FORGET about what the stats might say - Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are by far the best halves combination in the NRL.
They are why Manly are now competition favourites. For all the brilliance of the Stewart brothers, the class of Jamie Lyon and the destructive running of Tony Williams, the continued improvement of these young playmakers is the primary reason the Sea Eagles are in with a huge chance to be the first side to win back-to-back titles since the Broncos in the mid-1990s.
In writing the intro to this column, I was tempted to use the word "brilliant" twice to describe Foran and Cherry-Evans. I chose not to because it isn't a true representation of who they are. Brilliance is too often fleeting. It is generally inconsistent.
When I watch Kieran and Daly play I see two young men who display the most difficult attributes in the game: consistency, control, intelligence under pressure and toughness.
You can throw in the ability to play injured, something Foran has had to do for most of the season without complaint.
There is always someone exploding out of the blocks in the NRL. What a season Ben Barba has had. And who knew his Canterbury teammate Josh Reynolds would be so good?Likewise his Rabbitohs namesake Adam Reynolds, who some say is as sure of being named Dally M Rookie of the Year as Ben Barba is of being Player of the Year.
Each year these explosions of talent divert our attention from the blokes who are good or very good, week to week. Consistency is not sexy, but it wins titles. And the consistency of Foran and Cherry-Evans is why Manly won the premiership last year and may do so again this season.
Daly Cherry-Evans has managed to avoid the dreaded second-year syndrome in 2012. Picture: Mark Evans Source: The Daily Telegraph
At 23, Cherry-Evans has had to deal with so much in his first two seasons. He had to prove he was a first grader, that he had the ability to handle the big games, and the capacity to guide a team to a grand final win. Then he was picked in the Kangaroos squad. Not a bad first year.
But what of the dreaded second-year syndrome? Opposition coaches analysing his strengths and weaknesses, heightened expectations each week, facing sides who are revved up to stick it to the premiers? He hasn't missed a beat. In fact, he just gets better.
Too often these days halfbacks and five-eighths don't play as a combination. The coach puts one playmaker on the left side of the field, one on the right and they play as almost completely separate entities.
They care little what happens on the other side of the pitch, as long as they get their share of ball and opportunity. As a result, attacks look disjointed and the halves lack control.
Foran may play on the left and Cherry-Evans the right, but they play with a collective spirit. They support one another, execute plays which will complement the other and focus on the result, rather than who gets the credit.
Their plays are determined by what is best for the team, not the YouTube highlight reel. As such, they play with a control that is missing from many sixes and sevens.
For halves, rugby league is basically 80 minutes of problem solving. Some problems are easily solved, such as what to do in the next attacking set of six when you are fresh, have had 60 per cent of possession and lead by 14 points.
Other times the questions seem excruciatingly difficult. You are losing, you are tired, your side is out of petrol and you have just collected the ball on your own goal line. The best halves still find a solution.Manly took on the Warriors in Perth in round 21. As far as a top four finish was concerned, it was a crucial game for the Sea Eagles. They were struggling. With a minute left before half-time, Manly were 18-0 down and carrying the ball off their own line.
No ball player gos to the line straighter than Kieran Foran. Picture: Brett Costello Source: The Daily Telegraph
Foran noticed the Warriors defence was too compressed and delivered a high-risk, pinpoint cross-kick for winger Jorge Taufua, who scored as the half-time siren sounded. Manly's spirits lifted, and the Warriors never recovered.
That piece of intelligence under pressure won the Sea Eagles the game.
Last week Manly were giving the Knights a hammering but due to injuries and a fair slice of complacency Newcastle staged a fightback. Manly still led 38-22 but everyone watching the game felt the momentum swinging dangerously Newcastle's way.
Cherry-Evans was about to deliver a drop-out in what was going to be a pivotal set of six in the last 20 minutes.
He noticed the four Knights players patrolling Manly's short-kick option had been distracted, took a chance and delivered a perfect short stab of the ball that bounced into Foran's arms. Game over.
This is their most defining attribute. Defensively, they don't allow themselves to be targeted. In fact, they defend bigger opponents with raw aggression and physicality.
From the moment they arrived in the top grade, they established defensive respect.
But it is with the ball where their toughness gives them such an advantage. No ball player goes to the line straighter than Foran. He suffers for his art. The straightness of his threat makes him an easy frontal target as he creates space for his outside men.
Yet it's a price he is willing to pay and has never wavered from, regardless of who is in front of him or what injury he may be carrying.
Likewise, Cherry-Evans doesn't need visual opportunity to take on the line. He knows big front-rowers call out his name in the defensive line in the hope it will discourage him from running. It doesn't. But it is what happens when there's no opportunity that best illustrates their toughness.
It's when one of them calls the ball in the belief that momentum has been created, but for whatever reason the play-the-ball has been held up, the defenders have regrouped and there is nothing on offer. Halves are taught to back out of the play or hand the ball off early to a backrower. Not Cherry-Evans and Foran. They attack the set defence, challenge the line.
Their teammates wouldn't trade them for anyone.
They are tough and talented. They are the best halves combination in rugby league.