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Pace, Class and Lots of Guts

Match Report by Neil Cadigan

[Rugby League Week, September 30, 1987, pp 28-29]

Manly 18, Canberra 8 at the SCG

MANLY skipper Paul Vautin appropriately summed up the Eagles of 1987 when he addressed the last grand final crowd to assemble at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

"A good football team needs pace and class and lots of guts and determination — and this side is full of all those things."

And that extra guts and determination, shown particularly by the forwards, was the difference between the Manly side of this year and the Eagles of previous seasons.

The class has always been there, but the character when under pressure has not.

Last Sunday though, Manly took control in the clash of the big men in the oppressive heat and never let go.

It began in the front row with Phil Daley, Mal Cochrane and Englishman Kevin Ward. And it spread right through the side.

The back division took full advantage of the up-front domination. Like five-eighth Cliff Lyons who wiped away the sad memory of a year earlier by walking away with the Clive Churchill Medal for best player on the field.

Manly lost any chance in 1986 when Lyons was sent off early in the second half of the semi-final against Balmain.

His brilliant first-half effort against the Raiders, which included the first try of the game, more than made up for that indiscretion.

Lyons seemed to have so much time and space to do things with the ball. He continually set the Manly backs alight — stepping, dummying or rounding up defenders with his pace.

His try came in the 27th minute when he shook off a chest high tackle from his opposite Chris O'Sullivan after a Manly scrum win, stepped inside Gary Belcher and beat Gary Coyne to the line.

Lyons could have given the Eagles two more first-half tries. After a 70-metre burst he found Noel Cleal in support and Cleal put Des Hasler under the posts. But the final pass was ruled forward.

He made a similar run late in the half but his re-verse pass to Michael O'Connor was put down.

The Eagles actually could have scored four more tries than the two on the scoreboard. A pass from Paul Vautin to deal was also ruled forward in the second half and Hasler dropped the ball in a desperate dive for the line in the right corner.

Instead it was two tries to one, 18 points to eight. Michael O'Connor may have been offside when he scored from Dale Shearer's kick. But it didn't matter as much as why Canberra allowed Shearer an eternity to put in the kick.

But this fast, open grand final was a tribute to the players who battled it out in
conditions which would have had cricketers calling for extra drinks.

The heat obviously affected some of the big men. Sam Backo wasn't near as effective as he has been. But others, like Kevin Ward, did not seem to notice. Ward's contribution, and the back-up he received from Daley, cannot be underestimated.

The musclebound Englishman had come from the cold of Castleford to probably the most extreme heat ever experienced on grand final day. He never wilted. His defence, valuable yardage gained in attack, and incredible appetite for work was amazing under the conditions.

The Canberra pack seemed to lack his intensity.Another statement by Vautin on the dais also rang true on the day.

"It was a fairytale story for Canberra but unfortunately for them we ripped out the last page of the fairytale." Indeed, that's what happened.

Never has there been such a sentimental favorite on the big day. Despite being an out-of-town side their cheers as the teams were introduced far outweighed Manly's, the side most people love to hate.

The intensity we had seen in recent weeks from the Raiders was missing. Maybe that was because of the extreme heat. Maybe it was because of their grand final inexperience. Maybe it was a legacy of their sudden public adulation and incredible pressure of the build-up, something they had been shielded from all season.

But they never seemed in the hunt, even though they launched some exciting raids in the second half.

The Raiders were not without their star performers, though. O'Sullivan never gave an inch except for his missed tackle on Lyons. He was rewarded with a touchdown of his own. Prop Brent Todd toiled hard with his crook ankle, along with halfback Ivan Henjak and skipper Dean Lance.

But their match-winners received few opportunities. Big Mal Meninga, damaging prop Backo and fullback Gary Belcher rarely set the SCG alight. Simply, the Manly defence gave them little opportunity.

It was centre Peter Jackson who was best of the Canberra backs after recovering from a heavy knock, courtesy of a Ron Gibbs cruncher early in the game.

The play was open, a welcome change from the dour struggles in past grand finals. And the Eagles had pace when it counted. But it was defence and forward power which gave them their first title for nine years, making them the most successful Manly side in the club's history.

There was sentiment all round. For Don Furner, the man who brought Canberra into the competition, it was a sad ending. For his partner Wayne Bennett, the tactical brains behind the side, it was also a disappointing exit.

Despite the controversial announcement mid-season that he was defecting back to Brisbane, the bond between Bennett and his players became stronger. They would like to have sent him north in style.

But many felt Manly coach Bob Fulton deserved the victory lap more than all. It was his third attempt as a coach. Third time lucky.

Could there be anything more appropriate than the SCG bathing one of its greatest heroes in glory on its last day?

No, that was one fairytale which did come true.

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