OPINION: No-frills Manly are full of surprises
A forwards duel in the mud and slop of Brookie: It should've been the big Dogs' bread and butter.
With 662 kilos of muscle up front, 467 more coming off the bench and a Brookvale pitch looking like a pig farm in the depths of the cruellest of English winters, the table was set for the Bulldogs to dine out. A dog's dinner if ever there was.
Yet 80 minutes later it was Manly's big birds that stood with chests puffed, feathers primed and an emphatic 32-10 defeat of the competition leaders under their belts.
Just five days after being rolled into the Suncorp turf by the Broncos, where not a single Sea Eagle cracked the ton as their opposition ran for almost 400 more metres, Manly's big boppers turned the tables on the NRL's table toppers.
Daly Cherry-Evans may have been waving the conductor's wand, but it was the percussion section, the boys that go bang, that laid the platform for the home side's win.
And while Anthony Watmough gave an oh-so-literal crash course in toughness; playing outstandingly for over an hour straight with a bicep muscle torn from the bone, it was the lesser lights in the Sea Eagles pack that fired on a wet and woolly night on the Northern beaches.
Jesse Sene-Lefao. Josh Starling. Dunamis Lui. Tom Symonds. James Hasson. They're barely household names in their own homes, but the unheralded quintet stood to a man against a Bulldogs pack that has bullied and bashed most all-comers this season.
Starling with 95 running metres and 30 tackles that were only topped by hooker Matt Ballin (37 tackles). Sene-Lefao with strong charges up the middle and the hands of a neurosurgeon in scooping up an offload inches from the sodden turf for his first NRL try. Lui, Symonds and Hasson holding the fort when Cherry-Evans departed with over half an hour to play, with Symonds filling in at five-eighth and Lui on an unfamiliar right edge as a hungry Bulldogs outfit was denied any late consolation points.
"It's not just tonight, they've all been great all this year," says Sea Eagles second-rower Jamie Buhrer on the performance of his lesser-known teammates.
"Whatever task they've been given, whether it's 10 minutes... or 50 minutes, they've proven themselves first grade players and quality assets to our team... and it was really pleasing to see them boys show the confidence to do well there and to not concede any more tries against a Bulldogs side that kept coming was really pleasing."
"Dunamis and Jesse in particular, Jesse was in the centres, which he's never played before, and Dunamis was on the edge when he's a middle man, that they can adapt to those situations gives you plenty of faith.
"I think they've started the season well and sometimes you can expect a bit of a dip when the original high of playing regular first grade can wane a bit but I think those blokes have been solid in every task they've been given."
Manly mentor Geoff Toovey is fast developing a Craig Bellamy-like reputation for taking largely anonymous prospects and turning them into stars.
Think Brenton Lawrence and Justin Horo lobbing up on Manly's doorstep unwanted and unknown to play crucial roles in the Sea Eagles run to the 2013 Grand Final.
Think 24-year-old Lui, arriving at Manly HQ courtesy of a downgraded contract offer from Brisbane, making 8 tackles and almost 20 metres more per match than he did in 2013, as he has started in every game this year from the maroon and white bench.
Think South Coast junior Starling, a promising young prop at the Rabbitohs, stuck behind the Burgess brothers before stepping into the Manly pack with the most hit-up metres by any Sea Eagle so far in 2014.
Buhrer, who himself came to line-up in the maroon and white after struggling to catch the eye of Parramatta officials in the Eels' junior ranks, says the performance of the club in turning rocks to diamonds is on a par with the famed recruitment policies of the Storm, who have taken numerous journeymen to premiership glory over the years.
"We've got a great coaching staff starting at the top," Buhrer tells NRL.com.
"But with our recruitment, I think eight or nine years ago they went out and bought a couple of high-profile players but since then they've bought players that haven't quite proven themselves but have developed into very established first graders.
"And I think that culture that we have here, that 'you've been given an opportunity here, we back ya, show us what you're made of'; these blokes are embracing it.
"With all due respect to Melbourne, they have done that really well but I think if you look back over the years we've done over the years we've done the same thing with a lot of quality players that have come here with not the biggest raps on them... and then shown what capable first graders they are.
"And it goes to show it's a fair formula for success."