Manly ran away with a record victory of 40-0, dismantling the Melbourne machine that had won last year’s grand final 34-8.
Clearly, they have been the best two teams in the competition, this year and last. But Manly proved last night that their five-year process of continual self-improvement has made them significantly better than their southern rivals.
The Sea Eagles could not expunge last year’s humiliation from the record books. The next best thing was to better it, which they did before a vocal and partisan crowd of 80,388 that thrilled in the runaway victory created with play that got more extravagant as the match went on.
Last year Manly choked, hit by the vigorous Storm but also unable to contain the half-dozen bright sparks in the Melbourne side. One of the players most derided in the aftermath was their captain and halfback, Matt Orford, who has been plagued ever since with questions about his ability to deliver in big matches.
The 30-year-old deserves a break after an imperious performance, igniting Manly’s attack, stiffening their defence and leading his side with great confidence.
“That is the best feeling in the world. That’s made my year,” the exultant leader said. Last year’s anguish is now “truly gone – I love all the boys. That’s the best ever.”
Asked for his thoughts, Orford’s opposite number, Cooper Cronk, was admirably succinct. “It sucked,” he said.
His shell-shocked coach, Craig Bellamy, rued the fact that his team had left their worst perform-ance to last. “I’m in a whirlpool at the moment. I certainly didn’t see that coming,” he said.
The Manly coach, Des Hasler, did. “Coming in I thought we were playing some really good footy â€¦ our boys were fairly up for it tonight,” he said.
“As a group of players they’ve just worked so hard and strived so hard and I’m just so pleased for them and so proud of them.”
Playing behind a powerful forward pack led by the man of the match, Brent Kite, Orford made the most of his opportunities and created more for the players outside him, notably the winger Michael Robertson, who scored three tries.
After the kick-off, the biggest roar of the first half was reserved for the introduction of the ageless veteran Steve Menzies. Playing his last, and 349th game, equalling Terry Lamb’s record, Menzies let the Eagles soar.
The backrower seemed to lift the team and they swung the ball from one side to the other in search of the break. Eventually, the young hooker Matt Ballin, in his first year in the top grade, scored with a sleight of hand and sneak from dummy half.
Later in the evening, as Menzies returned for the last 10 minutes, the crowd responded in kind, lifting the noise level another notch as he scored his 180th try.
Orford, known affectionately as “Ox”, hit the Melbourne forward Antonio Kaufusi with a bone-rattling tackle, giving away 36 kilograms in the contest but shaking the ball loose. From the changeover Robertson scored his first.
Manly led 8-0 at half time and started the second section with the same intent but never expecting the final outcome. Orford speared a kick straight for the corner post and Robertson, again, was perfectly placed to intercept it, snatching the ball and scoring in one graceful movement as the Storm’s Billy Slater swooped.
Manly were not ready to defend a lead, instead continuing to play the same up-tempo game that produced the Storm’s capitulation. After 60 minutes Kite scored under the posts to finish a great team effort and the Manly players and crowd were ready to celebrate their first premiership since 1996, with the score 24-0 with 20 minutes left.
Since 1996 the once-rich club has hit the skids and rebounded. Hasler, a premiership winner back then, returned as coach with the club on wounded knee, without enough players for a squad and barely enough money to pay their way.
Since 2003 Hasler, supported by the developer Max Delmege, has reinvigorated the club Sydney once used to hate.
Last night Manly felt the love.
Storm fans had to go home to Melbourne, whereas Manly fans got to go home to God’s country.