There’s something singularly compelling about seeing two powerhouse teams flesh it out without their star players. On the one hand, it’s interesting see how the team configures and where the chips lie without the big names to anchor it all. At the same time, there’s a peculiar sense of desperation to a team that’s got to make it without their big guns firing – desperation to win, desperation to maintain their reputation, and desperation to prove that they’re more than just their high-profile celebrity players. That in itself would be enough to make last week’s clash at Brookvale one to remember. But things felt even more desperate last Friday in that the Roosters and Eagles were both fighting to keep their finals dreams alive. While the Chooks had a bit of room to maneouvre, it was absolutely critical that Manly win this one to have a shot at the final four. Before kickoff even began, you could tell that it was going to be a grudge match for the ages, a clinical sledgefest that was destined to decimate at least one of League’s biggest outfits in the process. With Matt Ballin missing from Manly and the Roosters missing the critical trifecta of JWH, Michael Jennings and Mitchell Pearce, one team was going to head home as the shadow of their former self.
Personally, I was pretty surprised at how it turned out. Although I was cautiously backing the Roosters, I wasn’t sure whether Matt Ballin would turn out to be as crucial a playmaker as JWH, Pearce and Jennings combined. Apparently, he is, with the Roosters running riot over the Sea Eagles to clock up their biggest ever win at Brookdale as well as their first victory on Manly turf for some time. Faced with the prospect of their third straight minor premiership, they were a sobering reminder of just how far the Silvertails had fallen, with this disastrous outcome marking Geoff Toovey and Kieran Foran’s last game with the club as well. Sure, DCE managed to play through the pain of a shoulder injury sustained early in the piece, but there was something – understandably – a bit muted about his performance that must have left a lot of Sea Eagles supporters with their hearts in their mouths. For all their legendary loyalty – or because of it – it often feels as if Manly won’t be able to fully back the new DCE-helmed Sea Eagles until they’re at least contenders for a premiership, so witnessing such an epic smackdown was a bit like feeling the bilious Titans debacle rising back up in Brookvale’s throat.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some amazing Manly moments. In such a high-octane encounter, there’s liable to be a bit of indiscretion from both sides – a misplaced shoulder charge from Willie Mason, a bit of ref abuse from Justin Horo – but that kind of volatility can also bring out the best from unexpected places and players as well. Coasting off a recent extension to his Manly contract, Brett Stewart brought out a bit of the magic from the old Sea Eagles days with a gorgeous pass that set up Jamie Lyon’s most elegant try in some time. Still, the sheer fact of Stewart’s brilliance being a bit of an outlier in this game was somewhat melancholy, with this last remaining member of one of the staunchest footy squads in the last decade reduced to something of a solo performance, making you wonder just how much longer he’ll remain with the team once his contract extension expires, especially now that Glenn Stewart has up and left for Souths. While rumours abounded about the competitive animosity between the Stewart brothers, I always kind of saw them as a single unit, egging and niggling each on to achieve the kind of football synergy usually reserved for halfbacks. More so than even Brett Morris and Josh Morris, they made sense together, encapsulating the fraternal, knockabout spirit of a Sea Eagles outfit that seemed to be passing away before our very eyes in Friday night’s showdown.
And in that sense, the Roosters-Eagles standoff felt a bit like the final game for the old Sea Eagles as well. The Chooks may have made it through to the finals, but the gravitas of finality surrounding Manly was infinitely greater, which perhaps explains the intense pathos of the match, with the Brookvale crowd considerably muted by the end of one of the most histrionic matches of this year’s footy season. Similarly, if the Eagles dug out some surprising and original moves, the Roosters were even more impressive in the way their second tier of resources rose to meet the challenge, with Jackon Hastings more than filling Mitchell Pearce’s shoes and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck putting in the performance that will come to define him as a fullback, dodging and dancing around the ball with a dexterity that allowed him to facilitate not one but two Roosters hatttricks, the first from Brendan Elliott and the second from Daniel Tupou. Even Manly fans had to pay it, while Hugh Jackman – one of the Sea Eagles’ greatest supporters – ended up hanging out in the Chooks shed, where he was instagrammed by RTS for the collective selfie that has come to define one of the most dramatic and draining matches of the finals season.