As Daly Cherry-Evans and Brent Kite took a lap of honour around ANZ Stadium on October 2, 2011, it’s fair to assume neither man could have imagined the slice of rugby league history they would come to share 12 years later.
One just beginning his journey to the 300 Club and the other 234 games down the road, the then 22-year-old rookie and 30-year-old veteran had been key figures in Manly’s grand final win over the Warriors, the second premiership in four years under the watchful eye of Des Hasler.
Kite would depart Brookvale two years later to join Penrith, chalking up game No.300 in Round 17, 2014 against Wests Tigers – 12 years and 111 days after his first-grade debut.
When Cherry-Evans emerges from the WIN Stadium tunnel on Saturday night he will become the 49th player to reach the 300-game mark, 12 years and 139 days since debuting for the Sea Eagles at the start of that premiership season in 2011.
Two Manly premiership heroes, two Clive Churchill Medal winners.
The two fastest men to 300 games in rugby league history.
A look back at the 2011 Grand Final
Whereas Kite would call time on his career in 2015 at the age of 34 with 313 matches to his name, Cherry-Evans is playing some of the best footy of his decorated career and is poised to surpass Cliff Lyons (309) as Manly’s most capped player.
He will then set sail after such luminaries as Brad Fittler (336), Andrew Ettingshausen (328) and Cooper Cronk (323), who also took 12 years and 139 days to reach the 300 mark in 2016.
“At the start of my career I was very ambitious about playing a lot of first grade, not just one game. I had that mentality from the start, but I have probably outdone my expectations as a 12-year-old kid," Cherry-Evans said of his pending milestone.
“I reckon I have had a pretty up-and-down ride but you grow and you learn from your mistakes. Some lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way but I wouldn’t change a thing.
“I got a lot wrong early in my career as a player but you learn to evolve and you learn to adapt.
"Not everyone likes me, that's human nature. I’ve had some prickly moments with teammates over the years, I have never shied away from that, but it’s not stuff I look back on and regret.
You can’t make everyone happy and I learned that the hard way and it’s in those moments you find out about the people who care most about you.Daly Cherry-Evans
One of those in DCE’s corner from the very beginning has been Hasler, who took a punt on a raw kid from Queensland and guided him through his early days on Sydney’s northern beaches.
After playing under-20's for Manly in 2008-09, Cherry-Evans blossomed with Manly’s feeder club Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles, winning the Queensland Cup player of the year in 2010.
Convinced he was ready for the bright lights of the NRL, he decided to bite the bullet and approach Hasler and ask for an opportunity.
Dragons v Sea Eagles: Round 22
“Des saw something in me that probably a lot of people didn’t. He was really calculated with how he made me play all my 20's and then reserve grade,” Cherry-Evans recalled.
“I remember about halfway through the year [in 2010] there were a few injuries and a bit of rep footy popping up and I thought I was a going to be a chance to play a bit of first grade.
“I walked across the field to Des at training and I was so nervous and I said, ‘Oh mate, there’s a bit happening with all the halves and injuries and stuff, am I close?
“He said, ‘Mate, just so you know, you’re not playing first grade this year’.
“That was so deflating but I know the person I am, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to stick it up you’ so I played some really good footy that year and the next year he told me I was going to be the starting halfback for Manly.
“Des had a grand plan and he nurtured me in that first part of my career.
“Not many people know the sort of person they are at 22, especially when you have to grow up in front of the media. That’s the harder side to being a professional athlete is doing stuff in front of other people but I’m really proud of the footy career I have had so far.”
Taking a glance at the stats provided by renowned league historian David Middleton, it’s clear that Cherry-Evans’ sense of pride is both well-earned and well-deserved.
Just the 19th player to appear in 300 games for a single club, Cherry-Evans has played every one of his matches as a starting halfback, averaging over 79 minutes per match across the journey.
A winner of the Gordon Willoughby Medal in 2018, 2020 and 2022 as the Sea Eagles’ best and fairest as judged by the club’s members, and a two-time winner of the Roy Bull Medal as the club’s official player of the year, he is Manly’s second longest-serving captain behind Lyons.
Preparing for his 154th match as skipper, Cherry-Evans is just six behind Lyons’ 159, both men following in the giant footsteps of 1972-73 premiership captain Fred Jones, Immortal Bob Fulton and inspirational hooker Max Krilich.
For a bloke who admits he “didn’t have great ambitions to be a captain early on", Cherry-Evans has developed into one of the game’s most respected leaders across club and state football alike, taking the Maroons to three Origin series wins in the past four years.
“I had a lot of great leaders at this club and I got to play rep footy pretty early as well so I learned from the best in that regard,” he said.
Cherry-Evans' captains knock
“Along the way you create your own identity as a player, as a person and a captain and along the way you certainly take away some of the great attributes that I had to learn from at Manly, Queensland and Australia… I’ve been very lucky with the players I’ve got to play alongside and learn from.
“It’s those relationships that will stay with me the longest.
“The memories you make off the field – in the locker room, at the pub, on the away trips in someone’s room playing cards or watching footy – all those things make the game so great.”
Match: Dragons v Sea Eagles
Round 22 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong