Cheers for the Ox and Lyon September 13, 2008 http://www.leaguehq.com.au/news/news/cheers-for-the-ox-and-lyon/2008/09/12/1220857835931.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1 Slings and arrows no longer affect resilient Sea Eagles halves partners Matt Orford and Jamie Lyon, writes Andrew Stevenson. IT WAS the night the question mark written above Matt Orford's head in pencil for so long was filled in with indelible ink. Manly, playing at home, had Melbourne at their mercy but couldn't put the premiers away. From the kick-off the Storm played in Orford's face and, every last tackle, they swamped the halfback, whose kicking game fell apart. Afterwards Orford said referee Tony Archer had been calling the Storm defenders offside on the fifth tackle all night but had never once blown a penalty. It didn't matter. Manly had blown the game and blown the chance to regain some measure of mental strength against the Storm. And the Orford conundrum - where is he when you really need him? - got harder for the halfback known as "Ox" to shake. Watching from the stands was a player who knows exactly what it's like to live with that sort of monkey on your back. Jamie Lyon, sidelined with a medial ligament tear, also knew how much Orford needed him around. "It's so hard," said the five-eighth of the challenge of running the show solo. "Every fourth of fifth tackle, they knew he was going to kick so they're going to throw three or four players at him to pressure him. "I thought he got a lot of good kicks away and a couple of poor ones, just for that fact: he had a lot of people running at him." Flick forward six weeks. Manly are playing Penrith, and Orford is a changed man. "I had a big smile on my face on Saturday night just having [Lyon] back. He's a great player, and the touches he had we're all class," the captain said. "He's going to make teams second-guess - wherever I am, well that's not always where the ball's going to be." Orford, 30, this week won the Dally M player of the year and, even as he left the stage, he knew it wouldn't remove the question mark. That's club football, the critics would reckon: his field of dreams. If Orford ever needs someone to talk to about it, there's always Lyon. A teenage grand finalist in an Eels side carved up by Andrew Johns, Lyon ran away home to Wee Waa unable to deal with the pressure before a spell in England freshened him up. Last year, he won the inverse Dally M, voted the game's most overrated player by his peers. "We have a laugh about that, actually," Lyon said. "I don't know whether it's me or him who's got the most [criticism]. But we always seem to be fighting about it. But we just laugh about it. We know what we're capable of and what we've got to do." He might laugh, but those who know Lyon, 26, know otherwise. "Deep down it hurt him," said Ian Millward, who coached Lyon at St Helens during his Super League sabbatical. Orford, too, smiles his way through the unrelenting questions about his critics, brushing them aside like water from a sea eagle's back. Who has the right to question what he's achieved: a $450,000 annual salary to play footy, a grand final outing and player of the year. It's a long way from the Gosford postie on the verge of quitting the game because he couldn't get a start in first grade. Jason Taylor blocked his path at the North Sydney Bears and the Northern Eagles for five years, and he remembers Orford on the verge of chucking it all in to deliver the mail. "Bob Saunders, who was the chief executive, asked me to have a chat to him and tell him to hang in there. And then he ended up taking my spot so I shouldn't have done that, should I?" laughed Taylor. "I remember telling him, 'You just have to keep at it, you never know what's around the corner.' "He gets a bit of criticism but, knowing him as I do and knowing he spent a fair bit of time before he got his break, what he's done since he got the opportunity has been really impressive. "I think if he retired tomorrow he should be really proud of the career he's been able to build for himself." Lyon didn't just think about quitting. No one could talk him out of going back to the bush after one match for Parramatta in 2004. Although Lyon and Orford debuted within a month of each other in 2000, Lyon took a long time to mature into a leading role in a gun NRL side - despite playing for the Kangaroos as a teenager. Still, with the Wee Waa boy's awkwardness, Lyon was primarily a centre until he came to Manly. To step into five-eighth, he had to come out of his shell as a man and a player, and Lyon admitted it proved a very tough task last year. "It wasn't a happy year for me last year," he said. "I hadn't really played much five-eighth before last year, and I guess it took me a full year to get used to it." Orford saw a different player return this season. "Even in pre-season I knew he was going to have a massive year. He was more vocal in training," the halfback recalled. "He's a fairly quiet sort of fella but he was getting in there, calling the shots." Lyon said he realised it was just part of the five-eighth's role and credited Orford with teaching him the position. "'Ox' has been a great help. He's always talking to me, giving me tips and leading me around. I'd have to say he's a big reason why my form's improved compared with last year. I'd have to hold him accountable," he said. But the consequences of Lyon's personal growth have been huge for both for Orford and Manly, observes Millward, who stepped into the breach as the Cowboys coach this season. "He has a casual personality, and his career's been built on seizing opportunities on the outside. He's had to change from knowing his role to knowing everyone else's roles," Millward said. "I think Orford's stepped up to another level this year because they've had a genuine seven and six this year who can attack, and their game is not all focused around the dummy-half area. That's their chance, because if their game is focused around dummy-half, Melbourne will strangle them. Now they've got flexibility, with Jamie on an edge and that's why they're a massive threat."