Manly Sea Eagles celebrate 75 years of rugby league

LEGENDS: Brett Stewart and Bob Fulton with their soughtafter playing cards. Picture: Geoff Jones
LEGENDS: Brett Stewart and Bob Fulton with their soughtafter playing cards. Picture: Geoff Jones

Take a walk along the Manly beachfront on Sydney's northern beaches and the Sea Eagles' proud and successful history literally hits you in the face.

Fluttering in the nor' easter are 68 flags representing players who have played 100 or more games for the club.

There are those like Roy Bull and Gordon Willoughby who dug the well for the hundreds of players who followed in the ensuing 75 years.

Premiership winners Fred Jones, Bob Fulton, Max Krilich, Paul Vautin, Geoff Toovey, Matt Orford and Jamie Lyon feature prominently, along with legendary Sea Eagles Rex Mossop, Steve Menzies, Cliff Lyons, Terry Randall, current coach Des Hasler and skipper Daly Cherry-Evans.

It's a wonderful walk down memory lane and a reminder of just how successful the Sea Eagles have been over three-quarters of a century.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of that first game against the Western Suburbs Magpies. That game ended in defeat and, three-quarters of a century later, the modern-day Manly side is hopefully climbing its way out of an early season slump following a breakthrough win on Friday night.

If history shows us anything, Manly is never down for long.

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The Sea Eagles have won eight titles, including grand final victories every decade for the past 50 years, plus a World Club Challenge in 2009. They have produced 85 internationals, 54 Origin players and one Immortal in Bob "Bozo" Fulton.

And, remarkably, Manly has never run last.

No wonder rival fans hate us. Wouldn't you be jealous if you were them?

Manly's Godfather Ken Arthurson has been there from the start, first as a player then coach and finally as one of the most respected administrators in the game's history.

Arko lives on the Gold Coast these days but at 91 his passion for the maroon and whites remains as strong as ever. "That club has been my life and they will be to the end," he said. "It's incredible to look back on it all. Look at how many champions we've produced and how much success we've enjoyed over many years. And just as importantly, how much the club means to the people of the northern beaches and beyond. I truly believe Manly to be one of the great clubs in Australian sport."

GROUNDBREAKERS: Manly's inaugeral first grade team in 1947. Picture: Supplied

GROUNDBREAKERS: Manly's inaugeral first grade team in 1947. Picture: Supplied

But there was little indication the Sea Eagles would become one of the country's sporting powerhouses when they began in humble beginnings in 1947, joining the NSW Rugby League competition alongside the Parramatta Eels.

Eating into North Sydney's catchment area - and luring the Bears' best northern-beaches based players back over the Spit - Manly adopted the Freshwater SLSC colours of maroon and white as well as a sea eagle as its emblem.

The club used rat-infested Brookvale Oval as its base for home games and training and supporters were asked to dig into their pockets to keep things afloat in those hard times just years after the end of WWII.

Brookvale Oval was the location for the club's first game against the fancied Western Suburbs on April 12, 1947.

Max Whitehead, who modelled Chesty Bond singlets in his down time, was captain and Mackie Campbell, who many decades later would nurse a grandson by the name of Steve Menzies, played in the centres.

The Sea Eagles went down fighting in that first game, losing 15-13 before a crowd of 4200, but gaining plenty of respect.

They finished the '47 season in second last position, their old enemy Parramatta collecting the first of what now sits at 14 wooden spoons.

Manly would have to wait a quarter of a century for premiership success, beating Easts 19-14 in the 1972 decider at the SCG. They reckon skipper Freddie Jones didn't stop celebrating that win until the decade was over.

By then, the Sea Eagles had added three more titles to their tally to go down as the team of the 70s.

There was further success in 1987, 1996, 2008 and 2011.

Fulton, who was born the year the club was founded, is the only person to have won premierships as a player ('72-73), captain ('76) and coach ('87 and 96) at Manly. And he doesn't hesitate when you ask what has made the Sea Eagles such a force over five decades.

"It's down to one person - Ken Arthurson," he said. "He laid a foundation that the club still works off to this day. We've had a few hiccups in the run through, but from when Ken decided what he was going to do back in the 60s, it's borne fruit all the way through. Whatever success Manly's had over the years can be traced back to Ken. He was there from the start. His professionalism and the way he wanted to do things was way ahead of any other club."

CAPTAIN: Daly Cherry-Evans. Picture: Geoff Jones

CAPTAIN: Daly Cherry-Evans. Picture: Geoff Jones

That professionalism included making the toughest call of his life.

Arthurson and Fulton were in Hawaii just weeks after the Sea Eagles had beaten Parramatta in the 1976 grand final when Fulton asked for a quiet word in private. He wanted to let the Manly boss know he'd been offered a huge amount of money to switch clubs to Eastern Suburbs. The suitor was Australia's richest man Kerry Packer, who was not used to taking no for an answer.

"Ken said 'let's talk when you get back home'. When I got home he asked me to come down to the club. He said 'you simply cannot afford not to take up this offer'," Fulton recalled.

"That put my mind at ease. I had a young family and this would set us up for life. I still lost sleep over it - it was a major, major decision but the right one commercially."

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It was one of the few times Manly lost a player it wanted to keep.

And they were pretty good at luring star players from rival clubs or finding the game's next big name. Among the gems picked up were the Stewart brothers from the NSW South Coast.

Brett - the Prince of Brookvale - would go on to challenge Graham Eadie as the club's greatest fullback, while Glenn just got better with age to the point he ended his career as one of the game's leading backrowers.

MEMORIES: Flying the flags fr the Sea-Eagles. Picture: Geoff Jones

MEMORIES: Flying the flags fr the Sea-Eagles. Picture: Geoff Jones

Brett said: "I've got very fond memories of playing for the club. The fans were really loyal to me over the years - they supported me through thick and thin. There was nothing better than scoring a try in front of a full house at Brookie on a Sunday afternoon. It is a great club to play for."

Stewart played in the record 40-0 grand final win over Melbourne in 2008 and backed it up with another title three years later against the Warriors.

"The 40-0 was good but the 2011 grand final was my standout on a personal level," he revealed. "I scored the first try, Glenn won the Clive Churchill Medal and it was Dad's birthday. That's hard to beat...great memories."

No doubt there are a lot more good times to come as the club looks to bat on towards its century. A series of celebrations will be rolled out to celebrate the club's 75th anniversary, including a 10-year reunion of the 2011 premiership-winning side.

This story 75 years and counting: why the Sea Eagles have never run last first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.