Turbo makes world of difference to Manly’s win rate as Koula gets call-up

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When Brett Stewart’s knee finally gave out on him after Round 16 of the 2016 season, Manly were in the extremely fortunate position of replacing a try-scoring club legend of a fullback with a 19-year-old prototype.

Stewart’s 233 games in the maroon and white included 163 tries and two grand final wins make him one of the finest fullbacks to have donned the Sea Eagles No.1 jersey alongside the likes of Matthew Ridge and Graham Eadie.

In the space of just five seasons, Tom Trbojevic is now rivalling those club legends for his impact on the club and the reigning Dally M Medal winner is easily the most influential player in the NRL when it comes to his team’s fortunes.

Unfortunately for Manly, they will be forced to test that theory over the next month at least with Tommy Turbo sidelined with a medial tear in his knee suffered in last Saturday’s emphatic win over the Raiders in Mudgee. He was rushed in for knee surgery on Monday night once the scans revealed the full extent of the damage.

At least it’s not another hamstring injury.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Rookie speedster Tolu Koula has been handed the mammoth task of slotting in for Trbojevic at fullback on Thursday against the Knights in Newcastle in a tricky four-week stretch against 2021 finals teams, including Gold Coast, Cronulla and South Sydney.

Trbojevic made his NRL debut in 2015 and Manly won five of his nine matches which were all spent on the wing with Stewart firmly ensconced in the fullback’s role.

He played three games early the next year at fullback, which were all losses, and then switched between wing and centre before Stewart’s season, and ultimately his career, ended on a random Monday night in Townsville after a 30-26 loss to the Cowboys.

Trbojevic played the remaining nine rounds and the Sea Eagles immediately went on a four-game winning streak with him at the back before finishing the year with five straight losses. 

In 2017 and 2018 as Trbojevic started making a name for himself as a representative star of the future, the Sea Eagles struggled irrespective of whether he was available – they were 12-11 and 7-15 each season while splitting the four games he missed with Matthew Wright filling in at fullback. 

Since Des Hasler has returned for his second coming as Manly coach, they have been near unstoppable with Trbojevic but drastically worse when he’s been battling his ongoing hamstring problems.

Brett Stewart scores for Manly during the NRL final rounds

Manly legend Brett Stewart. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Grant Trouville)

In 2019, they won 10 of 12 with Turbo but were 5-9 when Brendan Elliot deputised at fullback while it was a similar story the following year with a 4-3 record when he played but a 3-10 ratio when Elliot (2-5), Reuben Garrick (0-2) or Tevita Funa (1-3) assumed the custodian’s role.

It’s been well documented that last year, Manly lost four of their first games before Trbojevic returned for his superb season full of superlatives as they went 13-5 and within a win of making their first grand final since 2013.

After splitting the first four rounds this season with Turbojevic in the side, Manly’s record since Stewart’s farewell appearance is 52-43 at 55% when he plays and 16-28 at 36% when he does not.

When confined to the past three years since Hasler returned, they have a 75% success rate and an average score of 28-16 when he plays which plummets to 33% and 19-26 scoreline when he’s out.

A 42% swing doesn’t mean Manly are a one-man team but they’re the closest thing to it.

Manly hooker Lachlan Croker is adamant the team has learned how to adjust.

“Last year we were thrown into the deep end without him, we’ve experienced it now,” Croker told reporters on Tuesday morning at Manly’s media session.

“It’s not going to be easy … Oppositions seeing he’s not in the team will feel a little bit better.

“But we have a lot of guys who played a lot of footy last year, they’ve added another 25 games to where they are now.

“It’s a different style [we play now] to what we would if he was playing,” 

Front-rower Josh Aloiai added the pack would roll up their sleeves more to help build momentum early in sets knowing they don’t have Trbojevic eating up return metres from the back.

“Obviously we’re a little bit gutted about it,” he said. “We know how good he is … we can’t get up here and say it’s not a big loss.

“There are 200 or 300 metres there that he gets us going forward so others are going to have to put their hand up.”

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