Watching the Sharks and Eels go at it on Saturday afternoon was something of a lesson in revising your expectations. At the very beginning of this season – actually, until the last third of this season – there were arguably no two teams in the NRL in a sorrier state. Fresh off the back of the doping scandal and haunted by the loss of Gallen and Flanagan in late 2014, the Sharks felt like they would have been the natural contenders for the wooden spoon were Parra not so decimated by the departure of Jarryd Hayne from what was already a struggling outfit to begin with. Yet both teams have managed to turn things round a bit in the last few months, during which time their respective recruitments have started to deliver the goods. On the one hand, up-and-comers like Nathan Peats, Will Hopoate and Corey Norman have started to come of age, while Cronulla’s more venerable additions, such as Luke Lewis, Michael Ennis and Ben Barba, have started to finally settle into their own distinctive synergy as well.
And synergy was the name of the game on Saturday afternoon. In fact, you might say that both the new versions of Parra and Cronulla came of age at Pirtek, making it a victory for both of them despite the fact that the Sharks finally took home the win with a late surge from Valentine Hodges that recalled his one-man victory over the Wests Tigers earlier in the season, cementing him as one of the key candidates for Maroons Centre next year. As a result, the gameplay within teams was as interesting as the gameplay between them, drawing out the different ways in which a stable of up-and-comers and a stable of old hands drawn from different backgrounds manage to synergise and subsume themselves into the charisma of their adopted clubs. Having watched more than my share of Panthers-Bulldogs grindfests over the last few years, I would never have thought it was possible for Lewis and Ennis to communciate as effortlessly and generously as they did on Saturday night, while it was fascinating to see Corey Norman emerge as the unofficial leader of the latest breed of Parramatta young guns with his deftest and most decisive kicking game to date.
In that sense, Saturday’s night match was one for the fans, since there’s no more rousing experience in NRL than watching a pair of teams that are still regarded as battlers or bottom-dwellers regroup their strength in preparation for a new era. There was a sense of rebirth, a reckoning with the past and an eye on the future that may not make this the critical match for the 2015 Grand Final, but may be one people look back on around the 2016 Grand Final as a critical moment at which two tight new outfits started to make themselves felt as forces to be reckoned with. During the pre-finals season, everything starts to feel somewhat claustophobically focused on that final game, which is obviously exciting, but can also remove some of the week-to-week ambience that forms part of Rugby League’s appeal. In that sense, the Sharks-Eels smackdown was like a breath of fresh air, which is not to say that the two teams aren’t a critical ingredient in the Grand Final either, since part of the Eels’ swagger must have come from crushing a Sea Eagles outfit the previous week that was in turn smashed by the Roosters just the night before. Somehow, that seemed to put the Roosters and the Eels in the same class, just for a weekend, and while the Chooks are obviously in a League of their own, it’s a League that Parra are also starting to glimpse for the first time in a good while, even or especially in the wake of Hayne’s movement to the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Sharks finally and definitively won their battle for the top four, opening up the tantalising and picaresque prospect of the first Cronulla-Sutherland Grand Final win to date. More than any other fans, Sharkies need to hold onto their dreams, and the dreams unleashed at Pirek on Saturday night were particularly romantic, even to a non-Cronulla supporter.
All that made it feel particularly right, then, that this was also the 2015 installment of the Johnny Mannah Cup, designed to honour the memory of the Eels and Sharks player who passed away in 2013. To make the occasion even more poignant, Parra Skipper Tim Mannah – Johnny’s brother – returned as prop while also putting in one of his last performances as Captain before Kieran Foran takes over the team in 2015. In that sense, Mannah was very much the man of the match, steering his outfit with a calm gravitas that encapsulated his dignity in helming one of the most convulsive teams over the last year. In his hands, the defeat to Cronulla still felt like a victory, since he was playing for his brother as much as his team. And given that Johnny Mannah was a Sharks player as much as an Eels, there was something apposite about Cronulla being given a chance to celebrate on his behalf for the first time since the Cup was inaugurated. It’s become something of a cliché in football commentary that both sides are always winners in some sense, but on Saturday night that felt true, with both teams busting their guts for a great player who’d represented them both, while engaging in a sustained, almost collaborative demonstration of how much their respective playmaking had increased over the next year. Win or lose, here were outliers playing the kind of footy that propped both of them up, setting their sights on the long game with one of the best visions of sportsmanship in the game this year, a veritable manifesto for the dignity and nobility of NRL at its best.