MANLY’s hopes of beating the Storm in Sunday’s grand final have received a boost, with statistics revealing that the Sea Eagles will be the second-most experienced team to have played a premiership decider in NRL history.
With many believing that experience plays a crucial role in big matches, the Sea Eagles boast more premiership appearances between them than any other team since the club’s 1996 grand-final winning side, which boasted coach Des Hasler and a youthful Steve Menzies.
In total, the Manly team that will take the field at ANZ Stadium on Sunday has played 2101 first-grade games – 73 more than their Melbourne rivals, who are without the services of suspended captain Cam Smith (144 games) and injured Test second-rower Ryan Hoffman (128).
Last season, the Sea Eagles side that lost 34-8 to the Storm in the grand final boasted 1520 games compared with Melbourne’s 1535. In contrast, the Brisbane team that beat Melbourne in 2006 had played 2081 premiership matches, while the Broncos’ grand-final winning side of 2000 had 2000 games under its belt.
Had veteran back-rower Luke Ricketson not been suspended in 2004, the Roosters team that lost to the Bulldogs would have boasted more first-grade games than Manly, and the captain of that side, Brad Fittler, said the experience the Sea Eagles would take into the game could prove the difference.
Fittler played in two grand finals early in his career for Penrith, when he was still a follower, rather than a leader, and another four towards the end of his career for Sydney Roosters, when he had the dominant influence over his side’s fortunes.
The Roosters coach, who played 336 first-grade games – trailing only Terry Lamb (349) and Steve Menzies (348) – said the key for Manly was that their experience included having to come to terms with losing last year’s grand final to the Storm.
“I think it’s clear that, looking at the way Manly have played this year, they have moved on from that loss and become a better team,” Fittler said last night. “They have been able to do it in second gear at some stages this year. They’ve been in great form during the finals, and all of that first-grade experience they’ve got means a lot, particularly since it includes playing in last year’s grand final. Experience on the bench is great, because you want blokes to come on who can make a difference. Manly look like they really believe in themselves. They’re my tip to win.”
Despite tipping the Sea Eagles, Fittler warned that Melbourne had key players ready to turn the game the Storm’s way if Manly didn’t work hard to cover them – and he wasn’t only talking about the celebrated stars, such as fullback Billy Slater and five-eighth Greg Inglis. Fittler singled out his former Roosters teammate – Melbourne second-rower Michael Crocker – as a potential matchwinner in what will be Crocker’s final game for the Storm before joining English club Hull.
“Crocker does all of the tough stuff so well,” Fittler said. “He trains tough and he plays tough. He dives for the loose ball, he chases the kicks, he makes the tackle that has to be made – he goes until the death. But he’s got skill and great awareness on the field, as well.
“He’s important to the Storm like Menzies is to Manly. He carries a lot in his kit bag. He can get a ball away – he played five-eighth for Australia in a Test match – but he can also come up with a massive hit. Look at the hit he put on Brett Stewart in last year’s grand final. He’s tough physically and mentally, and he can go for 80 minutes if they want. Crocker is a potential matchwinner, as much as any player who will be out there.”