Coming off the most impressive defensive performance of his young career, Roosters centre Joseph Manu has attributed a long year of relentless tackling under assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbon for his turnaround.
Dropped for last year's Telstra Premiership finals series due to defensive frailties, Manu has channelled the hurt of watching on from afar as a Wyong centre into a force for building himself into the type of staunch defender that last week shut down the code's best centre and the NRL's most lethal attacking edge.
Even when his right side defensive partner Cooper Cronk was lamely carrying a shoulder through the second half and barely able to tackle, Manu and fellow right edge tackler Mitch Aubusson carried their team to glory with a series of perfect defensive reads.
Time and again they rushed and jammed on Inglis. As Souths threatened to surge back into the contest with a scrum feed in the Roosters' red zone, Manu flung a flying Alex Johnston into touch in one of the plays of the game in a tense 12-4 preliminary final win.
Once a defensive weak spot in the Bondi wall, Manu became the bricks and cement that repelled raid after raid as the year's most dangerous attacking side limped out of the finals race without a single try to their credit.
"It's been a long year of tackling," Manu laughs when pressed by NRL.com on the secret to his turnaround.
"I think I have [improved]; I've been working on it a lot since pre-season. I've been tackling nearly every day… I think it's paying off but I still want to keep getting better."
Manu credits the sting from being dropped last year and the extra sessions with Fitzgibbon for the change.
"I got dropped just before the finals and that was pretty hard. I think it was mainly my defence there, my tackling.
"I thought after that I didn't want it to happen again so I worked hard in the pre-season, got my tackling up to scratch. I'm feeling heaps confident now and I'm happy to be playing in these finals series and showing what I've got."
Manu recalls playing "pretty good" for Wyong last September but it was little consolation at the time.
"I remember watching the boys in the finals series and I was like 'I want to be a part of an NRL finals series'. I've been fighting for it all pre-season, waiting for this moment to play in the finals.
"I knew I was capable of it, I just had to sort out my defence there. I've really worked hard on it all year and it's been pretty tough but I'm happy it's paying off a bit."
Fitzgibbon was a no-nonsense tackler as a player and it seems little has changed that he runs defensive structures for Trent Robinson.
"[Fitzgibbon] talked to me last year when I got dropped, saying I've got what it takes but I just need to work on a few things," Manu said.
Match: Roosters v Storm
Grand Final -
Venue: ANZ Stadium
"Coming through pre-season he challenged me a lot defensively, he's put me through a lot more drills. I've tackled a lot more than I've tackled before, defended a lot more. He's really helped me out a lot, nearly every week.
"He lets me know when I'm not going well, and he lets me know when I'm going well. Fitzy's helped me out a lot."
Manu's improvement is borne out in his numbers; it has taken him roughly one-and-a-half times the number of games played and tackles made from last year to hit the same number of missed tackles – 43 – as last year, with his effective rate jumping from 78% to 83%.
His break causes (number of times he was complicit in an opposition line break) and try causes have plummeted while he has also registered two try saves this year after none last year.
And it was on full show last week as he lifted to help a struggling Cronk through the closing stages against a desperate Rabbitohs team.
"Coming up against Greg Inglis was always going to be a big challenge; I had to come with my best defensive game and I was pretty proud of how I defended," Manu said.
"They're the number one attacking edge in the comp and we knew we were one of the defensive edges in the comp so we just backed ourselves. We kept getting up off our line and stopped whatever came at us.
"Especially in that second half when [Cronk's shoulder] was getting worse, it came to me and Aubo.
"He needed some help really because he couldn't tackle and he knew they were going to target him so me and Aubo said 'yeah, we got you, we'll tackle with you'.
"We tried to protect him and help him but he did well, they put a few lead lines on him and he still tackled with that shoulder so it was pretty special to see.
"I still trusted him, I just had to come back and help him a bit more to finish off a tackle. He couldn't really wrestle or finish his tackles off so I had to help him in that area."
The 2015 Junior Kiwi is in the frame to play for New Zealand Test coach Michael Maguire in the end-of-season Tests.
"I made the wider squad before the finals series so I thought about it then but ever since the finals started I've just been thinking about our club and what we want to achieve," he said.
"I want to win a grand final. Whatever happens after that, I'd be stoked to play in the Kiwis jumper but this is my first priority and that's what I'm thinking of at the moment."
When pressed by NRL.com about the realistic possibility of having to mark up on teammate Latrell Mitchell as opposition centres at Test level, Manu's bemused grin revealed the possibility had not yet occurred to him.
"That would be good!" he laughed. "Pre-season all over again!"
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