It spoilt the Sea Eagles' attacking opportunity after repeat sets on the Storm line.
October 5, 2008. An over-the-cap Melbourne Storm side roll into Stadium Australia on an overcast Sunday afternoon looking to become the first team to go back-to-back since the ’92/93 Broncos.
They’ve got a fair chance too. Out-and-out superstars like Billy Slater, Israel Folau, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk sit behind a hard-nosed pack consisting of the likes of Dallas Johnson, Adam Blair, Brett White, Michael Crocker, Jeremy Smith and Sika Manu.
Sure, they’re up against a Manly Sea Eagles side desperate for revenge after the touch up they received in the previous year’s decider, but many think the Storm will still be too good.
The clouds are thick and the afternoon is fading by the time the two teams emerge onto the field for the eagerly-anticipated rematch. By the time the sun goes down though, Melbourne’s chances of going back-to-back had gone with it. At full-time, Storm players stand bemused, some in tears, at what had just transpired.
Manly 40, Melbourne 0.
Why? Well in hindsight, there was probably no one stopping Manly that day. They proved to be an immovable force who were desperate to establish themselves as a team no one would forget in a hurry. They say you have to lose one to win one – just like the Storm lost in ’06 before claiming the trophy a year later – and Manly again proved there was substance to that notion in October of 2008.
But 40-0? Against a team stacked full of superstars who were quite literally over the salary cap? A team who had been on a consistent ascent for three straight seasons? Something was clearly missing from the equation that day, and the answer is simple.
Cameron Smith. The greatest player of all time.
There is nothing left to say about Cameron Smith, other than that he has rightfully acquired GOAT status after pulling the curtain on a near-perfect career that spanned almost 20 years.
Aside from being individually brilliant, he made those around him confident in their game and confident in their ability to contribute to a result. He made those around him better. The Melbourne Storm, for all the superstars they had alongside Smith, relied on his nous, his cool head and his sheer wizardry to get them over the line when the game needed winning.
Without Smith, on the biggest stage, they fell over. Badly. Sure, they got up without him the week before against a Cronulla side who realistically were never going to win the premiership that year. But when it really mattered, on the biggest stage, Smith’s absence was too much. They simply came apart at the seams.
Fast forward nearly 13 years and we are seeing something similar happen to the club that dished up the 40-0 flogging in 2008. This time though, it’s a fullback and this time, there are no grand finals being won or lost.
Instead, we are seeing a team who, whether they like it or not, rely almost solely on an absolute superstar and who go without him for prolonged periods, causing results to suffer catastrophically.
That’s right. I’m saying it. Tom Trbojevic is as influential to a football side as Cameron Smith was, and as Andrew Johns was before him.
Why? Well, let’s go back to 2019. Trbojevic goes down in the trials and Manly then start the season looking pretty ordinary, losing their first two games. Questions are asked. Was bringing Des Hasler back the right call? Is Daly Cherry-Evans being grossly overpaid?
Who are these no -names they’ve got in the outside backs? Brad Parker, Reuben Garrick? Huh?
Fast forward to Round 3. Trbojevic comes back, Manly absolutely flog the Warriors and he gets man of the match.
After another unfortunate hamstring injury a week later against Souths, Trbojevic missed a hefty chunk of the season, only to return just in time for Game 2 of the 2019 State of Origin Series.
Here, Brad Fittler’s NSW side head to Perth with the series on the line after losing in Brisbane three weeks earlier. Fittler makes some bold selection calls, including bringing Tom Trbojevic back after only two NRL games to play out of position at right centre.
What happens next? Trbojevic scores three tries. NSW win by 30 and a few weeks later they wrap up the series in Sydney.
He then heads back to Manly and they go on a run to remember, including an incredible victory over Melbourne in Melbourne that could easily be considered one of the best regular-season games of the last ten years.
Strangely, the run ends against Melbourne at Brooky a few weeks later. What happened? Trbojevic tore his pec early in the game. Manly got flogged. The following week, it was Parra’s turn to dish up the flogging.
No one gave Manly a hope of getting anything out of the 2019 finals series, but they ambushed Cronulla at a roaring Brookvale Oval and put up an incredible fight against Souths a week later, only to be knocked out by a late, Cameron Murray-inspired surge.
As a result of Manly’s surprisingly great season (they nearly won the wooden spoon a year earlier), several Sea Eagles players are rewarded with rep jumpers at the end of the year. Specifically, Rueben Garrick and Brad Parker are picked in the PM 13s while Garrick also plays for the Under-23 Kangaroos and the Australian team at the inaugural World 9s. Sure, these might not be out-and-out top-shelf rep jumpers, but they don’t just give them away to anybody.
Think about it, if those squads were named today, would Garrick and Parker even be in the conversation?
This goes back to the overarching point. Tom Trbojevic made these two players (and others) significantly better. When Trbojevic plays, Garrick is a top-line winger and Parker is a quality centre who gets the job done and then some.
When he doesn’t play? Well, you’ve seen how Manly are going now. The same goes for DCE. With Trbojevic, he is arguably the best halfback in the game. Without Trbojevic? Well right now, he looks lost.
And what about his brother Jake? He also looks a shadow of his former self.
To continue the argument, it’s also worth looking at 2020 to see just how ridiculously influential Tom Trbojevic is to both the Sea Eagles and even NSW. Here, he starts the year in brilliant form and almost single-handedly beats the Roosters – who only months early had won their second premiership in as many years – at an empty Leichhardt Oval.
After the COVID lockdown, he blitzes the Bulldogs, throws a winning pass against Parramatta (which was wrongly called forward) and has one of the best 50 minutes you’ll ever see against Canberra before yet again going down with a serious hamstring injury.
After being labelled a genuine premiership threat before the injury, Manly finished the 2020 season resembling a side who would struggle in NSW Cup.
At the end of the year, without Trbojevic, NSW lose the State of Origin series for the first time since 2017.
In 2021, there is merit to the argument that we are watching one of the poorest Manly sides to ever take the field. They are getting walloped every week and genuinely do not look like an NRL side.
Why? Because he’s out injured again. It’s not the rule changes, it’s not poor administration, it’s because one of the best players of all time isn’t playing.
And without him, his team falls apart. Just like the Storm in ’08.
So while Tom Trbojevic might never be considered one of the greatest players of all time, as greatness requires consistency over a long period of time and his injuries may well cut short his time in the game, you cannot deny that he is one of the most influential and one of the most dominant.
One of the best players of all time.