Heading into 2017, it was quite hard to pin expectations for Manly’s season. With the last remnants of their successful dynasty finally moving on, the next phase in the Sea-Eagles story was loaded with question marks. Anchored by the terrific form of their core, the attack quickly became one of the most electric in the competition and surprised many unsuspecting teams as they catapulted into top-four contention. But whilst their offence soared, their patchy defence held them back from stepping into the premiership picture, and ultimately led to their downfall.
Outside the loss of Blake Green, not much has changed from a personnel standpoint, and that’s where the conversation for 2018 begins. Continuity breeds comfort and familiarity; failure to improve risks stagnation that sets franchises back in the pecking order — the choice to run it back has Manly treading a fine line. Some player improvement can be expected, but taking a huge leap forward often requires an injection of fresh talent. It leaves them in a strange place: cracking the finals is great, but mediocrity is a real threat. What is Manly’s path to contention?
2017 SNAPSHOT: 6th (Won 14, Lost 10); Points For – 552 (4th), Points Against – 512 (11th).
BEST RECRUIT: It may seem like Joel Thompson is a default selection due to the lack of incoming top-tier talent — which is somewhat true — and whilst five-eighth was (and remains) the immediate concern, he does fill a clear need for the Eagles. Daly Cherry-Evans’ stellar form led to some impeccable service that helped mask some subpar play from their edge-men, whilst their defence through those corridors was among the worst in the competition. Thompson is far from a game-breaker, but he is a much-needed talent upgrade in one of their weakest spots.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles are pleased to announce the signing of Joel Thompson on a two-year deal!
— Manly Warringah Sea Eagles (@SeaEagles) December 21, 2017
KEY MAN: Things can get pretty chaotic within Manly’s free-spirited attack (and especially more so now Green is gone and DCE will run the show solo), and their other best players (Tom Trbojevic, Apisai Korisau, DCE and Tapau) all like to chance their arm and have a penchant for high-risk, high-reward plays. This is why the value of uber-consistent forward Jake Trbojevic has never been higher. Nobody in the league straddles the ability to make game-changing plays (his offloading and short-passing is among the most under-valued talents of any player in the league) whilst rarely making crucial errors and remaining one of the most dependable players around. His trajectory has remained star-bound, improving all-round each season, and there’s no reason not to expect another jump from Jake. Manly will require a huge workload from their No.13, but there’s few player more equipped to handle such responsibilities.
UNDER THE PUMP: There isn’t a doubt about Daly Cherry-Evans’ potential to be a game-changer and one of the best individual players in the game. DCE was a standout last season: The best halfback through the regular season and the third-best player overall, imperative to Manly’s success and directly responsible for lifting an average roster well above expectations. Blake Green may not have stood out as much individually, but he played a vital role in setting the foundation of direction and consistency for DCE’s instinctive ad-libbing brilliance to shine. With the same roster going around minus Green, Manly will lean as hard as ever on Cherry-Evans for offensive creation, so the pressure to produce will hover from day one. Martin Taupau earns a shout-out here too — whether he can out elite seasons back-to-back for the first time in his career may affect their outcome more than expected, but ultimately the team will only go as far as DCE can take them.
SELECTION POSER: Two positions will come under the microscope and be pivotal in any potential improvement. Blake Green’s departure leaves the No.6 jersey vacant without an obvious successor — reports suggest Lachlan Croker will get first stab, but his inexperience raises plenty of questions, and with Jackson Hastings as the only other clear candidate, they may find it tough to replace Green’s steady production. Secondly, the back-row was a position of weakness for the Eagles last season: Thompson nabs one of the spots, with Sironen, a preferred right-edge forward, the likely other starter. With Fonua-Blake and Lloyd Perrett locked in as their bench forwards, Lewis Brown, Frank Winterstein and Shaun Lane will duke it out for the final two (or potentially only one should they use a utility) bench slots.
YOUNG GUN: Brian Kelly’s rookie campaign was heavily underrated. Almost instantly, the 21-year-old rookie asserted himself as one of the teams most lethal strike weapons and became a dangerous threat close to the line. Without the ball Kelly was less outstanding, showing his inexperience as he struggled to adjust at one of the hardest positions to defend, and his road to becoming an elite three-quarter has to start with strides without the ball. Shades of Dane Gagai run through his game, which is a good ceiling to aim for. Kelly attempting to avoiding the second-year syndrome ranks as one of the most intriguing pieces of Manly’s season.
BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: There’s so much to love about Tom Trbojevic’s game: among the league’s best ball-runners already (finishing second in metres run last year), his incredible natural tools have already converted into elite-level production as the rest of his game comes together. The development of a passing game that he flashed towards the back end of last season will separate him from the field, although it will take some refining and developed vision before he ranks among the best in that category. If he remained injury-free he would’ve made his Origin debut last season, and after cracking the World Cup squad, he will enter this season in the same predicament. Expect a similar trajectory to Cam Munster’s 2017, where he far surpasses expectations and becomes one of the game’s best.
THE STAT: Manly finished ranked 11th in defence, which was last among teams that qualified for the playoffs. Competing for a title usually requires ranking within the top four of both attack and defence, and although they ticked the boxes with the footy, they were so far off the mark without it that it did little to mask the struggles on the other end. They have to become a more balanced outfit if they want to compete.
COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Moderate – Trent Barrett benefitted the most from Manly’s strong season, his reputation improving despite a relatively average coaching job. That isn’t to say Barrett is capable — and he should continue to improve in his third year in charge — but he is still learning the ropes and brings very little tactical variance to the table. If results go astray, questions might be asked. Considering Manly’s unimproved roster, they’re gambling heavy that Barrett will get the best out of his men. His performance will be one of the most interesting storylines of their season.
— Sporting News Australia (@sportingnewsau) December 5, 2017
THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – A chance to get off to a strong start with six of their first eight against non-finals teams, and finish the season with only one of their last five coming against top-eight opposition. Seven games against last season’s bottom four, which is tied for the highest.
Glass Half Empty – A season bookended by favourable runs means some pretty tough weeks through the slog of the season against the competitions heavyweights. Chance for their campaign to go off the rails midway.
POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:
1 Tom Trbojevic
2 Jorge Tafua
3 Dylan Walker
4 Brian Kelly
5 Akuila Uate
6 Lachlan Croker
7 Daly Cherry-Evans
8 Darcy Lussick
9 Apisai Korisau
10 Martin Tapuau
11 Joel Thompson
12 Curtis Sironen
13 Jake Trbojevic
14 Lloyd Perrett
15 Addin Fonua-Blake
16 Frank Winterstein
17 Lewis Brown
What did you guys put in that… pic.twitter.com/i0H3gDqpiD
— Manly Warringah Sea Eagles (@SeaEagles) January 23, 2018
WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Finals contender, 5-10 range