League

Farewell to the greatest Warrior

Steve Deane might just have spotted the exact moment Simon Mannering chose to retire.

Sunday the 15th of July at about 5.22pm.

That’s roughly the time one of the finest sportsmen New Zealand has ever produced might well have realised the game was up.

The official announcement of Simon Mannering’s pending retirement came three days later. But the decision itself might well have come at shortly after 5.22pm on Sunday, during a match against the Broncos. The catalyst may have been Mannering attempting to do what he had done 1000 times before – scarper across a footy field and drag down an attacker just as they were about to bust the Warriors’ defensive line. Not for the first time this season, though, Mannering’s legs simply wouldn’t carry him to where he needed to be. The miraculous cover tackle became instead a hapless, hopeless dive, and the Broncos surged away down field.

This column knows the rough time of that incident because it is recorded in its phone log in the form of a text to a friend that reads: “Oh man, Simon is done.”

It’s projecting a lot onto Mannering to suggest that was in fact the exact moment the penny dropped. But, if it wasn’t, it would almost certainly have been a similar moment in time. The evidence, painful as it was to behold, had been mounting all season. A player for whom the production of the superhuman had always been routine had been looking more mortal by the day. The well that supplied the indefatigable energy and spirit that transformed Mannering from good to one of the all-time greats of the game was clearly running dry.

The 31-year-old would have felt the insidious creep of time when he declared he would opt out of Kiwis selection and ponder his future during the representative window. If he had unresolved questions then, incidents like the missed tackle in the Broncos game would have answered them.

And so, after a brief farewell tour, the club’s finest servant will depart. When he does, he will leave as one of the three greatest Kiwi rugby league players of the modern era (post 1995 Warriors inception). In that discussion, he will be measured only against Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones.

In terms of the greatest Warrior, Wiki’s 11 years abroad toiling for the Raiders invalidate him from the discussion, leaving only Mannering and Jones in the running.

The two could hardly be more disparate. Jones was a playmaking genius who transformed his game mid-career after a shocking arm injury to truly earn the tag “Little General”. Mannering was also a consummate leader, in a first-over-the-top kind of way.

While Jones’ genius could hardly be missed, Mannering’s was understated to the point that casual observers struggled to discern it. “What is the point in Simon Mannering?” I would be asked by office trolls in a former life as a Warriors beat reporter at Herald.

This foolishness was akin to someone possessing a bank account that always paid the maximum interest thinking they might be better off putting their money in Hanover Investments triple-secured debentured gold-plated bonds; or believing Feleti Mateo was a better player because he had a step.

Madness.

Choosing between Jones and Mannering is a fraught exercise. Jones was more capable of winning matches through individual brilliance; Mannering excelled at staving off defeats through unparalleled physical determination.

Jones mastered every trick in the book, and then wrote his own chapter. Mannering wasn’t exactly one for guile and deception.

Mannering will go down as one of the greatest defensive players of all time. Jones, er, won’t.

Closing on 300 matches over 13 seasons, Mannering gets the nod for longevity over Jones’s 261 appearances. Jones also played on a season or two too long, while Mannering has correctly divined the tea leaves, and will depart without tarnishing his legacy.

Neither man appeared to aspire to leadership, but neither shirked it when called upon. Mannering never seemed overly at ease with the captaincy, but would obligingly turn up to the opening of a village fair if the club deemed it important.

Both experienced the high of a grand final appearance, and both tasted defeat.

Forced to give either the nod, this column would plump for Mannering as the greatest player to have played for the club – but still judge Jones the best.

At around 5.25pm on Sunday the 15th of July, Simon Mannering smashed into the Broncos line and produced a brilliant offload that led to a brilliant Warriors try.

“Hmm. Maybe not,” this column texted its mate.

But it was so. Whether three minutes or three weeks earlier, Mannering’s mind was made up.

Now he will go out on his shield, giving it everything with every straining fibre until the final whistle shrills.

And then there will be a hole, the gargantuan size of which will only truly be apparent when Mannering departs.

That’s the way it always is with the greats.

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