorough in his approach to the game and his players are meticulously prepared.
“Then there was the signing of 'BK' and that was enormous. He is one of the best signings the club has ever had. We had a lot of young guys at that stage; myself, Brent Kite in the front row and Anthony Watmough, and I think Kennedy showed us young forwards how to play the game and how to prepare.
“I learned a lot out of what he had to say and training alongside him and playing with him on the field.”
By 2006, Manly's youngsters were establishing themselves as genuine NRL stars, and the club also made some important moves in the transfer market, signing Matt Orford and Steven Bell from Melbourne and Michael Robertson from Canberra. Hasler's work ethic and drive was also having an impact as the Eagles finished the season in fifth place. And while they exited the finals series with consecutive losses, the signs were there that Manly were on the rise.
The next five years would see Manly either win the premiership or get knocked-out by the eventual premiers.
2007 signaled the arrival of the Sea Eagles as a genuine Premiership force. Jamie Lyon returned from a two-year stint with England side St Helens and the Northern Beaches club made Brookvale Oval their 'fortress' again, winning 11 of their 12 home games to surge into second place. They continued that form into the finals, qualifying for the grand final with dominant performances over South Sydney (30-6) and North Queensland (28-6).
Ultimately, they would be denied in the 2007 Grand Final, but the Sea Eagles were now back at the top and a rugby league powerhouse to be feared.
“The recruitment was really good. We didn't sign a lot of players, but we made sure that the players we signed were really good people,” King said.
“Out of those years, we started to build a really good culture, with a lot of great team members.
“We didn't set any lofty goals coming in to 2007, we had a great squad and had learned a lot from previous seasons, and obviously everyone's goal is to win the grand final, but we hadn't really talked about it.
“We played well and made the grand final, we were beaten in that game, but we learned lessons from that and we managed to win it the following year.”
It was a dream season for the Eagles, finishing second before winning their finals matches over the Dragons (38-6), Warriors (32-6) and Melbourne in the Grand Final (40-0) - an amazing combined total of 110-12!
While 2009 and 2010 could not live up to their all-conquering '08 season, it still took the eventual premiers to knock-out the Silvertails in both years. In '09 the Sea Eagles were knocked out by the Storm after finishing fifth and losing in Melbourne. Upsets by the sides below them ensured the Eagles were bundled out in the first week of the finals.
Manly were hit by injuries in 2010, but still managed to make the finals for the sixth consecutive year, before being beaten by eventual premiers St George Illawarra.
So we come to 2011, Manly again find themselves in a grand final, their third in five years, a feat that would have seemed impossible way back in 2003. While King won't be there on the field on Sunday, he says he has accepted the injury and won't have any regrets.
“We have worked extremely hard, the players have bought into that culture and work ethic that has enabled the club to really grow and with that comes the belief,” he said.
“If you compare it back to those earlier years, we have just established a great mateship and playing group that is prepared to work extremely hard for each other, we have grown together and now we are an extremely competitive club.
“On a personal level, I'm not reflecting on the injury at all, it is a team sport and I'm a part of a squad that has been together since November last year, it has been a big effort from everyone involved over the last 11 months and the 17 guys will go out there on Sunday representing us all.”
Timeline: The Sea Eagles' remarkable road to glory
2003 – Manly finish second last – Brett Stewart, Glenn Stewart & Anthony Watmough make their debut. Club stands alone after unsuccessful merger with North Sydney.
2004 – Manly finish third last – first year as coach for Des Hasler.
2005 – Ben Kennedy comes to the club with immediate impact, leading the side to its first finals series since 1998. Steve Matai makes his debut, Brent Kite joins from the Dragons.
2006 – Manly finish fifth, loses consecutive games to be bundled out of the finals. Michael Robertson joins from Raiders, Matt Orford & Steven Bell from Melbourne.
2007 – Melbourne defeat Manly in the grand final. Jamie Lyon returns from two-year stint with St Helens.
2008 – Manly wins the premiership with a 40-0 victory over the Melbourne Storm.
2009 – Manly beaten by premiers Melbourne in first week of finals (knocked out after finishing fifth).
2010 – Manly beaten by premiers St George Illawarra in first week of finals.
2011 – Manly v New Zealand in grand final.