MVP: Brett Stewart (Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles; Fullback)

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Is there a player who embodies the spirit of the Sea Eagles better than Brett Stewart? Over the last couple of years, it’s felt as if he’s really come into his own as the Prince of Brookvale, even as the Manly generation he spearheaded has fallen away. With Kieran Foran, Matt Ballin, Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart leaving for other teams, and Jason King and Brent Kite retiring, there’s something a little bit heroic about Stewart staying right where is, like the last big-name actor remaining on a television drama after all the rest have moved on to make their name elsewhere. For that reason, Stewart has become a bit of a rallying-point for Manly fans, as well as an unofficial captain to the Sea Eagles, consulted more and more both on and off the field about any major event that goes down at Brookvale. If Stewart’s OK with it, it’s probably OK for the club too, since he’s got the gravitas that comes with being the longest-standing one-club player for an outfit that once seemed to be full of nothing but lifers, only to be turned upside down over the last couple of years.

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At the same time, there’s something a bit strange about seeing Stewart elevated to that venerable position as well. For me, Stewart’s career has been divided into two very distinct halves: before and after the assault charges that emerged in 2009. While there’s never really been a time in recent years when the NRL has been entirely free of scandal, there was nevertheless something timely about the allegations made against Stewart, throwing him into the media spotlight in a peculiarly acute way. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that 2009 was a bit of a watershed moment in Rugby League scandal more generally, as the game sought to move beyond the early 00s and forge a new decade – the first clean decade of the new millennium – but often found itself haunted by the past as well. Nowhere was that clearer than at Canterbury-Bankstown, which really seemed to cement its rehabilitation in 2009 with the appointment of Kevin Moore to coach, Brett Kimmorley to halfback and a brand restructure that resulted in the return of the Canterbury-Bankstown moniker itself the following year – all decisions that resulted in the Dogs putting in their best performance since the early 00s, with several players and officials singled out for Dally M Awards. At the same time, 2009 marked the retirement of Hasem El Masri, who went out as the greatest all-time pointscorer in Australian Rugby Leaue history, which in some ways cemented this new-and-improved Dogs outfit as distinct from that of the early 00s, but also generated a certain amount of anxiety about how the team would look and perform without El Masri at the helm, since although he was never a captain he nevertheless felt like a mascot for the team’s best self, an emblem for what the Bulldogs could be at their finest.

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If that gradual recovery from the Bulldogs scandals of the early 00s was the backdrop and ambience of NRL in 2009, then the standout event – in terms of scandal – was the allegation brought against Matthew Johns in relation to the 2002 New Zealand tour. Suddenly, it felt as if the game had been plunged back into the miasma of those first few years of the millennium, with Johns dropped from The Footy Show and eventually retaliating with The Matty Johns Show, cementing the conflict between free-to-air and pay television panel discussion that has dominated the commentary landscape ever since. As might be expected, the expose of Johns created a fresh new wave of anxiety, since it was clear that not even the most respected and accomplished players in the game were necessarily above this level of scandal. At the same time, there was something peculiarly traumatic about Johns’ complicity – and I do think he was ultimately complicit – since the main consolidation for the scandal-ridden NRL of the early 00s had been the graduation of players like the Johns brothers and Brad Fittler into one of the greatest generations in Australian Rugby League history. If the early 00s were disappointing, in some ways, to an NRL fan, then they at least offered the prospect of these millennial players coming into their own, and yet something about the way in which media coverage of the late 00s joined the dots between Johns’ stellar career and the Bulldogs’ shame seemed to rupture the rapture of that generation as well. Add to all that the fact that Brett Stewart was arguably the wunderkind of the game at this moment in time – heralded as Steve Menzies’ successor from some of his earliest performances, the Sexiest Man in League and a larrikin everyone loved to watch – and there was something almost unthinkable about the possibility of him becoming the face of a new generation of NRL predators as well.

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It’s no surprise, then, that Stewart himself seemed to transform over the course of the investigation as well. Usually, in the NRL, scandals are flash-points more than sustained dramas, if only because the NRL does everything in its power to prevent them turning into sustained dramas, either by covering them up, obfuscating them behind a wall of PR, or bringing in a massive rehabilitation machine that extends far beyond their Integrity Unit to encompass a kind of tacit agreement between franchises that it’s much more preferable to shoulder off a player in a discrete way than to dwell on a scandal that could compromise the game as whole. In the case of Stewart, however, the investigation was peculiarly protracted, partly because it occurred at such a sensitive moment in the NRL’s self-rehabilitation, but also because this was a considerably more complicated case to prove or disprove than most allegations levelled against footy players in recent years. As a result, Stewart was kept off the field for the first five weeks of the 2009 season, which is much longer than most players who have been accused of similar offences. Admittedly, the NRL framed it as a punishment for drunkenness, rather than a responseof the allegation in any way, but there was an unspoken sense of residual suspicion surrounding Stewart that becomes all the more noticeable when you consider how someone like Blake Ferguson has managed to make it back into the hearts and minds of the NRL establishment despite a much more clear-cut series of offences and apparently endless set of fresh chances.

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In fact, these five weeks merely marked the beginning of a series of extended absences from the game for Stewart, with a torn ligament sustained in the first match of the season, against Wests Tigers, putting him out for the remainder of the season. Once again, Stewart wasn’t sidelined because of the assault charges, but the way in which this year-long absence coincided with the assault hearings – the hearing commenced in February 2010 and a verdict was reached in September 2010, roughly coterminous with the NRL season itself – once again made his absence feel somewhat touched by the proceedings as well. Although he returned in 2011, he was prevented from appearing in the Four Nations by another injury, while a series of injuries prevented him settling into the beginning of the 2012 season as well. It was only by about mid-2012 that Stewart really started to reclaim his former fullback glory, and yet the departure of Hasler for the Bulldogs also meant that this was the first year in which Manly-Warringah fans started to glimpse the devolution of Brookvale that has culminated over the last year or so, while 2012 was also the last year the Stewart was called up to wear the New South Wales jersey. By the time he was fully back in form, in 2013, the decline of Manly was well under way, with tensions rising between Glenn Stewart and management that would eventually lead to his departure in 2014.

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As a result, there’s been a sense in which Stewart has been displaced ever since the 2009 allegations, and while the allegations may not exactly have caused that displacement, they have certainly contoured it, turning what might have simply been a series of unlucky injuries and absences into a darker kind of distance from the game – a darkness you don’t sense, say, with players like James Tedesco or Josh Mansour, who have been sidelined as least as frequently as Stewart over the course of their relatively short careers. At the very least, this extended time away from the game seemed to give Stewart more time to brood and reflect upon the scandal, rather than channelling his frustration and shame back into footy, with the result that when he did finally return to footy his game seemed to have transformed in the interim as well. Most obviously, his time away and his injuries – especially his knee and hamstring injuries – meant that he’d lost about a foot of speed, no small loss for a player who was the fastest at Manly – and one of the fastest in the entire NRL – in his heyday. At the same time, though, there was a new conviction to Stewart’s game as well, a sense that he was somehow defending himself and his reputation with each match, which not only gave his legendary one-on-one tackles and save tries a new intensity – by the end of 2014, he had become the most consistent one-on-one fullback tackler in the NRL – but afforded him a new ingenuity, creativity and idiosyncrasy when it came to his no-look-passes and flick passes as well. It’s no surprise, then, that this was also the period when Stewart came into his own as one of the supreme organisational fullbacks in the NRL, treating each game like a prison he and his teammates had to escape, or a military assault that they had to desperately defend themselves against, in a one-man version of the fortress mentality that defines Brookdale football at its best.

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If Stewart has turned into one of the greatest defensive players in the game, however, it’s not merely because Manly is nearing the end of one of its greatest generations, but because, despite his acquittal, there is something that remains ambiguous about his role in the alleged assault. After all, it has never been conclusively proved that he didn’t do it, since there just wasn’t enough evidence either way, and I have to say that I am more personally uncertain about his culpability than that of virtually any other NRL player embroiled in scandal over the last decade. On the one hand, Stewart may well be a criminal in the guise of one of the NRL’s most beloved fullbacks, but it’s just as possible that that very suspicion is what makes him an innocent victim of the assault culture that haunts the game, and which may have just swept him up in its wake and turned him into a target for as long as the investigation took to run its course. As the recent El Masri scandal might suggest, there’s a kind of Gothic dimension to Rugby League whereby the most exemplary and the most contemptible players sometimes, uncannily, turn out to be one and the same, in a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde move that totally confounds the NRL’s effort to contain, isolate or even rehabilitate “antisocial” impulses, making you wonder what it is about this football code in particular that generates such a vast amount of scandal. For anyone who follows NRL on Twitter, Reddit or any of the club forums, you could almost hear the sharp collective intake of breath, the shocked gasp, when El Masri was accused, and if anything seems to capture the interminability of this off-season, it’s the prospect of waiting, endlessly, to see how that particular drama plays out.

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With Stewart, admittedly, that initial shock might have passed, but it still hasn’t sufficiently resolved – at least to my mind – to completely divest him of this Gothic character as well, all the more so in that he seems just as haunted by the departure of his Manly teammates, and especially Glenn Stewart – first for the Rabbitohs, now for the Catalans Dragons – as much as his own past. Before the scandal, Stewart was the very definition of your typical NRL poster boy, always shot in some cheeky pose that split the difference between a come-on and a pass, against some sunny, sparkling, harbourside backdrop that seemed to promise the dawn of a new Sea Eagles era. After the scandal, though, his body language changed, at least as it was presented in the tabloid media, which perpetually shot him slouched in a hoody, lurking in some corner of the field, covered with a five-day-growth that actually seems to have become his signature now that he’s returned to the game. That’s not to say, exactly, that Stewart is a morose player, but that it only really feels as if he’s managed to shed his past when he’s playing at his peak – which, to be honest, is pretty much any time he handles a Steeden, since he has to be one of the most consistent players out there, scoring tries in virtually all his performances at Brookvale. In fact, you could say that Stewart has made up for the discontinuity in his career from 2009-2011 with a greater emphasis on consistency than ever before, which is one of the reasons why it feels so appropriate that he’s recommitted to Manly for the rest of his career.

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At the same time, for such a talented player, Stewart hasn’t had many opportunities to shine outside club footy over the last half-decade. On the one hand, injury ruled him out of the 2011 Four Nations, with Matt Moylan and Greg Inglis taking over the fullback role for 2014. In some ways, the Four Nations is one of the most conservative Rugby League events in terms of player selection, with coaches more likely to choose players that have proven themselves in the competition before. While it’s not guaranteed that a cracking 2011 performance would have guaranteed Stewart a position on the 2014 squad, it certainly would have helped, just as Inglis’ ability to work through his ankle injury to play in 2011 had a lot to do with the way in which he became a bit of a poster boy for the Kangaroos in 2014 as well. At the same time, Stewart’s long representative career for New South Wales ended in 2012, with the once-iconic Blues fullback not having been called up for an Origin match since. In some ways, it feels as if Stewart really needs the cathartic experience of Origin to fully put his past to rest – he was always one of the most aggressive and flamboyant Blues players – which is perhaps why he’s tended to play every Manly game as if it’s an Origin match, recalling Hayne’s observation that NFL is like “Origin every week.” In their ability to grind it out game after game at the highest possible level, Stewart and Hayne are almost untouched in Rugby League, which perhaps explains why Stewart was at one point seen as the only viable replacement for Hayne at Parra, which was one of the reasons why the Dogs and Raiders were so anxious to get him as well. Now that Watmough and Foran are both firmly entrenched as part of the Eels brand, it’s curious to think how this inland Sea Eagles enclave might have looked if Stewart had stepped aboard, but I also sense that it would have been a mistake, since Stewart ultimately needed the energy of a high-profile, high-achieving team to continue playing Origin by proxy, as well as the sheer rabidity of a fanbase like Manly to goad him into that effort.

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At the same time, and for all that Hayne pretty much made Origin in 2014, I can’t help agreeing with a recent article by Dean Ritchie that insists that Stewart needs to be returned to the Blues, especially in the wake of Hayne’s departure for San Francisco. While Dugan is undoubtedly talented – it’s hard to think of a player who has continued to grow at such an exponential rate over the last few years – there’s something about his skittish, angular, unpredictable play that could work equally as well on the wing, especially when paired with such a dynamic fullback as Stewart. In speculating about the reasons for the Blues’ continual defeat over the last decade, pundits keep coming back time and again to the fact that Queensland are consistent, with Mal Meninga pretty much settling on a brilliant formula, refining it, and improvising around it, until he’s arrived at a unit that’s almost impossible to beat. While Laurie Daley’s experimentalism may be a necessary counterpoint to that strategy, there’s also to be something said for consistency on the part of New South Wales as well, and Stewart’s long tenure as fullback – the longest of any Blues fullback for some time – seemed to give the Blues that solidity, especially when Glenn Stewart was also on the field. On top of that, the Sea Eagles have – or had – a culture of consistency, discipline and perfectionism that, for my money, makes them the single greatest NRL team over the last decade, even if they haven’t always quite made it to the premiership.

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At the moment, there’s a widespread perception that the Blues can finally get into a winning streak if we only get the right halves combination, leading to endless speculations on Twitter, Reddit and online forums – speculations I’ve been as obsessed with as anyone – as to which pair is likely to have that special something that can bring New South Wales into their own. Of course, the situation is complicated by the fact that most of these halves pairs have never played together, creating something of a matchmaking exercise in which a critical part of the buildup to Origin – which starts during the offseason – is comparing the relative merits of Aeynolds and Jeynolds, or Hodkinson and Jeynolds, or Hodkinson and Aeynolds, or Pearce and Hodkinson, or whatever ever other combo happens to take your fantasy, depending on your club affiliation as well as your particular take on how Daley should be running and organising his squad. Given the weirdness of a player like Stewart not being included in Origin, you have to wonder whether what we should be considering is actually a more flexible rotation of fullbacks, with Stewart, Dugan and Hayne – if he returns from the NFL, or gets time off for Origin – all thrown into the mix in much the same way that Jeynolds, Aeynolds, Hodkinson and Pearce are all pretty much equal contenders for the 6 and 7 over the next couple of years.

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Traditionally, fullbacks are amongst the most hallowed and prestigious positions on the team, which explains why there tends to be less flexibility when it comes to fullback assignation in Origin and on the international stage, with even Greg Inglis – the fullback who led the Rabbitohs to their first victory in 43 years – consistently moving to Centre to make way for Slater. In another post, I’ve speculating about whether staying at Melbourne would have made Inglis a more integral part of this legendary trio, but even if he did it seems unlikely that there would have been room for two fullbacks on the Maroons squad. In fact, one of the interesting things about a Smith-Slater-Cronk-Inglis Storm-Maroons powerhouse unit is thinking about how the fullback duties would have been shared, as well as how that might have created more flexibility in turn amongst this most eminent of League aristocracies. And, of course, there’s something understandable about this unwillingness to mess around with fullback, just because fullbacks are the last line of defence, placed in a position of surveillance that requires them to know the team more intimately than any other player, as well as to adopt that precise organisational presence that Stewart has made his own. Given that the Blues have such a limited number of appearances each year, as well as the fact that Origin teams are always, by definition, in flux, it might be worthwhile for Daley to take a chance and slot Stewart in alongside Dugan as at least a potential New South Wales back. Sure, Stewart might not know the current Blues squad as intimately as Dugan, but his time with Manly has also given him a unique ability to get to know and organise a team as quickly, economically and efficiently as possible, which surely means that he at least deserves the opportunity to give Origin one more go, especially given how brilliantly he has stood between the Sea Eagles and the disintegration that might have accompanied the departure of one flagship player after another over the last couple of years.

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In the end, then, Stewart is a bit of a contradiction. Firstly, he’s arguably one of New South Wales and Australia’s best fullbacks, even if he hasn’t played as much Origin as he could this decade, and still hasn’t gained a spot on the Four Nations roster. Secondly, he’s managed to intensify the spirit of the last great Brookdale generation even as that generation have departed for other clubs and countries. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Glenn Stewart, with Brett somehow managing to make Manly feel even more like a Stewart institution in the wake of his brother, teammate and best ally departing first for another team – and a rival team at that – and then for another country. When Glenn Stewart was in the NRL, you could still enjoy the spectacle of the two brothers battling it out on the field, but with Stewart in another Rugby League code altogether Brett is suddenly a solo player, which makes it all the more extraordinary how much he’s managed to cement Manly’s current achievements as a shared Stewart legacy. While I’ve got a bit to say in another post about the various brothers in the NRL – J-Moz and B-Moz, Anthony and Mark Minichello, Reece and Travis Robinson – there’s something special about Brett and Glenn Stewart’s rapport, not only because they have spent most of their careers on the same team, but because their synergy as players always meant that you could sense their relationship on the field in a unique way, while Glenn showed Brett a great deal of support during his 2009-2011 period as well, standing down from the 2011 Four Nations for personal reasons that were never disclosed, but that I’ve always assumed had something to do with Brett’s injury and general mindset at this time.

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And in some ways Stewart’s mindset is the ultimate contradiction, since, at the end of the day, it’s hard to know just how much to trust in his acquittal. Perhaps I overstated that ambiguity a bit before, since there was a considerable amount of media interest after the verdict came down to suggest that Stewart had actually been manipulated, or set up entirely, but there is still a residue of ambiguity to the story that makes it feel a bit more mysterious and uncertain than any other in the annals of recent NRL scandal. For all the powerhouse performances and fan adoration, there’s something about Stewart that remains haunted, if not by his own behaviour, then at least by the allegations itself, as well as the version of Manly football that seems to have dissolved in their wake. Like a character in a film who might be a criminal but just as equally might be massively misunderstood, there’s something about his presence on the field that would make him feel like an outlier even if he weren’t one of the most detached and brutal halves out there, seeming to hover above the game to pounce on anyone who tries to make a dent in Brookvale’s armour. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not subscribing to the redemptive stories that the NRL tries to spin around criminal players either. It’s just that there is a genuine mystery to the story that is Brett Stewart, as well as a whole series of contradictions and conundrums that can’t help but make him one of the most dynamic players to watch in action.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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