Three control fate of Manly, NZ - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Three control fate of Manly, NZ

By Todd Balym 26/09/2008 05:11:10 PM Comments (0)

At the start of the year few gave them a chance, but now three unknown hookers hold the NRL destiny of Manly and the New Zealand Warriors in their crafty hands.

Forget Melbourne's Test hooker Cameron Smith and his season-ending suspension - Ian Henderson, Matt Ballin and Heath L'Estrange are now the men who will decide who wins the 2008 NRL premiership.

Two rejects and a pretty boy.

Warriors hooker Henderson and Manly interchange rake L'Estrange are both journeymen who were told they wouldn't cut it elsewhere but have found greener pastures with their current sides.

And Sea Eagles No.9 Ballin was this week named the sexiest man in league.

But there is nothing sexy about the way the trio play rugby league.

They don't command the spotlight or the salaries of Smith, Danny Buderus and co, but they undoubtedly control the performance of their football team.

Henderson had to fight for his place in the Warriors side but his rise to starting hooker has coincided with the club winning 10 of their past 12 games to reach Saturday's NRL preliminary final against Manly.

He is in such fine form that his scheming runs from dummy half have made him the top hooker for metres gained and tackle breaks.

Ballin and L'Estrange, meanwhile, have shed the shadow of former Manly captain Michael Monaghan by filling his role with their own brand of control and flair.

Such is the importance of the trio's performances that both clubs have made it one of their key goals to shut the other out of Saturday's game.

"Hendo is a great player. He is a bloody tough bastard and just runs hard," said L'Estrange.

"He is probably a main focus point for us. He is getting those quick play-the-balls and making 15m every time he runs and we can't have that.

"We have to wrap him up and not let him bump us off and get him on the ground and slow him up.

"He had a lot of time (last week against the Sydney Roosters), especially down on their line. We will be trying to rectify that this weekend."

Warriors coach Ivan Cleary senses as much danger in the Manly duo, noting Ballin's ability to control the tempo of the game and L'Estrange's injection of speed that can blow it apart.

"Matt Ballin, he has had a really good season for them. He cleans up a lot of what they do. He defends well and he is very steady from dummy half," said Cleary.

"And L'Estrange has been a real weapon for them coming off the bench, so they don't have any weaknesses in the team."

It hasn't been easy for either Ballin or L'Estrange - replacing a club champion never is.

Monaghan's exit to England prompted many critics to suggest Manly couldn't even threaten for the title without the lively former halfback.

But Ballin and L'Estrange have formed a dynamic partnership that gives Manly attacking drive for the full 80 minutes, particularly when the man they call 'Stranger' comes on in the last 25 minutes.

Former Rooster L'Estrange admits he feared being "made the reason why they didn't win this year" when he first crossed the Harbour Bridge, but now he is happy with the way he and Ballin have performed.

"I just come on and try to get a bit of an injection and lift the boys a little bit and try and bring them home with a bit of steam," said L'Estrange.

"Mick (Monaghan) was a great player and he went off to England and there was a lot of pressure put on Matty and I to become the one hooker to take over, but we've joined together and are playing good footy and hopefully nothing can stop us from here."

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