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NRL's battle of the beaches

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Roar Rookie
12th September, 2019
27

Considered one of the toughest deciders in rugby league history, Ian Heads described the 1973 NSWRL grand final between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Cronulla Sharks as “tough and dirty as any bar-room brawl”.

The first half, in particular, felt more like two teams intent on bashing each other than actually playing football.

Some of the legendary stories include Ron Turner taking out Malcolm Reilly early in the match, only for Mal to return after receiving pain-killing injections. The jab didn’t quite work, so Mal decided to inflict as much physical damage as possible.

The brute ferocity saw the game being remembered as a bloody battle that just happened to take place on a footy field.

It was the star-studded Manly side taking on a younger Sharks side, but Cronulla weren’t going to allow Manly to throw them off with fear. They were there to win their first premiership.

The Sharks came close. Very close. Steve Rogers, in his first top-grade season, having a tough day with the boot would prove costly, and the brilliance of Bob Fulton was enough for the Sea Eagles to claim their second title.

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These sides met again in the 1978 decider, which ended in a draw. The two teams re-played the grand final three days later, with Manly again too strong.

Fast forward to current times and a new chapter will be written in the rivalry when the Manly will host the Sharks at Brookvale in an elimination final.

It’s been a remarkable year for the Sea Eagles, after finishing second last the season prior.

With Des Hasler back in charge, Manly are playing the brand of football that fans have come to expect. Even with a plethora of injuries to key players, the team often completely blown their opposition of the park.

As for the Sharks, first-year coach John Morris has also faced challenge after challenge to put together the best possible team, dealing with injuries to star players.

They had been touted as a possible top-four team, only to find themselves essentially playing in an elimination final one week early, against the Wests Tigers in Round 25.

They were able to get the job done while Manly fell to defeat at the hands of the Parramatta Eels, giving the away side the momentum, as well as a stronger side – particularly if Matt Moylan returns.

Matt Moylan

Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

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Manly again have a horror list of injuries that include Tom Trbojevic, Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen, as well as the suspended Martin Taupau.

Earlier in the season when Trbojevic was out injured, Thompson and Sironen were a big influence in attack. With all three ruled out, Des will need to revise the gameplan.

The biggest positive in their favour is the home-field advantage. In front of a packed Brookvale, with fans baying for blood, the emotion might be enough for Manly to end their opponents’ season.

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In what could be Paul Gallen’s final game, the skipper will welcome the hostile environment.

Meanwhile, Manly have their backs against the wall and are not favourites, which is perfect for Des to build the ‘everyone is against us’ narrative.

While the game won’t reach the violence and brutality of the 1973 grand final, it will be one of the hardest hitting games of the finals series.

Jorge Taufua will most likely be on the highlight reel again, channelling the intensity that won Manly their second decider.

Shaun Johnson will want to avoid replicating Rogers’ form with the boot – something he has struggled with this season.

And will someone step up a la the Immortal Bob Fulton – perhaps Brad Parker or Bronson Xerri?

The finals are here and another big-hitting battle of the beaches will be played out on Saturday. Bring it on!