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1973 grand final rewind: Sea Eagles prevail in brutal battle of the beaches

In the latest of a fresh series of looks back at the grand finals of yesteryear, we revisit the brutal battle between Manly and Cronulla which gave birth to one of modern rugby league's most intense rivalries – and one of its biggest stars.

NRL.com has gone into the vault to find footage of the grand finals from the pre-NRL era dating back to 1966 and will be showcasing these games, including a full replay, a mini version of each game, match highlights and great moments from these memorable encounters.

The 1973 decider matched up a pair of beachside clubs who were busy writing new chapters of rugby league history.

Manly were fresh off their first premiership and firmly entrenched as one of the top teams in the comp while Cronulla arrived at the sport’s biggest day in just their seventh year in the competition.

The Sea Eagles had ended their 26-year wait for a premiership the previous season against the Roosters, beating them 19-14, and they took the field in the ’73 decider at the SCG with nine internationals in their run-on 13.

Cronulla in contrast were the definition of a young team on the rise with fresh talents like teen sensation Steve Rogers, who had debuted that year, Warren Fisher, Steve Edmunds and Rick Bourke flourishing under the leadership of grizzled English veterans Tommy Bishop and Cliff Watson.

Minor premiers Manly finished just one point ahead of the second-placed Sharks and enjoyed a smooth run to the grand final, getting the first week of the finals off and enjoying a second week’s rest thanks to their 14-4 major semi-final win over Cronulla.

Match Highlights: Sea Eagles v Sharks

The Sharks shut out the Dragons 18-0 in the qualifying final and after the major semi setback booked their place in the decider with a 20-11 victory over Newtown in the preliminary final.

Sea Eagles second-rower Peter Peters later endorsed the view of the 1973 grand final as the most brutal of all time, reminiscing that for the first 20 minutes all the players did was run from flare-up to flare-up.

John O’Neill, Bill Hamilton and Terry Randall did the hard yards up front as both packs tore into each other with unrelenting ferocity while future Immortal Bob Fulton and fullback Graham Eadie provided the strike power out wide.

Manly were never headed but at the same time couldn’t shake the tenacious Sharks who kept coming at them right up until full-time, the final hooter spelling the end of record-breaking Sea Eagles winger Ken Irvine’s stellar career.

Extended Highlights: Sea Eagles v Sharks

Play of the day

Manly were clinging to a 5-2 lead well into the second half when Bob Fulton put the game out of reach of the Sharks with just over 20 minutes left in the slugfest.

The Sea Eagles won a scrum midway between the quarter and halfway and halfback Johnny Mayes got the ball to five-eighth Ian Martin who wrapped around Fulton before bumping off Steve Rogers and getting the ball to a surging Graham Eadie.

The fullback ran over the top of Sharks five-eighth Chris Wellman and almost repeated the dose with lock Greg Pierce before lobbing a pass to Fulton who was backing up on the outside.

The man they call "Bozo" turned on the afterburners and beat Rogers and replacement fullback Rick Bourke to score in the corner and give Manly sufficient breathing room to ride out a late Cronulla comeback.

Eadie lays platform for Fulton try

Best player

Bob Fulton, who was named as one of the game's original Immortals in 1981, was the shining light on a rainy and overcast day that often resembled a rolling brawl as the two teams tried to punch, kick, elbow and niggle their way to ascendancy.

Fulton’s first try came when he trailed captain Freddie Jones through the middle of the ruck, accelerated away to beat four defenders and score under the posts after the hooker had turned the ball back inside with a clever flick pass on the 25-metre line.

The Sea Eagles centre constantly probed for opportunities, employing the chip-and-chase a number of times in a bid to get behind Cronulla.

Fulton makes it a double

But he did more than his fair share of work in defence as well, most notably when he upended Ken Madison with a great front-on tackle in the first half after the Rothmans Medal-winning second-rower had dismissed international forwards Terry Randall and John O’Neill with powerful fends.

The quote

''The old softening-up period, it went on for 80 minutes. We just belted the crap out of each other. They didn't back down, and neither did we. It just happened that way," Cliff Watson told Rugby League Week in 2013.

''We were pretty relentless. I don't think we had any intention of coming out and making a complete brawl of it. It just happened, and it just kept going. I'm actually surprised how fit we were, continuing it for 80 minutes.”

Cronulla's Cliff Watson reckons the 'softening up' period last the full 80 minutes.
Cronulla's Cliff Watson reckons the 'softening up' period last the full 80 minutes.

The what-if moment

Cliff Watson later lamented that the Sharks had taken out the wrong player in the early heavy exchanges, admitting that things might have gone differently if they had targeted man of the match Fulton instead of Malcolm Reilly.

Sharks hooker Ron Turner clattered into Reilly as the Manly lock went to kick minutes into the game, his knee connecting with the English star’s hip.

Reilly soldiered on before leaving the field briefly for a pain-killing injection. He returned and famously tried to create as much havoc as possible before he was finally forced from the field after just 25 minutes.

Replacement fullback Bourke scores for Cronulla

Unsung hero

Five-eighth Ian Martin had little impact in attack other than taking part in the runaround move with Bob Fulton that led to the centre’s match-sealing try but he had as much impact in defence as any member of the side’s heralded forward pack.

Local junior Martin, who played six grand finals for four wins and only one loss in his 155 games for the Sea Eagles, stifled the Sharks again and again as he cut down one ball-runner after another with textbook ankle tackles. 

The following year

With captain-coach Tommy Bishop and forward leader Cliff Watson quitting Sydney first-grade football over contractual disputes the Sharks slipped back to the depths of the ladder, finishing eighth in the 1974 season.

Manly’s dominance continued but they fell just short of premiership success in the ensuing two years after finishing the home-and-away seasons second in both 1974 and 1975 as Eastern Suburbs went back-to-back under Jack Gibson.