100 Years of Rugby News: Willie O leads Marlins to 1997 Shute Shield title
By Jon Geddes
The presence of one of international rugby’s most devastating forwards proved instrumental in Manly’s 1997 victorious Shute Shield campaign.
Amazingly, the legendary Willie Ofahengaue did not figure in the plans of NSW Waratahs coach Matt Williams that year. And the Marlins could not believe their luck as they welcomed the powerhouse backrower back to the club with open arms.
“It was great for us, we had him for the majority of the season,” said then Manly coach Tim Lane.
The Marlins lost only three games through the entire competition and, not surprisingly, Willie O played a big role in that.
“We had a players’ player award which was a meal at (Manly restaurant) Ribs And Rump and I think Willie won it 11 out of the 15 times he played for us,” Lane said.
“Every game, as he should, he stood out – he carried the ball well and he defended well. He went about his business and didn’t moan – which was just his way I suppose.”
Besides Willie O, the Manly side was a diverse crew that included Tongans, Fijians and local products and had a number of other dominant performers.
The centre pairing of Meli Nakauta and Semi Taupeaafe were very good every week as was five-eighth Matt Curll while in the pack Simon Fenn, Rob Gallagher and Damien Cummins were also crucial to the team’s success.
But in the lead-up to the grand final against Eastwood the Marlins suffered a big setback when their goalkicking fullback Dan Vickers broke his arm while riding a pushbike on the Thursday before the game.
But in a tremendous display of team spirit the club got Vickers out of hospital for the big day. And in a very special and emotional moment, he presented a number of the players with their grand final jerseys in the dressing room.
Lane also sent him out to join his teammates when the national anthem was played prior to the kick-off.
There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the 1997 decider against Eastwood that the Woodies’ pack, which included Wallaby prop Bill Young, would dominate their rival forwards.
But in front of a crowd of 23,000 at the Sydney Football Stadium that didn’t happen and Manly won the game 34-19.
“Our scrum was solid and our lineout was good,” Lane said.
“The backrow of Willie, ‘Fenny’ and ‘Galls’ was just awesome.”
Later that year, following the victory, Lane became assistant national coach to Rod Macqueen for the Wallabies’ Argentinean tour and the next season Willie O was recalled to the Wallabies.