For the first time this season Manly made a bit of an impact, thanks in part to the return of Brett Stewart for his first match of the 2016 season. The Sea Eagles’ 22-12 win against the Sharks was all the more galvanising in that they didn’t touch the ball for the first ten minutes, despite 57 tackles. With arguably the best try of the game from Luke Lewis in the third minute and a clinical conversion from James Maloney seconds later, it looked as if Cronulla-Sutherland might end up taking control of the game, despite their poor track record when they travel from one peninsula to the other. Having won only 5 of their 39 games at Brookvale since 1967, the Sharks had the odds against them, and in the end the odds prevailed, although not without a valiant effort from both sides.
As far as the Sea Eagles were concerned, it was pretty much the Brett Stewart show, with the Prince of Brookvale demonstrating why he’s still a star fullback even at this late stage in his career. His try at the 48th minute put Manly back in front for the first time in the game, as well as ensuring that he has now scored an incredible 87 tries out of his 95 appearances at Brookvale to date. That said, Stewart hadn’t scored a try in his last three games – the second longest drought in his career so far – and so it felt like a comeback in more ways than one at Brookvale last Monday.
And Brookvale really needs Stewart. More than any other player of the late great Sea Eagles generation, he’s a part of the venue, due to his unique ability to motivate and rouse the players around him, which has always made him something of an assistant coach as well. Over the course of the evening, he created lots of room for the outside backs and created a general atmosphere of ease and relaxation that has been missing from the Sea Eagles so far this season. At a time when Manly seem like an entirely new team – with a new coach to boot – Stewart is the key to continuity, especially since Brookvale has almost entirely crumbled as a fortress, with Monday night’s crowd plummeting to 5122, the lowest since the Super League wars.
Like Thurston, part of Stewart’s gift as a leader is that he never dominates the spotlight. While he may be one of the most vocal players at Manly in terms of club culture – he must have been instrumental in Toovey’s departure – he exudes the perfect combination of modesty and toughness on the field itself. Last night, that was evident in the way he created space for and collaborated with the next generation of Brookvale brothers. Of the two Trbojevics, Tom was arguably the most impressive, scoring a deft try and darting into his soccer background to help set up Stewart’s, while Jake also topped off a grinding eighty minutes at lock with his first four points for the year.
On the other side of the ball, the Sharks were depleted by the departure of Jack Bird in the 32nd minute after a high tackle from Marty Taupau that would have sent a hush over the stadium if more people had turned out to watch it. While Taupau has been fairly “gracious” in accepting the one-week ban handed down by the judiciary, I’m getting a bit sick of his impulsive aggression on the field. Bad sportsmanship aside, it speaks to a lack of discipline and structure at Manly, a team that was previously distinguished by being able to rein in and strategise some of the hottest tempers on the field. For all their brainsnaps, it’s hard to think of Anthony Watmough or Steve Matai putting in such a useless and gratuitous display of bravado as Kapow did on Monday night, especially since the Sea Eagles need to make up for last year’s defeat against the Roosters at Allianz this weekend.
Without Bird to break through the Sea Eagles’ defence, it was a bit of a foregone conclusion that Manly would take home the Steve Rogers Memorial Trophy for their first win of the season. That said, despite great performances from many Manly players – including a great breakout from young gun Matt Parcell – it didn’t come close to the unified Manly efforts of previous years. The victory seemed even more qualified by the recent announcement that both the Sharks and the Sea Eagles may be required to use Allianz as a home ground next year. Within the NRL as a whole, the Sharks and the Sea Eagles have a unique relationship as a result of their position at the fringes of the Sydney scene. While you couldn’t call their rivalry a local barny, they share the same insular peninsular mentality, which makes their clashes particularly intense and visceral. Critical to that are their two home fortresses, and without them it’s hard to envisage how the Steve Rogers Trophy is going to have the same meaning. Upscaling NRL matches doesn’t just deplete club culture, it depletes traditional rivalries, something the organisation needs to consider more as they move towards large-scale venues in the coming years.