Tuesday 14 September 2021

Rugby League History: The 1987 Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Published September 14, 2021 
📷 Heading into the '87 season, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles had been the 'almost team' of the 1980s - having already lost two Grand Finals in '82 and '83 and been Semi Finalists in '81, '84 and '86 (and losing a playoff for 5th to Penrith in '85).

Coach Bob Fulton, along with Manly supremo Ken Arthurson, had meticulously constructed a talented Manly roster since arriving in 1983, and everything fell into place in 1987.
The team entered the season featuring a host of current or former Australian representative stars in captain Paul Vautin, Noel Cleal, Michael O'Connor, Chris Close, Des Hasler and Dale Shearer, as well as Cliff Lyons and Phil Daley who would make their NSW debuts in 1987 and Country Origin players Ron Gibbs and Mal Cochrane. Centre Darrell Williams was also a mainstay in the New Zealand test team.

After 26 Rounds, the Sea Eagles would finish as clear Minor Premiers with 18 wins, 5 losses and a draw from their 24 games to finish on 41 points (with 2 byes), a full 6 points ahead of Easts in 2nd place.

A great opening month had them sitting in 3rd with 3 wins and a draw, but after beating the defending Premiers Parramatta 26-4 in Round 4, Manly suffered a run of losses against Canterbury (18-6), Souths (28-18) and Cronulla (18-13) to find themselves in 6th spot.

That was as low as they would fall on the ladder in 1987. From Round 9 - Manly put together an utterly dominant 12 match winning streak (claiming 1st spot by Round 15), and despite losses to Easts (26-16) in Round 22 and Norths (32-30) in Round 25, no one got close to shaking Manly's grip on the Minor Premiership.

With the Finals just around the corner, Paul Vautin's Manly side had tasted defeat just 5 times and only Easts (who had beaten Manly in Round 22) were considered any real threat to Manly's Premiership claim.

Manly's Top Tryscorer for the season was 22 year old fullback/centre Dale Shearer who crossed for 13 tries (his best total in First Grade) but only Michael O'Connor with 11 tries, also reached double figures despite the Sea Eagles scoring 553 points during the season.
If you want to a good trivia night question, then the correct answer for Manly's top pointscorer during the 1987 season is Mal Cochrane with 138 points (5 Tries and 59 goals) and not O'Connor who had 122 points, as he didn't take over as the regular goalkicker until late in the season.
Manly used 30 players across the 26 games they played - all stats courtesy of Rugby League Project.
When September arrived, as Minor Premiers Manly had a week off and they would watch Easts put Canberra away 25-16 in the Major Preliminary Semi Final. Then on September 13th Manly would grind out a 10-6 win over the Chooks in the Major Semi Final to launch themselves into their 3rd Grand Final of the decade.
Their opponents for the September 27th Grand Final would be Canberra and not Easts (the Raiders won the Preliminary Final 32-24) and this meant Manly were made clear favourites, having defeated Canberra twice during the season - 18-10 at Seiffert Oval in Round 10 and 20-18 at Brookvale Oval in Round 23.

Canberra had welcomed Mal Meninga back from a broken arm late in the season but Manly also had an ace re-joining their side for the big one in English import Kevin Ward
Ward had played against Australia in the 1986 Ashes Series and Manly signed him to a contract mid-season in 1987. He is considered one of the best English imports the Australian game has seen, despite playing all of 15 games in First Grade (11 in 1987 and 4 in 1988 - all with Manly). Ward had arrived in Australia in late May in time for a Round 13 debut against Balmain and Manly went onto win 7 straight games with the Englishman in the lineup. However leading into September he had missed 3 straight games with Mark Pocock doing an admirable job filling in but he was back for the Grand Final.

Making way from the Major Semi Final win over Easts were bench players Jeremy Ticehurst, Ian Gately and Owen Cunningham, replaced by Ward (who started for Pocock, who went to the bench), and utility Paul Shaw. There would be no room for veteran Chris Close in First Grade come September and he would finish his Manly career playing in the reserve grade decider on the same day.
1987 Winfield Cup Grand Final Teams.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles: 
D Shearer, D Ronson, D Williams, M O'Connor, S Davis, C Lyons, D Hasler, P Daley, M Cochrane, K Ward, R Gibbs, N Cleal, P Vautin (c). M Pocock, P Shaw. Coach: B Fulton.
Canberra Raiders: 
G Belcher, C Kinna, P Jackson, M Meninga, M Corkery, C O'Sullivan, I Henjak, B Todd, S Walters, S Backo, G Coyne, A Gilbert, D Lance (c). K Walters, T Regan. Coaches: W Bennett/Don Furner.

The game was played on what is remembered as a stinking hot Sunday afternoon in late September, with Manly running out 18-8 winners on the back of a powerful display from their forwards (particularly Ward who some consider to be unlucky not to win the Clive Churchill Medal) and the mercurial performance of Cliff Lyons at five-eighth.
Lyons played with 'spiders on him', toying with the Canberra edge defence all afternoon. He scored a fine individual try from a scrum to open the scoring in the 1st half and would be awarded the Clive Churchill Medal.

Michael O'Connor's 2nd half try off a Dale Shearer cross kick which gave Manly a 16-2 lead remains subject to much debate (Manly lifer and commentator Rex Mossop called winger David Ronson off-side in the call and no replay shows either player on or off-side on a wide shot) and despite Canberra scoring a try through Chris O'Sullivan late in the game, the Winfield Cup was Manly's.
Coach Fulton would breakthrough for his first Premiership as a First Grade coach, having fallen short with Eastern Suburbs in 1980 and Manly in 1983.

The vision of captain Paul Vautin being chaired off raising his fist in celebration is iconic. 
It encapsulated his relief and joy, as his beloved Sea Eagles finally broke through for their first Winfield Cup and first Premiership since 1978.
Full Time:
Manly 18 (C Lyons, M O'Connor Tries; M O'Connor 5/5 Goals)
Canberra 8 (C O'Sullivan Try; M Meninga 1/1, G Belcher 1/1 Goals)
Sunday September 27th, 1987 at the SCG - Crowd: 50,201. Referee: M Stone.
What are your memories of the 1987 Winfield Cup?
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