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Eight-time premiers: Who makes Manly’s greatest-ever team of grand-final winners?

Roar Guru
27th November, 2023
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Roar Guru
27th November, 2023
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Manly entered the NSWRL in 1947 and quickly established themselves as serious contenders, finishing as runners-up four times in the 1950s.

They broke through for their first premiership in 1972, defeating the Roosters by 19-14, and then seven more premierships followed over the next 50 years, with at least one premiership in each decade since their first success.

Perhaps their most memorable victory was the bloodbath decider against Cronulla in 1973, but I am sure that no Sea Eagles fan will forget their sweet revenge victory against Melbourne in 2008 when they thrashed the Storm by 40-nil.

Manly has had some outstanding players in their winning teams, and here is my pick for their team of the greatest grand-final victors ever.

Fullback

Four players have worn the number one jersey for Manly in winning grand-final teams and surely there was none better than Graham Eadie (1972, 1973, 1976 and 1978).

Eadie was one of only three Manly players to win four premierships with the club, was just 18 years of age when he appeared in the 1972 grand final, and he went on to win the Clive Churchill Medal for his performances in both the 1976 and 1978 deciders.

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Brett Stewart (2008 and 2011) was probably next best, ahead of both Matthew Ridge (1996) and Dale Shearer (1987).

Wingers

Choosing the wingers is not so easy, as apart from the legendary Ken Irvine (1972 and 1973), the rest including Max Brown (1972 and 1973), Tom Mooney (1976 and 1978) and Michael Robertson (2008 and 2011) could all be described as good club players.

So two players who covered centre and wing with equal aplomb come under consideration, and here I am talking about Ray Branighan (1972, 1973 and 1978) and Michael O’Connor (1987).

I really cannot go past the league’s greatest-ever try scorer Ken Irvine for one wing spot, as even though he was in his 30s by the time he joined Manly in 1971, he was still a very good winger and crossed for 41 tries in his 60 games for the club.

The second wing spot goes to Michael O’Connor. He was just about the best outside back in the game in the late 1980s and he must be included in this side somewhere.

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Centres

With O’Connor on the wing, the question is who will partner rugby league immortal and three-time grand-final winner Bob Fulton (1972, 1973 and 1976) in the centres?

There are three leading contenders in my view – Ray Branighan, who partnered Fulton in the centres in his first two grand-final wins, that devastating defender in Steve Matai (2008 and 2011), and Jamie Lyon (2008 and 2011) who was Manly’s last premiership-winning captain.

While both Branighan and Matai were fine players, and Branighan can take a lot of the credit for taking Manly to that next level in the early 1970s, Jamie Lyon gets the nod. Lyon was one of Manly’s best players during his ten years at the club and an inspirational leader for the last five of them.

Five-eighth

Leaving centres Bob Fulton and Jamie Lyon aside, both of whom played many, many games at number six for the Sea Eagles, and with due respect to Alan Thompson (1978) and Kieran Foran (2011), the choice of five-eighth is between the four-time grand-final winner Ian Martin (1972, 1973, 1976 and 1978) and Cliff Lyons (1987 and 1996).

Martin was a punishing defender and strong ball runner who always straightened the attack and he could also play lock very effectively, but Lyon was arguably one of the best ball players the game has seen. Lyons must be included in the starting side in this pivotal position.

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Halfback

Interesting to note that Manly have had a different halfback in each of their eight grand-final victories, with Geoff Toovey (1996) and Matt Orford (1998) both captaining their sides in the decider, with Toovey also picking up the Clive Churchill medal that year.

Daly Cherry-Evans (2011) wore the number seven in his debut season, Dennis Ward (1972) was the first to taste premiership victory, also winning the Clive Churchill Medal for his efforts, while Johnny Mayes (1973), Englishman Gary Stephens (1976), Steve Martin (1978) and Des Hasler (1987) also led their teams to victory.

It is a very tight field but Geoff Toovey is my pick. Toovey was “pound for pound” probably the toughest player ever to lace on a boot, he finished his career as the club’s longest-serving captain ever, and would never let you down.

Lock

Manly have certainly had an impressive line-up of lock forwards in their grand-final winning teams over the years.

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English star Malcolm Reilly (1972 and 1973) just oozed skill and toughness, Ian Martin (1976 and 1978) was as effective at the back of the scrum as he was at five-eighth.

Paul Vautin captained his side to victory against a star-studded Raiders team in 1987, and Glenn Stewart brought both the skill and the heat in 2008 and 2011 and picked up the Clive Churchill Medal for his latter performance.

None of these players would be out of place in this side, but it is Malcolm Reilly for me. Reilly was arguably the greatest Englishman to play in Australia and he had both fearless aggression and the ball-playing skills of a back.

It was his arrival at the club, together with South Sydney premiership winners in John O’Neill and Ray Branighan, that saw Manly reach its potential in the early 70s.

Second Rowers

Once again, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to grand-final-winning back rowers.

There was no harder back-rower in the game than four-time premiership winner Terry Randall (1972, 1973, 1976 and 1978), Englishman Phil Lowe created havoc with his runs on the edge of the ruck in 1976, the 1987 pairing of the giant Noel Cleal and “Rambo” Ronny Gibbs were a lethal combination.

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Steve Menzies (1996) is one of everyone’s favourite Manly players and it is unlikely that any other forward will approach his mark of 180 tries, while Anthony Watmough (2008 and 2011) was a constant threat in both attack and defence.

Terry Randall just must be in the side as there was no more feared forward in the game during the 1970s and early 1980’s and his punishing defence was worth 12 points per game.

Packing down next to him will be Steve Menzies. His combination with five-eighth Lyons had to be seen to be believed and if a try was on Menzies was there to score it.

Front Rowers

One of the main reasons South Sydney stopped winning competitions in 1972 and Manly started winning them was John O’Neill. O’Neill was the game’s number-one enforcer at the time and played as big a part in Manly’s premierships in 1972 and 1973 as he did in Souths’ titles in 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971.

He is the first front rower picked. There are some other quality big men to select from to join him, including big Bill Hamilton (1971 and 1972), internationals Ian Thomson (1978) and Phil Daley (1987), hard men in 1996 pairing David Gillespie and Mark Carroll, or two-time Manly premiership winner and Clive Churchill medallist Brent Kite (2008 and 2011).

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All are worthy contenders, but the man I would choose to accompany O’Neill in his mayhem is Englishman Kevin Ward (1987). Ward only played briefly for Manly and was even flown back from the UK for the 1987 decider, and it was largely his performance that day that saw Manly win the forward battle and the premiership.

Ward never took a backward step and was probably the fittest English forward ever to come to Australia.

Hooker

Three hookers have each won two premierships with the Sea Eagles. Fred Jones (1971 and 1972) captained Manly to two wins, Max Krillich who won under Bobby Fulton in 1976 before captaining Manly to a premiership two years later, and Matt Ballin who was there in 2008 and 2011.

Of the three, Krillich was the superior all-round player, and was also an excellent leader going on to captain both the NSW and Australian sides with distinction.

Bench

In selecting the bench I have gone for a utility player, a backrower, and two front rowers.

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Utility – Des Hasler (1987 and 1996), a great all-rounder who could play equally well in the halves, hooker or at lock.

Backrower – Phil Lowe (1976), had only three seasons with Manly but was a devastating ball runner with speed and power to burn.

Front Rowers – Brent Kite (2008 and 2011), a powerful, mobile and hard-working performer, and Mark Carroll (1996), a big no-nonsense weapon who’d happily maintain the rage off the bench.

This is how they line up:
1. Graham Eadie
2. Ken Irvine
3. Bobby Fulton (C)
4. Jamie Lyon
5. Michael O’Connor
6. Cliff Lyons
7. Geoff Toovey
8. John O’Neill
9. Max Krillich
10. Kevin Ward
11. Terry Randall
12. Steve Menzies
13. Malcolm Reilly
14. Des Hasler
15. Phil Lowe
16. Brent Kite
17. Mark Carroll

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So, there they are. I admit, possibly not the greatest Sea Eagles side of all time, but they are my pick of the greatest Manly players to win a grand final with the club.

They would certainly take some beating against anyone.

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