The 2017 Sea Eagles have far exceeded expectations. A hangover from their disappointing campaign last year, they were left out of many an experts’ top-eight predictions and were written off as a team that would struggle to even challenge for the playoffs.
Credit for the quick turnaround has to start from the top. Their front office, regardless of the happenings away from the field, have continued to kick goals in managing the roster.
The job they’ve done is nothing short of impressive, especially considering they were forced to undergo a rebuild after the core of their dominant late-2000s team moved on, names that include Kieran Foran, Jamie Lyon, the Stewart brothers, Steve Matai and Anthony Watmough – players that were ingrained in the culture, and naturally, the playing style of the club.
In attempt to retool on the fly rather than embrace a tear-down rebuild, they were clearly on the right track handing franchise halfback Daly Cherry-Evans the keys last season – they just left him without the proper infrastructure to succeed.
Blake Green, fresh off a grand final with Melbourne, was the perfect foil for DCE: organised, consistent, reliable. The direct nature of Green’s game complements the instinctive, elusive halfback. The addition has worked wonders. DCE has gone from important player to full-blown superstar, which has as much to do with his own special talents as it does with the team put around him. He’s been the best No.7 in the competition and arguably one of the top five players in the comp (I’d peg him third, behind Smith and Taumalolo).
I’ve been critical of teams like Souths all season for their lack of identity and playing a style incompatible with the roster. In that vein, Manly are a fantastic blueprint for building a system that is executable by your roster, one that can thrive even without possessing the most talent.
The infrastructure has helped get the most out of their signings — players who have declined elsewhere, but have proven skills that come to the forefront with DCE running the ship. It’s team construction 101: recruiting players with specific skill-sets and surrounding their best players with tools that they bring the best out of, that also help them play their best.
Take their second rowers. Both Frank Winterstein and Curtis Sironen are in the midst of career resurgences that have plenty to do with the service they get from Cherry-Evans and co. on a weekly basis. Winterstein is up from 59 metres and 16 tackles to 72.8 metres & 23 tackles, whilst Sironen is chipping in 75 metres and 25 tackles – up from 56 and 23 respectively. What about Aku Uate, from toiling away in reserve grade to a reawakening that’s seen him recapture the magic from his peak days?
After scoring one try in just 10 games for battlers Newcastle in 2016, Uate has crossed 12 times in 18 games for Manly this year.
It’s not just the recruits fitting in; even players who struggled without defined roles last season have turned a corner. Dylan Walker is most indicative of the change between seasons. Comparing his 2016 campaign — inconsistent, position-less and substandard – to that of ’17, where he has been inspired, confident and dynamic, gives you a perfect reflection of the team’s performance.
Plenty of others across the squad are playing some of their best footy. The Trbojevic brothers have continued their ascension and are clearly superstars in the making, if not already considered so. It’s realistic to imagine them both being within the top five players in league at some point over the next decade. Having two of those guys, plus DCE, is undoubtedly the basis for a premiership team.
Api Koroisau and Marty Tapau are both enjoying career years. Even rookie Brian Kelly has been stellar with the ball at times. The form of both the team’s stars and support crew is correlative and reciprocal, the hallmark of a well-constructed squad.
When rolling, the combination of some consistently reliable playmaking and elusive edge runners can turn the attack to outright lethal — they score the most tries a game in the competition (4.2). But that’s what makes the team so polarising: Manly have the framework of an elite attack, and when they’re in a mood they are a tough beat — they sit at 9-2 when scoring over 20 points.
Problem is, they need to win the middle third battle to be effective, but have relatively weak forwards (middle of the comp at 1569.3 metres a game), at least in the context of the top eight. This remains a massive question mark. Again, the recruiting was purposeful in attempting to cover the flaw, loading up on explosive runners in the outside five to help supplement the middle forwards.
It’s worked somewhat (losing Tafua softened that slightly): the power running is helpful in kick returns and provides plenty of punch in attack, but there’s a downside to stocking up on that type of player. With all of their outside five being attacking inclined, it leaves their edge defence awfully weak — Kelly is a rookie and is prone to making typical inexperienced mistakes. Walker is as sporadic on the opposite side, and Uate’s defensive deficiencies need no introduction. Partner that with average back-rowers, and it’s fair to suggest their halves are actually their best defensive players out wide. That’s not particularly encouraging in a league top-heavy with elite fringe weapons.
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The middle defence isn’t much better (fourth-most missed tackles, 32.8), and as we saw most recently against the Dragons, they’ve yet to cure the tendency to fade in and out with regards to intensity and concentration, plaguing their consistency throughout the year.
But Manly know their strengths, crafting an elite offence headlined by dominant playmaking. Their forte in creative passing always makes them dangerous in attack, the highlight skill of a spine that is perfectly complimentary — Korisau and DCE are always looking to get forward, Green remains the steady presence and Tommy Turbo is perpetually half a gap away from a line-break.
Truly a cohesive spine, and they rely heavily on it. Tapau is the only forward who would even be in contention to be considered an elite tackle-breaker (team ranks 11th in tackle busts) and thus they’ve created a reliance on creative play to generate opportunities: second in line-break assists (3.7), first in try-assists (3.4) and fifth in offloads (10.8). This, of course, is anchored by Cherry-Evans, who is equal first in average try-assists at one a game, and leads the league outright at 18. Not to mention, further negating their poor defence is their great ball control, leading the league with the least errors at an efficient 9.3 a game, maybe the most important stat of the group.
They continue to contradict — an elite offence with a poor defence. Disciplined with the footy, sloppy without. Purposefully constructed, but with glaring holes. It all amasses to one big question mark.
It’s a juxtaposition that led to a 52-22 thrashing on Sunday at the hands of St George Illawarra, a team the Sea Eagles could have expected to beat.
Lucky enough, the run home should be full of answers. The last six games break up nicely into three couplets of varying difficulties.
Their next two games will give a better idea as to how they stack up against the league’s elite, those gunning for the title, taking on Melbourne away then the Roosters at home. If they can hang with either of those sides, that’s an encouraging sign.
They then take on two of the league’s inferior outfits, one who can defend (Canterbury) and one who can’t (Wests Tigers). They simply have to put both these sides to the sword.
Their final two matches see them come up against the Warriors and Panthers, both sides who could be fighting to snag a last-minute ticket to the finals – and if things swing the wrong way, attempting to steal Manly’s spot.
All are intriguing games, and their schedule means you can’t quite pencil them into the playoffs just yet. But at the very least we’ll definitely have a better grip on where they sit in the premiership hierarchy by the season’s end.