Last Sunday’s game between the Warriors and Manly in Gosford highlighted the tremendous damage a smart ball-playing forward can inflict on an opposition defence. The performance by Manly’s Glenn Stewart playing at the line with his bag of tricks was, in my opinion, the difference between his team winning and losing.
Every team boasts skilful players but what Glenn Stewart does on that right edge is very much a throwback to yesteryear. His smart thinking and silky ball skills are at a different level to those possessed by the majority of forwards in the NRL. In an age of athletes when size and strength so often come first, ‘Gifty’ is somewhat the exception. Time and again he shows the damage that can be caused by a pure footballer.
His performance was as good as I’ve seen in the NRL this year. He notched an incredible four try assists, ran nearly a 100 metres and racked up 35 tackles.
Stewart is central to Manly’s experienced and effective right edge, which includes Daly Cherry-Evans, Jamie Lyon and David Williams – not to mention his brother Brett chiming in from the back. So far this season the maroon-and-whites’ right edge has netted a whopping 38 tries. It is the best return in the NRL, ahead of Brisbane and South Sydney’s similarly impressive left-sides attacks that have bagged 36 tries each.
Against the Warriors, each of Stewart’s try assists required a different skills set and the kind of creativity with the ball in hand that would normally be reserved for a halfback.
For the first, he displayed great hands and vision to put his brother Brett through a second-man sweep play that Cooper Cronk or Johnathan Thurston would be proud of.
Good players make their own luck through pure instinct – this was the case with his second try assist. In the right place at the right time, Stewart swooped onto a loose ball before showing some rare unnatural speed to skip away before giving the final pass to David ‘Wolfman’ Williams to post the first try of his hat-trick.
Stewart’s third assist came as a second receiver. Showing the ball on the outside, he placed defenders on their heels; this afforded him time to run to the line, where he executed a precision grubber into the corner for the flying Dave Williams to dive over for his second four-pointer of the afternoon. (Did I mention Stewart is not a halfback?)
Then the fourth and final piece of point-producing magic, with his ability to create time for himself once again his greatest weapon. With exceptional skill, Stewart sucked in three defenders by threatening to pass to his outside man, before the team’s actual halfback, Daly Cherry-Evans, came around him to capitalise on the overlap he had created. Brett Stewart loomed large out wide and – surprise, surprise – the ‘Snake’ scooted over another one.
Glenn Stewart isn’t alone when it comes to being a back-rower who doubles as a third half for their team.
The Warriors’ Feleti Mateo quickly comes to mind; he possesses some great feet at the line and combines that with some unbelievable ball skill both before the defence and in the collision. Mateo is always dangerous when he has the ball and he leads the NRL with 50 offloads this season.
The Dragons’ Trent Merrin creates plenty of opportunities for his team through the middle of the ruck, combining a large work rate (average 142 running metres per game) with late footwork and offloading ability.
For the Broncos, Corey Parker is another who has done an outstanding job, averaging 137 running metres per game and 48 offloads overall.
Then there is the Roosters’ Sonny Bill Williams – who really is the prototype for the modern footballer. A perfect combination of pure athleticism with natural ball-playing ability, so highly regarded is SBW that coach Trent Robinson has started him at five-eighth twice this year!
Forwards who can run and ball-play before the line are always going to create more opportunities to get defenders one on one. When a player has to concentrate on more than one player carrying the football, it forces him and his mates to throw their eggs in one basket and gang tackle.
The Bulldogs’ big men of Aiden Tolman, James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Greg Eastwood do this very well, as it then allows fewer defenders to be involved in the tackle – creating quicker play-the-balls and more attacking opportunities as a consequence.
In conclusion: yes it is wonderful to have a team of behemoths running out for you – but give me a footballer every day of the week.