It’s the battle of two birds from two cities.
One bird hails from Sydney: home to the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and all these fancy sites northern beaches residents have only heard about in fables. They are served by a brilliant transport system that can get you from Redfern to Town Hall in just under half an hour.
The other is native to a distant city called Manly: a city of riches and exclusion. It’s tough to get into Manly where you aren’t welcome anyway, or out of Manly because the only modes of transport in or out are buses, cars, ferries, yachts and seaplanes. No wonder they don’t travel.
Sydneysiders get their news from the Herald, the Telegraph, the AFR and the Aus, ensuring democracy, while Manly residents source all their news from the Manly Daily, ensuring insularity.
But both birds share one common thread: everyone else hates them, and both revel in the hatred. And while Bunnies fans will disagree, this is the battle between the two animals most deserving of premiership exultation in the competition.
You have a better chance of splitting a stale turd with a drinking straw than you do splitting these two squads: there is literally just two tries separating them all year, and in the last game they played just one try split them, a try scored within an inch of the dead ball line.
Manly have long been the bogey side for the Roosters. Visions of 56-0 and and 56-14 come to mind, as does the total win-loss records between these two squads over history: Manly have won 79 of the 123 games played between them. But this year the Roosters gave the big eff you to convention, failing to listen to history or common sense in beating them three times in the games that count and once in a trial match.
Further flipping the bird at convention, they concede the most penalties and receive the second-least, but score more points and concede the least of any team in the premiership.
They head into this game as the favourites, hoping to finally add to their 2002 premiership after three subsequent failures. Manly head into the game as arguably the greatest club in the past decade (along with the Storm) to play their fourth Gee Eff in seven years in their ninth straight season in the playoffs.
A strange phenomenon has occurred in the past three weeks though: since Week One of the finals, Roosters fans without fear have barracked their arses off for their feathered foes, and not just because they played Souths last week. The birds battled out in the gutsiest, most brutal and exciting game seen in some time, and from there many a Roosters fan was converted from abject hatred to healthy respect.
Battered, the Manly squad then turned up and did not take a single play off against a determined Cronulla squad, cementing that respect among the Chook faithful and the majority of rugby league fans who give a shit about the game and admire players giving their all for 80 minutes. They then ousted the vermin to the raucous cheers of their Bondi brethren, meaning the club’s worst nightmare of Souths winning a premiership was hilariously over.
I am at one with whatever the result may be this weekend: a feeling of calm washed over me when the Rabbitohs were bundled out. I respect this club of warriors we’re playing this week so much that I am at peace with the result either way.
But like dad always says, “you can always have more peace”, and after four grand final losses in my lifetime, I’d like to be able to die in peace with a victory on Sunday.
I want mo’ peace, yo.
Manly Sea Eagles
Sea Eagles team for the Grand Final: Brett Stewart, Jorge Taufua, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai, David Williams, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans, Brenton Lawrence, Matt Ballin, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough , Justin Horo, Glenn Stewart. Interchange: David Gower, Jamie Buhrer, Tom Symonds, George Rose, James Hasson, Peta Hiku.
Richard Fa’aoso has been ruled out after suffering a broken neck last week against the Bunnies — but the Sea Eagles, in a nice touch, had Fa’aoso take his spot in the GF team photo with a neck brace. Jason King is also out as he has been for a while now.
The last time these two teams played — in week 1 of the playoffs – Brett Stewart did not, but he returned last week and had a hand in two tries and scored another in the club’s stirring 30-20 win last week over Souths.
He’s been named again this week, but interestingly coach Geoff Toovey has named understudy Peta Hiku on an extended bench. This could be to reward the youngster by acknowledging him in the official guides on the biggest game of the year, or merely as a smokescreen to make the Roosters think Stewart is in doubt. Or maybe he is?
How they’ll play
There has been a lot of talk that the Brett Stewart inclusion is overrated: some are calling him a “myth”.
He isn’t. Far from it.
What he lacks in metres gained and midfield breaks he makes up for in ball skills, angle running near the line and instinct for the ball only rivalled in the fullback role by Billy Slater for all three skills. He has 16 try assists in 18 games this year with nine tries and 13 line breaks. He’s not a metre eater like his understudy, running for over 120 metres just twice, but he is dangerous on the left and the right and can sniff out the slightest of angles near the line.
Again, he’s not a myth, and the Roosters need to shade him like an albino in Hawaii as he is incredibly effective on either side of the ruck as a second five-eighth off decoy plays.
If it does go left, they also have Kieran Foran out there. He is just incredible; a player that lifts his squad with an intensity that he is finally matching with skill through a clever kicking game, a strong running game and a great short pass. He had 20 try assists in the regular season and he’ll come up against SKD, Maloney and RTS out that side. Those guys really need to be on their game to stop him from getting early ball or short inside balls to Matai and Watmough.
But chances the attack is heading out right to the most dangerous attacking side in the competition where Jamie Lyon comes up against Michael Jennings: two genius attacking players and incredible readers of defences.
Lyon has made up for a slight decline in speed with an ability like no other to get outside his man, but what makes him dangerous is the ability to step back inside and drive through and around tackles. He has 15 tries from just eight line breaks, suggesting its his strength that more often than not enables him to get over the line. He is also a brilliant playmaker for a centre, setting up 14 line breaks for his outside man, David Williams, and his halfback on the inside.
The ball is going out that way more often than not because they have a myriad of options with Lyon out there as the second widest man and a combination of Daly Cherry-Evans and Glenn Stewart delivering him the ball.
They probably won’t attack down the middle unless Brenton Lawrence makes a random mid-field break from his own 50, but George Rose and Brent Kite need to be watched as Ballin and DCE will use flat passes off the ruck and inside balls to try to get a barge-over.