Manly Warringah Sea Eagles History
By Sean Fagan courtesy of www.RL1908.com
The origins of the "rugby" game in the Manly area (on the northern side of Sydney Harbour) can be traced back to as early as the 1870s. Manly Rugby Union was initially denied a place in the first Sydney district competition at the start of the 20th century - it being suggested that the area join resources with North Sydney. Manly chose to go alone and eventually was admitted in 1906 to the Sydney competition.
But before the end of their second season, the movement to set up rugby league in Sydney had gained serious momentum and Manly, as with all the other Sydney district rugby clubs, endured internal agonies as the new "League" was considered.
Influential people within the Manly community, including many who were players and officials involved in the Manly rugby union club, met with the founders of the NSWRL with a view to including a Manly team in the 1908 rugby league competition.
However, the fact that Manly had only just been admitted to the Sydney RU competition, weighed heavily on those involved - would the club be expelled if negotiations continued, and what if the League failed within a season or two? The district was not prepared to risk its relatively new district rugby club and flirtations with rugby league ceased. To be fair though, the area north of the Manly town village was nothing more than farms where it wasn't still scrub - hardly a population base to support a team.
Expansion of the population up "the peninsula" didn't really take hold until the 1920s. The Sydney rugby union competition was run on residential qualification requirements and the Manly club did not possess sufficient player strength to win a premiership title until 1922. Until that time the club was unable to even run any junior competitions in the fledgling district. If there were any young men who wanted to play rugby league from the Manly area they would have to venture to North Sydney to do it - few (if any at all) did.
Amidst the effect of the Great Depression, Rugby League finally came to Manly and the peninsula in 1932 when a Manly and Warringah Junior League was established under the senior district club - North Sydney. The initial A Grade teams were North Curl Curl, Harbord, Manly Juniors (maroon with white V), Brookvale (maroon and gold) and Narrabeen. Use of grounds of reasonable standard was difficult, especially as Manly Council denied the use of Manly Oval. The Council though had no issue with the Manly rugby union club's use of the ground. Meanwhile, Warringah Council with its very limited resources was bending over backwards to assist the new sport and provided the Junior League with an enclosed ground - Brookvale Showground.
The formation of the Manly-Warringah Junior League afforded the area with its first representative team in the NSWRL's Presidents Cup state knockout competition for U'18 players.
Manly's (Manly-Warringah) first match was ironically against North Sydney. It was played as a curtain-raiser to the June 6 Ashes Test match between Australia and Jim Sullivan's touring English Lions.
The crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground presented an intimidating experience for the young men from the peninsula as they prepared in the dressing the room - the SCG crowd was well over 70,000. But, being the "new boys" the crowd got behind Manly as the game got under way, but the experienced Norths team ran out winners 32-6.
The Junior League struggled for player numbers and income, particularly during WW2 when they lost use of their only enclosed (paying) ground when Brookvale Oval was seconded for military operations. The use of Manly Oval by rugby league was still not permitted by the Council. The fledgling Junior clubs relied upon grants from the NSWRL and North Sydney just to see out the 1942 season.
However, the area was starting to provide quality resources to North's stocks with 21 Manly-reared juniors graded in 1943 including Frank Collins, Teddy Rudd, Max Whitehead, Keith Kirkwood, Gus Kellock and union convert Kelly McMahon. Towards the end of WW2 junior and club numbers were on a steep rise and the push for District status gained momentum.
Any request to the NSWRL though could only proceed through the North Sydney club - who had no obligation to pass the matter on. However, Norths did not ever really stand in front of Manly's objectives, despite knowing the impact it would have on its own success.
Manly had made its first attempt for inclusion in the First Grade competition as far back as April 1937. The hope was that with the impending demise of the Sydney University club, Manly could simply step up into their place. The NSWRL though were not satisfied as to the district's ability to sustain a team and opted to reduce its competition back to a symmetrical eight teams and thus eliminate the bye.
In 1944 Manly again sought entry but were rejected due to the present uncertainty of the war and that Manly Oval wasn't of acceptable standard (let alone the Manly Council's stance). Manly, however, were advised that after the war the matter would be revisited.
The increasing number of Manly juniors in the North Sydney grades was well understood, but the real acknowledgement of Manly's arrival at an acceptable playing standard would only come if they won the Presidents Cup - something they had been unable to do.
Come 1946 though and Manly finally delivered the final proof of their ability - they won the Presidents Cup. The team, which included Freshwater player Roy Bull, won three sudden-death matches to take the title. They beat Western Districts 5-2, then knocked-out Easts 15-11 and faced up to North Sydney in the Final. The game was played as a curtain-raiser to an Ashes Test - this time it was before 65,000 fans who were eagerly awaiting the first post-war Test match which was between Australia and Gus Risman's Lions.
Manly held out North Sydney in a close fought game by 12-8 and the feeling on the peninsula was that they could no longer be denied. On November 4 1946 Manly again sent a deputation to the NSWRL.
Attending with them were officials from North Sydney who were supporting Manly's request. Norths selflessly put forward Manly's bid, even though its inclusion would see them lose a large number of players from all grades with the immediate application of the residential rule. But Norths took the view that the distance many players, officials and supporters were forced to travel to be part of the Bears meant that the expansion of rugby league was suffering.
They believed that Manly's inclusion would provide a far better platform for League to gain a hold over Union in the area. However, while Parramatta Council was assisting with the bid for district club status in its area by allowing open use and developing Cumberland Oval, the Manly Council was still staunchly in the Union camp. Despite increased media and community pressure towards the Council to allow use of Manly Oval, it did not change its stance and Manly's bid proceeded with Brookvale Oval as its home ground.
The NSWRL accepted Manly's application and, along with Parramatta, they were granted admission to the 1947 competition.
North Sydney though suffered more than they anticipated. After having played in the 1943 Grand Final they hit the wall after the exodus of Manly players for 1947.
The Bears lost half of their games in 1947, before spending the next four seasons at the bottom of the ladder.
The exodus of Norths players included Ray Black, Johnny Bliss, Mackie Campbell, Ern Cannon, John Clough, A.J. Collins, Harry Grew, Jim Hall, Len Johnson, Reo Jones, Gus Kellock, A. Kerle, Keith Kirkwood, Harry Luker, Reg Mullens, Kelly McMahon, Basil Seymour, Jim Walsh, Max Whitehead and Gordon Willoughby.
The Manly Sea Eagles began its maiden premiership season completely bereft of funds. As a new club it had to start from scratch relying on donations and the players which qualified by the residential rule. There was no money to buy any players from the bush, and if there had been money, there would have been no time for any Sydney players to qualify (twelve months residence being required to move clubs). Income had to come from spectators attending Brookvale Oval, which was well away from the Manly township.
Manly immediately adopted the maroon and white colours they had used for their Presidents Cup team since its inception. They chose for an emblem the sea eagle - the native bird of prey of the Sydney coastline. The use of emblems on jerseys and as a marketing tool was way in the future, and a number of media writers simply referred to Manly as the "sea gulls". However, while they never raised an objection to being called sea gulls (emphasising how much of a non-issue emblems/marketing names were at the time) the club maintains that it has always officially been the Sea Eagles since their first day.
Manly's first premiership game was against Wests at Brookvale Oval on Saturday April 12, 1947. Max Whitehead, who had first played for Norths in 1942 and was a member of their 1943 Grand Final team, was Manly's first captain. Whitehead was a big barrel-chested second rower who was used by Bonds as the model for their iconic "Chesty Bond" character.
Despite scoring three tries to one, the Magpies beat Manly 15-13 as Wests' Bill Keato kicked six goals on the back of a multitude of scrum penalties awarded by referee Aub Oxford.
By the end of May the club had failed to notch a win from its first six matches. By the time fellow new-starters Parramatta arrived at Brookvale Oval for the round seven game, Manly fans were wondering if they would ever register a win. But it did come as Manly delivered five unconverted tries to dispose of the Eels by 15-7.
The season highlight without any doubt though was the 33-0 smacking of the high-flying Newtown Bluebags at Brookvale Oval. Somehow Manly's coach, the great Ray Stehr, had hatched a plan to bring Newtown down even though they were as a team and individually miles in front of the class of the Sea Eagles. Stehr had Manly continually kicking the ball back to Newtown, even when they won the ball against the feed from scrums, just so his players could keep hitting the Bluebags players.
He also employed a tactic of kicking the ball over the defensive line and behind where the Newtown wingers were, just to keep wearing the team down. The tactic worked as Manly's 18 stone centre Eric Bathgate continually hit into and mauled Newtown's backs, especially their star centre Len Smith. Manly eventually ran over the tired Newtown side by an incredible 33-0.
Though Manly only won four games in 1947, it was one more than Parramatta and that was enough to avoid the wooden spoon.
The following two seasons produced few highlights for the club apart from the selection of local junior Roy Bull in the Australian team for a Test against New Zealand. His selection had wider implications as he was able to convince fellow Test players Kevin Schubert and Wally O'Connell (who had both been playing in Wollongong) to make the move to Manly for the 1950 season.
Manly saw these two players as providing much needed on-field direction (in the shape of five-eighth O'Connell) and value (from the ball-winning skills of hooker Schubert). They also saw O'Connell as a captain-coach who could lead the young Manly players on the field.
However Eastern Suburbs, who had said goodbye to O'Connell before the start of the 1949 season, claimed that his move to Manly was a breach of the residential rule.
The NSWRL upheld Easts' appeal despite O'Connell protesting he had done everything properly. O'Connell felt so betrayed by his old club that he refused to go back to Easts and decided to sit out the 1950 season, taking on with Manly the role of non-playing coach.
O'Connell said that even though he felt the Manly officials he had been negotiating with were inexperienced, at least they had been honourable in their dealings - he felt he could not let the young club down.
The result was O'Connell, who had played in the nine previous Australian teams lost his Test spot for the coveted series against Great Britain. His sacrifice immediately turned O'Connell into Manly's first hero.
O'Connell did well with the Manly team and mid-season they were bound for the semi-finals. However, as the pressure grew towards the back end of the season, the absence of O'Connell's on-field presence came to the fore and the inexperienced team fell away. However it did bode well for the 1951 season when O'Connell would be able to take the field.
In 1951 the peninsula rode the back of an inspiring season from O'Connell and his team that included Gordon Willoughby, Kevin Schubert, Roy Bull, Ron Rowles, George Hunter and Ken Arthurson. After a very impressive regular season the Sea Eagles pushed past Wests 37-9 and then St. George 18-8 in back-to-back semi-final wins. After only four seasons Manly were in the Grand Final - it was dizzy days for the club.
Unfortunately the win over St. George came with a price as O'Connell fractured his wrist. He toyed with the idea of playing in the Grand Final but would have required a pain-killing needle to do it - he chose to stand down in favour of "thirteen fit players". But the fatal flaw of the 1950 season returned again as the Sea Eagles lacked direction across the field and floundered in the face of a South Sydney onslaught - losing 42-14 in a disappointing end to what had been a magnificent season.
1957 - present
Sporting new fully maroon jerseys emblazoned with a huge white sea eagle across the chest, Manly returned to the semi-finals in 1957. The Manly Sea Eagles side was coached by 27 year-old Ken Arthurson who had been forced into early player retirement by injury.
Arthurson's team boasted some great and experienced players including Roy Bull, George Hunter, Rex Mossop, Ray Ritchie, Ron Willey, George Hugo and Peter Burke.
The side reached the qualifying Final and the Sea Eagles fought back dramatically from an 11-2 deficit against South Sydney at half-time, to record a win by 15-11 and a place in the Grand Final against St. George.
Manly held the Dragons to 4-all nearing the break, before an against the run of play intercept from a wayward pass saw Tom Ryan sprint away to score in the corner. After Harry Bath converted the try St. George led at half-time by 9-4, but the Sea Eagles appeared to be deflated by the jolt. The second half was one to forget for Manly as they eventually lost 31-9. The Arthurson coaching era saw Manly consistently make the semi-finals over the following seasons until at the end of the 1961 season he stood down to embark on his celebrated administrative career.
For most of the 1960s the Manly Sea Eagles performed credibly and finished mid-table, although not reaching the semi-finals again until 1966 when Wally O'Connell returned again as coach. The performance of the 1966 team and the experience they gained signifies the beginnings of Manly's emergence as a powerhouse team.
O'Connell's arrival was timely as it coincided with Arthurson's signing of 17 year old Bob Fulton from Wollongong. The wise head of O'Connell was invaluable in refining and developing the prodigious talent that Fulton undoubtedly was. The side also included Frank Stanton, Bob Batty, Billy Bradstreet, John Morgan and youngsters Fred Jones and Bill Hamilton. Manly defeated Newtown to again reach a Qualifying Final, this time against Balmain. Despite scoring the only try of the match, via Bob Fulton, Manly went down to the Tigers by 8-5.
O'Connell though had built the foundations of a credible team in 1966 and 1967 and under the coaching of George Hunter in 1968, Manly once again returned to the Grand Final. The Sea Eagles had played exceptional football throughout the season, but as the play-offs dawned they seemed to lose their intensity and ability to score tries. They accounted for the South Sydney Rabbitohs by 23-15 in the Major Semi-Final to gain a place in the Grand Final and a week off.
Souths disposed of the Dragons in the Final and Manly Sea Eagles fans felt confident that their first premiership title was imminent. However, they hadn't counted on the experience Souths gained from the 1967 Grand Final and they settled into the game much quicker than Manly. Souths held a 13-2 lead early in the second half, and as Manly started overcoming their nerves they clawed back to 13-9 down with fifteen minutes remaining. Manly though couldn't find the break they needed and Souths held on to take the title. It was Manly's fourth Grand Final loss in 23 seasons and the unwanted tag of "premiership bridesmaids" was bestowed upon the club.
The bulk of the team returned to the Grand Final in 1970 when Manly again fell to South Sydney - this time by 23 to 12.
To say the club and its supporters were frustrated would be to understate the situation - nothing short of a premiership title would placate them.
Arthurson then went on a buying spree that saw the 1971 side bolstered by North Sydney's Ken Irvine, Mal Reilly from England and Woy Woy youngster Graham Eadie.
The team produced the desired results and they won the minor premiership by a clear four point margin. However they too faltered as the Sea Eagles lost their semi-finals against Souths and St. George, albeit the games were close results. Arthurson then ensured Manly would be forever "hated" by the fans and officials of rival clubs when he secured the signatures of Souths' pair John O'Neill and Ray Branighan. The side immediately became clear favourites for the 1972 title.
Manly lived up to the expectations throughout the season and the Sea Eagles appeared even more imposing with the addition of local junior Terry Randall and the improved form of Ian Martin. The side swept all before them and expectations were extremely high when they took the field for the club's sixth Grand Final - this time it was against fellow big-spenders, Eastern Suburbs.
Manly was coached by Ron Willey and the team that day was:
Graham Eadie, Ken Irvine, Ray Branighan, Bob Fulton, Max Brown, Ian Martin, Dennis Ward, Mal Reilly, Terry Randall, Allan Thomson, John O'Neill, Fred Jones (c) and Bill Hamilton
In the end it was an anti-climax as Manly dominated proceedings to take a 19-4 lead in the final quarter of the game, before two late Roosters tries flattered the scoreline - 19-14. Manly completed an unbeaten run of fifteen games to take the title.
Manly's supremo Ken Arthurson recalled later: "It was just a dream come true, I know we celebrated there for some time, and I didn't take a backward step in the celebrations either! It was pandemonium back at the Leagues Club. The street outside was packed and you couldn't move inside."
Frank Stanton's reserve grade team kept the pressure up on the 1st grade players in 1973 with a host of promising juniors, spearheaded by Max Krilich and Alan Thompson. Manly made it back to back titles in 1973 when they defeated Cronulla in the toughest Sydney Grand Final witnessed in decades.
The Sharks were led by Englishmen Tommy Bishop and Cliff Watson who tried to "spark" the young Cronulla players to unsettle the experienced Manly side.
What resulted was on-field mayhem as skirmishes erupted everywhere. Eventually Manly, or more specifically Bob Fulton, focussed enough on the football to score two tries and see Manly through to a 10-7 win.
The following two seasons saw Manly continue as one of the top clubs in the competition, although they fell in the finals series in both years as Eastern Suburbs took the spotlight.
Under the coaching of Frank Stanton, Manly returned again to the Grand Final in 1976 where they faced up to Parramatta who were participating in their first premiership decider. In the end, it was a turn-around for Manly when it was their big match experience that gave them the much needed edge to outlast the Eels by 13-10, despite only scoring one try. The dropped pass by Parramatta winger Neville Glover with the Manly goal-line beckoning didn't hurt either!
The Manly side included some great players including three British Test representatives - Phil Lowe, Gary Stephens, Steve Norton, as well as Graham Eadie, Russel Gartner, Tom Mooney, Bob Fulton, John Harvey, Alan Thompson and Max Krilich. The Sea Eagles though were shattered shortly after when the news came through that their captain Bob Fulton was heading off to Eastern Suburbs to finish his career.
In 1977 Manly fell early in the semi-finals and 1978 looked to be heading the same way until the Sea Eagles produced one of the most remarkable semi-final runs in rugby league history. Apart from Fulton, the bulk of the 1976 side was still playing and coach Frank Stanton was still at the helm. The season also saw the emergence of a new "whiz-kid" in the shape of Wagga Wagga's Steve Martin.
Manly finished third on the table and played Cronulla in the first semi-final. The Sharks won a hard tussle and the Sea Eagles were sent into the next weekend's sudden death semi-final against Parramatta. The game against the Eels ended in a draw and the teams were forced into a mid-week replay.
Parramatta went to a commanding lead and looked to have the game in their keeping until the Sea Eagles finished with a late flourish to take the win. The reward for the weary Manly side was a place in the Preliminary Final against the minor premiers Western Suburbs team, three days later. Despite playing three games in the space of seven days, and having many injured players take the field with pain-killing injections, the Sea Eagles prevailed 14-7 over the Magpies and earned a rematch against the Cronulla Sharks in the Grand Final.
For the second season in a row the Grand Final was drawn and the two teams had to play again, only this time they had only three days rest as the Kangaroo touring squad was leaving for England on the Friday.
Ironically, Cronulla was worse for wear than Manly and the Sea Eagles were able to account for the Sharks easily in the replay to take the title. It had taken them six matches since the semi-finals began to win their fourth premiership.
The Manly Sea Eagles though didn't perform to expectations during the following season, finishing outside of the final five. The lingering effects of the 1978 battles and the ensuing Kangaroo Tour looked to have taken their toll. Memories of the season do however include some infamous meetings between the Wests "fibros" and the Manly "silvertails".
The club's self-imposed salary cap that had seen Fulton leave after 1976 was discarded by Arthurson as he went after three of Wests star players: Les Boyd, Ray Brown and John Dorahy. Under new coach Allan Thomson the 1980 campaign started well enough, with Manly winning the pre-season competition (a 21-12 win over Balmain), but failing again to be a serious threat to the premiership.
Under coach Ray Ritchie, Manly were back in the semi-finals in 1981 where they met Newtown and the most brutal brawl ever witnessed on Australian TV ensued. Manly's hardmen Mark Broadhurst, Les Boyd and Terry Randall were well amongst the action. Despite a spirited comeback on the scoreline by Manly, the Jets held on to win the game 20-15 and the Sea Eagles' season was over.
Manly returned to play Grand Finals against Parramatta in 1982 and 1983 but couldn't hold back the Jack Gibson coached Eels - which was particularly disappointing for Bob Fulton's 1983 Manly team who won the minor premiership by eight points and included such stars as Phil Blake, Chris Close, Kerry Boustead, Ian Schubert, Alan Thompson, Max Krilich, Noel Cleal, Paul Vautin and Ray Brown.
However, in 1987 Manly again won the title when they beat the Canberra Raiders who were playing their first Grand Final. Manly were clearly the best team all season and played a fine open style of rugby league, which contrasted with the dour play of recent years (the 1986 Grand Final was won by Parramatta in a tryless game).
The team again included an Englishman, Kevin Ward (a hard playing Test front rower) as well as Cliff Lyons, Paul Vautin, Michael O'Connor, Noel Cleal, Ron Gibbs, Dale Shearer and Des Hasler. The following week Manly travelled to England and played Wigan at a packed Central Park for the World Club Championship. In a night that will be long remembered in the north of England, the Graham Lowe coached Wigan beat Manly in a tryless game.
Manly then went through a lean period under Graham Lowe's coaching until gaining momentum again as the mid-90's approached. The Bob Fulton coached Sea Eagles returned to the play-offs in 1993 and 1994 but were beaten on both occasions in the first elimination semi-final by the Brisbane Broncos.
In 1995, amidst the dramas of the Super League war, Manly produced one of its most dominating seasons in the club's history sweeping all teams before them. Unfortunately for the 1995 Sea Eagles a defiant Sydney (Canterbury) Bulldogs denied them their place in the premiership winners list.
In 1996 a more determined Manly returned to the Grand Final and beat St George to win the title that had eluded them the season before. Rugby League in Australia was split in two in 1997 (ARL and Super League) and Manly were the major flag-ship team of the ARL's competition. For the third year in a row Manly reached the Grand Final, however lapses in their intensity which appeared during the season returned in the premiership decider against Newcastle as the Sea Eagles were beaten on the full-time siren by a Knights try.
The Manly teams of 1995 to 1997 produced some of the most entertaining football in Sea Eagles' history and featured many great players such as Geoff Toovey, Nik Kosef, Steve Menzies, Terry Hill, Mark Carroll, the ageless Cliff Lyons and former NZ All Blacks Matthew Ridge and Craig Innes.
As with Newtown in the 1981 decider, the failure to win a Grand Final at a pivotal moment in a club's history was to prove significant to Manly's future.
For 1998 the playing strength of the Sea Eagles was greatly diminished by a lack of fund's available to the football club. The club had spent much of its resources to assist the ARL's battle and this was exacerbated when the team's major sponsor was lost to a Super League club (Cronulla).
At the end of the 1999 season, despite meeting the criteria for inclusion in the NRL's 2000 competition, Manly agreed to merge with the insolvent North Sydney Bears. Together they formed the Northern Eagles for continued participation in the NRL.
The Northen Eagles venture ultimately collapsed at the end of the 2001 season and the NRL licence reverted to Manly. The club continued under the Northern Eagles name in 2002, though poor crowds at Gosford saw a quick return to Brookvale Oval. After finishing just outside the semi-finals in 2002, Manly announced that from 2003 onwards they would be playing again as the 'Manly Sea Eagles'.
The 2003 and 2004 seasons produced very few moments of joy for Sea Eagles supporters - and some dreadful thrashings. The club improved its playing stocks for 2005, and reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1998.
Under the guidance of club great Des Hasler, the Sea Eagles put the dark times well and truly behind them in 2007, reaching the Grand Final. The week leading up to the decider though saw much reflection upon the club's remarkable rise, and the immensity of the achievement seemed to take its toll on the team. Despite being in the game at the half-time break, the Sea Eagles were well beaten by the Melbourne Storm.
Finishing level at the end of the 2008 club rounds, Melbourne edged out the Sea Eagles for the minor premiership on points differential. Manly clinically dismantled the finals challenge of the
Dragons (38-6) and then the Warriors (32-6) to reach the Grand Final and a re-match against Melbourne.
Fanned by "home" support, Manly slowly but surely ground down the Melbourne team, and two tries gave the
Sea Eagles an 8-0 half-time lead. A second half blitz though completely destroyed the Storm's chances, with Manly scoring some scintillating tries on their way to a record 40-0 thrashing. It was a fairytale finish for local junior Steve 'Beaver' Menzies, who scored a late try to end his record equalling 349th first grade game.