Malcolm Knox - SMH
September 19 2014
Brett Stewart has been the most valuable rugby league player of the past 10 years. There is only one stat to back this assertion, but it's not a bad one: in the two seasons since 2008 that Stewart has been injury-free, his team has won the premiership. Can that be said about any other player? Not Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Jarryd Hayne or any other of the claimants in this golden age of league talent. Only about Stewart can it be said that when he is fit and firing, his team wins the big prize.
Stewart's 200th first-grade game on Saturday night highlights how many he has missed. Manly have played almost 300 times since his debut in 2003. Chronic knee and hamstring injuries, and playing behind a beaten NSW team limited his effectiveness in representative football, but in the NRL, the better measure of a player's legacy, Stewart has been the linchpin of the best club team of his era.
His only suspension has been the one imposed by the league for drunkenness at Manly's 2009 season launch, after which he was dragged through the mire of a sexual assault trial. A jury took all of 50 minutes to acquit him – the equivalent of a send-off for the Crown case – but the bitterness it left in Stewart for the league, the media and sections of the public was plain to see.
Diagnosed with diabetes when he was 14, Stewart's assets initially were his pace and his reading of the game asa support runner: a Terry Lamb brain on a James Roberts set of legs. He was always a safe fielder of kicks and a sometimes astonishing, and underrated, defender. As he matured, Stewart became Manly's midfield director in attack and defence.
In front of a microphone was the only place he was reticent. When second-man plays began to dominate attacking patterns, Stewart was initially a wide runner but turned into a pivot. His freakish hand-eye co-ordination produced improvisations reminiscent of Benji Marshall, and this year, having got over early injuries, he was steering Manly towards another premiership, until ... until ...
Yes. It has to be said that since it became evident that his brother Glenn had played his last game for the Sea Eagles, the Snake could have been renamed the Sulk. In Manly's tribute day to Glenn (who didn't show up) at Brookvale last month, Brett's first touch was to throw the ball over the sideline in a manner that almost looked intentional. Brett, like his team, proceeded to put in their worst performance in five years, only then to turn it around with a breathtakingly brilliant last 20 minutes. It might turn out to have been the last hurrah of the Manly era, and was their last win. (And also Penrith's last loss.) The empires are falling. Last weekend it was the Melbourne Storm and, in the AFL, the Geelong Cats. Manly's agony has been more operatic, but unless they can summon something from the vault – of which they are still capable – they will be put out of their misery by Canterbury or Penrith.
So be it. The club made a decisive move midyear by not offering Glenn Stewart a contract. Their future would be built around Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran, Brenton Lawrence, Jamie Buhrer and Peta Hiku: a complete metamorphosis, not just of personnel, but of culture.
There now remains the bloody business of following through. Brett Stewart, sometimes known as the "Shop Stewart" for his control of the Manly mateship group, and Steve Matai now have the hangdog look of men who want a new start before it's all finished. The contrast in enthusiasm last weekend between Manly and the winning semi-final teams was a reminder that Manly's strength for all those years was the physicality of their forwards, which began to ebb last year with the loss of Brent Kite and Joe Galuvao, and has accelerated through injury and infighting in 2014. Anthony Watmough's departure seems imminent, and many Sea Eagles supporters will be saying thanks for the great service, the door's on the right. Watmough is, like Paul Gallen, a footballer whose big weakness is an excess of his big strengths. In his energy, toughness and zeal, Watmough has always had a tendency to get his hands on the ball too often for someone whose hands are not his strong point.
Often, his zest in defence for hurling himself at runner after runner has left him on the ground behind the play-the-ball and missing from the defensive line, decisively, for the next tackle.
Among Manly fans, who, after all, watch him the most, there is perpetual debate on Watmough's net worth to a team, about whether the very high positive impact outweighs the very high mistake rate. Anyway, good luck Parramatta.
What the 95 per cent of rugby league fans who hate Manly will be hoping is that the club stuffs things up so badly that they end up losing not only the old guard but the new as well; that the Stewart-Watmough clique will cause so much havoc on the way out that Cherry-Evans and Foran will have a gutful and leave, too. On Manly's past management record, it's a real possibility.
The poignant thing about September, however, is that it is a month of tributes. Roosters supporters would never have swapped Anthony Minichiello for another fullback, and justly so. Melbourne farewell the redoubtable Ryan Hoffman, the Cowboys Brent Tate. The code itself is saying au revoir, if not adieu, to Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess.
Manly's shift change is just beginning. But as Pablo Neruda wrote, you can cut all the flowers but you cannot stop spring from coming.
There will be a new premier and every club will regenerate. Departures, whether dignified and triumphant or ugly and spite-ridden, loom large while they are happening but eventually become footnotes, overshadowed, as they should be, by the wonderful careers that preceded them.