Finals fever: Resilient Marlins ready for battle royale

Photo: Adam MacDonald

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You have to feel for Manly head coach Brian Melrose. Having led the Marlins to the Minor Premiership in his first season back in charge at the Village Green last year, he was forced to sit back and watch as he lost player after player to injury in the last few weeks of the season, and suffered the ultimate ignominy of being knocked out of the Intrust Super Shute Shield by arch-rivals Warringah, with effectively one hand tied behind his back.

And this year, after losing a couple of trusty lieutenants early in the piece in the shape of 2017 Rookie of the Year Kevin Fuavao and veteran warhorse James Hilterbrand, he had them ticking along nicely under the radar to finish in fourth place with just three losses to their name. But he could only look on in horror again in the final round of the regular season, as he saw three of his key weapons – flyhalf Sam Lane, loose forward Harry Bergelin, and speed merchant Alex Northam – all leave the field against Eastwood with season-ending injuries.

A bonus-point win over the Woodies in that game would have ensured a home Qualifying Final last weekend. Instead, they had to rally back from 22-0 down just to scrape a draw, suffer the procession of broken bodies leaving the field, and then find out that Warringah had won by a single point at Southern Districts. All of which meant that they once again had to head up the peninsula to Rat Park to try and preserve their competition status.

They did so the long way round, going down gallantly 34-28 on the day, but surviving the cull after Northern Suburbs ground their way to victory over Eastwood at a blisteringly cold and windy North Sydney Oval some 24hrs later.

But considering that all but a few diehards had written off their chances of even being competitive against the Rats, given their disappearing roster, the manner in which they approached the game, made their arch-rivals work for everything they got, and only ended up going down by six points, was another insight into the mental reserves this Manly outfit appears to have fostered.

Battered and broken they may be, but underestimate them at your peril. This is a team prepared to go toe-to-toe and slug it out til the bitter end no matter what, and a record of just six losses in the 36 regular season matches since Melrose took the reins before the start of the 2017 season, is a testament to that resilience.

“It hasn’t been an easy road, and anyone that’s taken a look at the situation could see that there’s been a lot of different faces pop up in Manly’s team this year,” Melrose rues. “I think we must have broken every record, it’s been off the chart. But they’re all good players and they’ve found a way in many different circumstances.

“We stopped worrying about the team that appears in the paper weeks ago, because by Saturday there’s every chance that it will have changed. You just turn up on Thursday night and try and get through training, and then say ‘Ok, that’ll be the team’ while giving a couple of blokes the chance to see how they feel by the weekend. But that’s probably the same for a few teams.

“It’s been a bumpy old ride this season, so I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing where this team have got to so far,” he smiles. “I wouldn’t say we started poorly, even though we were three from six. But we ended up losing the least amount of games in the comp alongside Warringah and Norths, so I am very proud of that.”

Brian Melrose_Ben Hand_Manly trial_2018_AM

Melrose and Ben Hand have guided the Marlins to the semi-finals – Photo: Adam MacDonald

While they romped through most of last season to the Minor Premiership before falling apart at the seams in the closing weeks, they have had to paper over the cracks for pretty much the entire competition this time around. And it’s forged a determination and desperation amongst the playing group that their experienced coach has rarely seen.

“We’re a smaller team than most, and the way we play is a little bit different – it has to be,” he explains. “So we’ve got to be able to do what we do, and unless we can fatigue the other team it can be difficult. But once we get in a fight, we’re a chance of winning it.

“It’s an obvious thing to say that we haven’t had the full list of bodies available this year. But what I’ve found with this group is that they’ll fight, and I’m really proud of them for that. I don’t know if I’ve been involved with a team that fought harder.

“The reality of the competition this year is that six weeks ago, we were in a situation where you’re wondering if you can even get into the top six. So to have got in there, I’m very proud of the boys. We finished in as good a position as we could, and there’s probably only a game here or there that covered all the top teams.

“The one thing that we talked about at the start of the year was that you play the 18 rounds to get to the Championship, and then you play to win the Premiership once you get there. You play for a position, our position was what it was, and now we’ve got to win two games to win the Premiership. It just is what it is now, you treat it like sudden death and prepare as best you can.”

The clash against Warringah also brought one particular Marlin face-to-face with some familiar faces on his old stomping ground.

Go back a few years and the animosity and angst between the two neighbours was much more acerbic. But the advent of the NRC and the necessary collusion by both sides in the name of the Sydney Rays, has brought them closer together to a point where begrudging respect and banter outweighs any untoward bitterness and anger. For the most part…

It has also meant that players who were once sworn enemies, are now often best mates away from the paddock, and the healthy swapping of allegiances in recent times has become an accepted fact of peninsular life. So that must have made things a touch easier for winger Michael Adams, when he chose to leave a lifetime in the green and white of the Rats in the off-season, and shift his talents 14kms south for 2018.

A fixture in the Warringah backline a couple of years ago, Adams found himself frustratingly on the fringes for much of last season’s triumphant run to the Premiership. Having grown up and come through the ranks with many of the team that started the grand final and went onto lift the trophy, seeing them triumph was a bittersweet moment.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t a part of the winning side last year,” he rues. “I went away to the Aussie Sevens and came back to be given minimal opportunities. So in my eyes, I wasn’t a part of that Premiership side. As a result, I would do anything to be standing there next week holding the Shute Shield.”

Rats v Manly (Rd13), Bayfield Cup Pittwater Rugby Parkl, Saturday 7 July 2018.

Adams puts the brakes on Harry Jones in the round 12 derby – Photo: Karen Watson

His debut season playing for the ‘other half’ of the divide couldn’t have gone much better. Locking down a left wing spot, he has started all but one of Manly’s games thus far, crossed the chalk seven times, and become a firm favourite for all those who like their stats.

When the regular season ended, Adams sat proudly on top of the clean breaks listings with 38 for the competition, and was second on the metres made ladder (1283). He had also racked up 140 carries, 13 offloads, and had beaten 43 defenders. You could say he’s enjoying something of a renaissance.

“Thankfully I made a good decision to give it a crack with Manly, and I have loved this season,” he enthuses. “Obviously a fresh start has spurred me on to perform. I have had a bit of a dry spell the last few weeks with tries, but I have been getting plenty of opportunities to set others up around me, so I’m really enjoying my time.

“Manly is a pretty special place, we have built a very special team, and I get along with Billy (Melrose’s nickname) really well. I’m a country boy and I like the ‘no beating around the bush’ attitude he has. He is honest and upfront with all of us, and wants the best out of us week-in, week-out. Alongside assistants Ben Hand and Harry Fehily – who loves rugby so much he doesn’t want to leave after training – I have really enjoyed the season so far.”

He’d already made one visit back to his former home ground just a few weeks ago, when Manly came away with a 20-all draw. So he knew what was coming in terms of the crowd response last weekend, particularly with it being a final. He couldn’t wait.

“I was looking forward to it,” he smiles mischievously. “Some of my best mates either still play down there or go and watch every week, and I could hear a fair bit of banter coming from the sidelines. But I wouldn’t expect anything less. Rat Park is a hostile ground for any player to play at, so it didn’t really faze me. It actually encourages me to play better when I hear people I know giving me a bit of banter.”

And while everyone else was writing them off based on their injury list, he wasn’t at all surprised at the showing Manly produced.

“Favourite or underdog – it doesn’t mean much on a derby day once kick-off happens. It’s always a tough game, and although we had a few injuries going into it, we have great depth and we’re confident the boys coming in could more than hold their own.

“I thought throughout that it could have been anyone’s game. There was a 10 minute period after half time where they scored a few tries and if we’d held them out there, I think we go close to coming away with that one.”

The loss left a tense 24hr wait to see if second placed Norths could see off fifth placed Eastwood in the remaining Qualifying Final, a result that would eliminate the Woodies and keep the Marlins in the hunt. Adams was actually at North Sydney Oval last Sunday to cheer on Manly’s 2nd grade to victory. But he couldn’t stick around for the main event.

“I went home to watch the game after watching our 2nd grade boys get up as I couldn’t sit through it at the ground. When [Norths fullback Sam] Giltrap missed the conversion right in front, my heart skipped a beat. It was pretty nerve racking to be honest.”

But the Shoremen got home 16-10, and the Marlins had their second bite of the cherry. However, taking on the Minor Premiers Sydney University on their own ground this afternoon – where they remain unbeaten this year, and where they towelled up the Marlins 45-13 back in round six, looms as another Mission Impossible if you listen to the majority.

They did avenge that loss somewhat in round 12, with a 24-22 victory over the Students at Manly Oval. But that was achieved with Messrs Lane, Bergelin and Northam in tow. If they’re going to reach what would be the just the club’s second grand final appearance since they last lifted the trophy in 1996, they’re going to have to go to the well several times as a team, and beyond.

Sam Shires_Manly v Eastwood_2018_AM

Sam Shires has been a revelation for the Marlins this season – Photo: Adam MacDonald

Look across the XV that is patched up and ready to go though, and you see plenty of starch. Skipper Adrian Hall – shortlisted for the Catchpole Medal such has been his levels of performance in 2018 – is a big, physical presence in the second row; openside Kotoni Ale never takes a backward step when it comes to putting his body on the line; and in Sam Shires, they have a fiery, combative no-nonsense Englishman who made 67 more tackles than anyone else in the regular season. That’s almost four more per game.

Adams is no shrinking violet on his day either. The 27-year-old – who recently racked up his 100th game in 1st grade – is well renowned for punching above his weight with his damaging defence and take-no-prisoners approach to the game. So it’s perhaps understandable that he feels Manly can pull off an upset.

Actually, ‘feeling’ they can win is probably an understatement.

“We are happy to take the underdog tag,” he says. “We got beaten by them at Uni and edged them at home, and we know they are a young and energetic side. But we sat down this week and identified a few key things we need to do to get to the big dance, and we have looked at a few areas in their game where we think we can get at them. So hopefully we can get under a few of their guys skins.

“All the boys are fired up and ready to rip into this week, and we will be in the fight the whole game. Essentially, if we all do our role, I’m confident that we can come away with the win and give ourselves a fight for the title the following week.

“We have spoken about bringing energy and being desperate to win, and we as a group know that on our day, we can’t be beaten. The Marlins have been in the fight the last few years, and this year we believe it’s ours. If we leave nothing out there like we have spoken about, it will take a very smart outfit to beat us.”

As head coach of a team about to play a semi-final, Melrose will love that belief coursing through his side’s veins right now. But he is all too aware of the challenge ahead against an in-form Sydney Uni team, superbly marshalled by his opposite number, Robert Taylor.

“We fought as hard as we could against a very good Warringah side, where the preparation was more around re-jigging stacking shapes and trying to remain calm with so much change,” he reflected. “But this week we have had a little more time to train new combinations, and that’s always helpful.

“Uni have a lot going for them in a game where everyone sees them as an overwhelming favourite. Having done well during the season, and with a returning list of Super Rugby players and home ground advantage, you have to assume they will be very formidable. We respect that so we need to deliver something special.

“We have fought well through the season but it will come down to how we play without the ball. Like Uni, we go at things a little differently when we have the ball, so the challenge is to just play true to our beliefs no matter who is on the field, and give our best. The boys deserve to be here, and we are looking forward to it.”

Don’t miss this one for anything.

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