Stewart Manly's finals X-Factor
Manly fullback Brett Stewart is in arguably career-best form, and having sparked a recent Sea Eagles resurgence, could help drive the side to an unlikely 2015 finals berth, according to impressed teammates.
Manly captain Jamie Lyon and five-eighth Kieran Foran each praised Stewart's vision, awareness and footballing nous after the 30-year-old's man-of-the-match effort in dismantling the Titans on Monday night, keeping the side within two wins of the top eight.
Stewart himself deflected praise of his dangerous creative play, suggesting a series of serious injuries had cut his speed and forced him to find other ways to contribute.
The Sea Eagles face a nightmare run home, needing six or seven wins from their final eight games which include matches against four of the current top five teams in Brisbane, North Queensland (this Monday), Roosters and the Rabbitohs.
But after Stewart's try, two try assists, eight tackle breaks and two line breaks on Monday, Foran said the key now is to get the ball into Stewart's hands as much as possible.
Speaking from the club's Narrabeen training base on Thursday, Foran said Stewart has already had "a phenomenal career".
"The way he sums up the situation, there's not many fullbacks in the game who do it the way he does it," Foran said.
"His last month of footy has probably been the reason for our turnaround [winning three of the last four games].
"I think he's got to take a lot of credit for that, he's been playing some really good footy, coming up at the right place at the right time and if he can continue to do that we'll continue to be a force in these next eight games."
Lyon believes Stewart has been playing great football for a lot of years but his form in 2015 is right up there with his best.
"He's been a pleasure to watch and some of the tries he's been involved in have been really nice. You can just tell he's on a little bit of a high with the tries he's scoring, he seems to make those little chances – he seems to get over the try line every time. He's doing well for us.
"We've just got to get the ball into his hands as much as we can because he's definitely been right up there with not just the best fullbacks but the best players in the comp this year."
Lyon said it was his vision and anticipation that sets him apart.
"He's just a footballer, he's got the skills and the pace, he's quite strong for not a massive guy and just the complete footballer. He can get over the try line where other people can't. He had one on Monday night against the Titans where he just bumped through a couple of players, he had three or four to beat, it was only five metres but he still got the ball down where other people might have struggled."
Stewart however said the main reason for the improved form for both himself and team was having closer to a full-strength team available in recent weeks after a horror run of injuries earlier in the year.
Of his own form, he said he is "probably playing a little bit smarter" as he develops as a footballer.
"I'm playing confidently, injury-free, put those things together you play some of your best footy. The halves playing the way they are makes my job easier."
After some major knee injuries earlier in his career changed how much he could do at training, Stewart was driven to start working on his ball-playing skills more.
"It'd be fair to say I changed my game a little bit," he said, adding he had made a deliberate effort to focus more on ball-playing.
"I was probably more of a runner of the football [early on], using my speed. You don't have to be Einstein to work out if you can't do that you need to have some other strings to your bow so that's how that came about."