In a remarkable turn of events since the start of the season, nine players from the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and Sydney Roosters will meet for the second time this year in Friday night’s NRL Semi-final having first faced off in Round One of The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon in March at H.E. Laybutt Sporting Complex, the Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles trio of Josh Schuster, Morgan Harper and Haumole Olakau’atu were part of a 48-20 victory over a North Sydney Bears side that featured Matt Ikuvalu, Sam Walker, Drew Hutchison, Ben Marschke, Fletcher Baker and Egan Butcher.
It’s probably fair to say the combatants may not have anticipated they’d be going head to head in a sudden death NRL Finals match at Mackay’s BB Print Stadium tomorrow night, 188 days after their opening round clash in The Knock-On Effect NSW Cup.
While Schuster, Harper and Olakau’atu have proven themselves as strike weapons in attack for an in-form Manly team, the six suiting up for the tricolours have found consistency in first grade through an injury-riddled season for the Roosters.
True Blue Jamie Soward praised the Roosters players for the development in their NRL feeder club, the North Sydney Bears, in his review on this week’s episode of The Short Side.
“For me, their development has shown they are ready to play first grade and they’ve gone and done an admirable job, probably exceeding expectations in the NRL this year,” Soward said.
However, each of these opponents have made their own unique paths to the knockout clash on Friday night as outlined below.
The 2019 SG Ball Player of the Year debuted in NRL prior to 2021, yet made his first appearance in the NSW Cup in Round One this year.
Despite being a highly touted half, the return of Keiran Foran along with early-season injuries to second-rowers Andrew Davey, Curtis Sironen and Jack Gosiewski has seen Schuster find a home as a ball-playing edge forward, setting up for his outside men and taking defensive pressure off Tom Trbojevic on the left channel of attack.
The barnstorming back-rower didn’t earn his starting 13 role in the NRL until Round Nine after suffering a dislocated elbow against the Bears and playing three matches off the bench upon his return.
Since his first start in the No.11 jersey, Olakau’atu has scored eight tries from 16 matches.
The Sea Eagles’ recruit from Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs made his way back to starting centre for Hasler’s side in Round Five after Moses Suli was unavailable with a lower back concern, and Harper has since become a key fixture on the right edge with much talk being made of Manly’s left side attack.
The serviceable outside back with a strong finishing ability has been in and out of the Roosters side this year, finding a full-time position after Brett Morris’ ACL rupture before suffering a syndesmosis injury himself in Round 19, but has returned in time for the Roosters’ NRL Finals campaign.
Having suffered several injury setbacks since his NRL debut in 2016, Drew Hutchison has certainly earned his place in the Roosters’ spine this year, with Jamie Soward particularly impressed by the former Dragon’s huge influence on the team.
“He (Hutchison) was injured at the St George Illawarra Dragons and has built his career back up to be a very, very serviceable five-eighth with a big kicking game, and he’s done the job for the Roosters the last couple of years when they’ve had some injuries,” Soward explained.
The 19-year-old was a player that many Rugby League fans wanted to see make his mark in first grade and he has done just that with 20 NRL appearances to his name, recording eight tries and 19 try assists.
Although he came into the squad after a season-ending injury to experienced half Luke Keary, the diminutive Walker has certainly shown he can handle the pressure of first grade.
The young forward with 21 games in the NSW Cup didn’t play a game of football from 2019 until his NRL debut in Round Two this year after coming in for Victor Radley who was recovering from a knee injury. It has been a strong effort by Baker to play 15 first grade games in 2021 with little match fitness and no NRL experience before that time.
The former NSW Pathways representative and brother of Nat came on to the NRL scene in the Roosters’ 44-16 win over Canberra and has since remained in the starting side, providing impact off the bench and in the starting pack as a creative lock forward with footwork before the line.
Marschke has made a stunning transition from Ron Massey Cup in 2019 before re-joining the Bears this year and quickly moved into first grade following the retirement of Jake Friend and injuries to both Adam Keighran and Sam Verrills. He is now set to fill in again as Roosters hooker after Verrills’ unsuccessful fight at the judiciary on Tuesday.