While he’s not in the Johnathan Thurston league, when confirmation of his presence can shorten a team’s odds from friendless long-shots to odds-on favourite, Jamie Lyon is nonetheless integral to Manly’s chances in the 2012 Telstra Premiership, according to former Test centre Mark Gasnier.
“He’s a very important part of their right edge,” Gasnier tells NRL.com. “With Glenn Stewart and Daly Cherry-Evans, he’s a big part of their attack. When they’re thinking fifth-tackle options, he’s a go-to man. I don’t know how many times he’s done it this season, but he’s brilliant at tapping the ball back from attacking kicks.”
According to NRL Stats Lyon has missed just six games in the past three seasons. Of those, the Sea Eagles lost four – most recently on March 31 when they went down 29-20 to Parramatta. (Overall they have lost 10 of 20 without him among their number.) And when Lyon went off against the Bulldogs in the first qualifying final, Manly’s right edge was noticeably less potent.
This week five-eighth Kieran Foran told reporters: “When we found out that he was going to be taking the field I think it just lifted everyone's spirits straight away.” Certainly when Lyon returned against the Cowboys, Manly’s attack on the right again looked direct and dangerous.
How much do Manly’s young wingers and halves miss their captain when he’s off the field? Gasnier reckons: “No doubt it would be a dampener. You can’t down-play the effect of losing their captain and such a good player.
“But the young guys are so professional these days. They know how they have to focus on preparation and the job ahead.”
True to the man and his modest bush roots, Lyon puts his fine form down to “the quality of the blokes around me. We’ve got a good mix of young guys and experienced ones. We’re playing some good footy.”
At training, Lyon says those who play left and right compete against each other. They also practice leaping for kicks and tapping them back. “We’ll practice that a few times a week. [Laughs] It might be nice to catch a few myself! Score some tries! A lot of it comes down to the accuracy of the kick…those guys [Foran and Cherry-Evans] landing the ball on a mark.”
Lyon’s been on the mark all year. The 30-year-old hasn’t lost any pace, elusiveness or ability to free up supports. He’s running super lines, has fine soft hands, and is a footballer to his boot-straps.
Gasnier says Lyon and Glenn Stewart “have a terrific understanding and so many options. Jamie can hit a hole himself, run a decoy, take them on outside. Cherry-Evans could get him the ball early in space and he can put it straight through the hands. Jamie’s a very intelligent footballer, and defences have to be adaptable.”
Lyon’s combination with Cherry-Evans and the Stewart brothers has seen Manly’s right wingers – David Williams and make-shifters Michael Oldfield and Dean Whare – notch 26 of Manly’s 95 tries this season. Forty of Manly’s tries have come on the right, second to North Queensland who had Thurston feeding the competition’s co-leading try-scorer, Ashley Graham.
Lyon has scored nine tries and landed 71 goals. Is he improving with age? Gasnier says he “isn’t sure whether he’s any faster or his ball-play is better – he’s always been a classy player. But what’s been great this season is his combination with the guys inside and out.
“He’s also a great defensive centre, which has always been recognised. What he’s done well this season is his cover defence. We saw it against North Queensland the other night; he saved a try by making the yards and cleaning up a kick. That’s just an attitude thing. It’s obvious he’s enjoying his footy.”
When Lyon’s calf injury appeared to be season-ending – and reports were sent to the judiciary concerning Steve Matai and co-captain Jason King – plenty of pundits wrote off Manly for 2012.
Yet Lyon’s injury to the plantaris tendon – known as the ‘monkey’ muscle because it’s the one that allows monkeys to grip with their feet – was a quick healer. And so Manly’s ‘flat-lining’ season found its heartbeat.
“I had a run on the Wednesday before the game and I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m no chance’,” Lyon says. “But I had a run the next day and it was a lot better. By the Friday I was definitely playing.”
And so here we are, Manly taking on arch-rivals Melbourne Storm in the sudden-death grand final qualifier. Lyon says to combat the creativity and threat of the Storm’s ‘Big Three’ – Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater – his team must “react as quickly as we can to what they’re doing”.
“You can’t go in with a pre-conceived idea, be it rushing up or whatever. You make a lot up on the run. It’s about plenty of talk and working together. Brett Stewart at the back, in particular, has a lot of bark in him. It’s about communicating, and our guys are good at that.”
Especially when playing with Lyon.