Roosters aside, Manly are the closest team to the CBD, at least at their Southern extremity, and yet Brookvale Oval is one of the most remote home grounds. That summarises the Sea Eagles mentality, which is pretty much that of a country Rugby League team sequestered in the heart of the city. Avatars of the insular peninsula, they’re often regarded as being the “silvertails” of the competition, but they’ve never particularly struck me that way. Instead, it seems as if their incredible stability – at least until the last eighteen months – was seen as a kind of privilege in itself, a splendid exemption from the market forces that always seem to be more visceral and violent in NRL than in other sports, and virtually reconfigure every team entirely every half-decade or so, to the point where watching the game has also become secondary to speculating on player movements, trades and prices. In that sense, the late great Manly roster – Glenn Stewart, Brett Stewart, Daly Cherry-Evans, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough, Steve Matai – feels, in retrospect, a bit like the last of its kind, just as the disastrous devolution of Manly in the last couple of months feels like it definitively joining the City of Sydney for the first time, cemented by Glenn Stewart’s movement to Souths.
All of which makes it peculiarly confronting to see a Manly player in another jersey – if Stewart looks out of place in red and green, Watmough looks even weirder in blue and gold – just as there’s something peculiarly confronting about the denuded Manly stable at the moment; even if you didn’t support them, even if you hated them, there was a sense that they were one of the last bastions NRL was able to erect against the decline that seems so imminent every year that’s been more or less normalised by now, even if that hasn’t removed one shred of its anxiety. Of course, some of the players are still there – Matai, one of my favourites, is the very definition of a one-club player, despite having cut his teeth alongside SBW and Willie Mason – but there’s a lingering sense that they have been left behind, not unlike the fans themselves. Even the return of DCE following the Titans saga feels half-hearted, just as the Titans saga itself wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary – compare it to SBW’s departure from the Bulldogs for some perspective – but confronting because it took Fortress Brookdale as one of its pawns. Given that watching Manly play another city team was therefore a bit like seeing City-Country Origin in miniature each week, I’m wondering whether some of the old Manly panache might be found there next year. Hopefully that will be the case because – love them or hate them – NRL feels just plain weird without the squad we’ve all gotten to know so well over the last couple of years.