Saying goodbye to the overachieving Eagles and underperforming Sharks, and setting the stage for both sides moving forward.
Washed up Sharks
Cronulla’s season was plagued by inconsistency, a premiership hangover that didn’t fully impair them until midway through the season. The legs grew tired, and once the rep players pushed through another battering Origin series, the Sharks were toast. They’d played too much football (deep runs for three years leading into a grand final charge) and struggled to generate any energy.
The team known for its undying ability to dig deep continued the path, but the hole had been dug and the energy maxed out, so much so that digging any deeper felt counterproductive. Hindsight offers a clearer perspective, but whilst most eagerly awaited them to flip the switch, the Sharks were really on their last legs trying to stay afloat, each close encounter pushing them deeper into the hole they so eagerly jumped into.
There’s an expiry date on that style of football, especially with heavy miles on the legs, and being unable to pull out the goods in a thriller against North Queensland puts a cherry atop that theory. After the season the Cowboys had been through, being unable to outlast them shouldn’t have been a task for the Sharks. It doesn’t get much clearer than that — the premiers were gassed.
The Sharks don’t have any obvious weak spots, they just were too often caught getting stuck in the grind. Their pack is strong, their spine secure and their backs potent, so perhaps a wake-up call is exactly what they need to jolt them back into contention — we’ve just seen the Rabbitohs admit they fell victim in overcommitting to a once-successful style only to see the league zip by them. That challenge will define the success of the 2018 campaign: will Cronulla be able to step back from their own success and tweak the game-plan to fix their character flaws? Time will tell.
Eagles’ turbulent flight
Though admiration only started to roll in towards the end of the season, the entire 2017 campaign was anchored by the tremendous form of their core four, all of whom were among the best in their positions. Martin Taupau enjoyed an underrated campaign, comfortably asserting himself as the most potent offensive prop in the game. Able to focus solely on his lethal ball-running as his other demands were lessened, he was a man unleashed: 161 metres, 4 tackle busts and 3.3 offloads (league leader) each game were invaluable to the Manly go-forward.
Both Jake and Tom Trbojevic continued their ascension towards superstardom, taking the biggest leaps of their career to date. Tom added a surprisingly nifty passing game and deft kicking game, and assumed the mantle as the best ball-running fullback in the competition, the rangy custodian finding the extra space useful in adding to his 189 metres each game (second after Taumololo) and all the while remaining a reliable back-up runner around the ruck and all-round threat. Not much changed for Jake, his output remaining on a steady incline whilst continuing to be a constant and unwavering presence through the middle of each contest and as reliable and consistent as they come. The budding combination between the two made for plenty of highlight plays.
And then of course is season MVP, club captain Daly Cherry-Evans. His 2017 is as good as we’ve seen from DCE, the mercurial playmaker back to his dominant best as he was offered full control of the Eagles’ attack. Despite working with an average forward pack and some pretty tame options on either side, he was able to carry the attack into the elite category — his ball playing truly dazzling — as he lifted the team to unexpected heights. There’s no wonder Sironen, Winterstien, Uate and Walker all enjoyed career renaissances whilst relying on his service.
He deserves credit for Manly finishing in the top eight and a mention when considering the career years of his outside men. In reverse, recruit Blake Green gets a shout-out for his instrumental role in unlocking the Manly offence. The calming, organisational influence of Green freed up DCE to play his shuffling ad-lib style and provide security for when play broke down. Green remains one of the most effective off-ball halves operating. A star halfback operating at the peak of his powers is enough to get you above the competition at the mid-tier level, but a more complete team construct is needed to take the next step. Similar to the case with the Sharks, this is a team plagued by inconsistency despite having a clearly carved-out identity.
Unlike Cronulla — and the reason for said struggles — Manly’s defence was not so good. Their 34.2 misses a game were thirdworst in the competition (second among finalists) and doesn’t come close to doing justice to the fragility — especially on the edges; the Walker/Uate combination was exciting in attack, it was as bad as expected on the other end; Brian Kelly is a rookie and defended as such, and was paired with a below average defender in Matthew Wright after Jorge Tafua went down, and neither Sironen or Winterstien are going to hold down an edge on their own (Wade Graham/Matt Gillett-level players barely do it) resulting in vulnerability where most top teams have their biggest, or most used, strengths. Despite it being an obvious flaw, they were unable to fix the leak all season.
Ultimately, they’ll rue the missed opportunities: a loss to Penrith in Round 18 with a chance to move into outright second, and massive losses to the Dragons, Tigers and Bulldogs on the home stretch forcing them to fight for their lives for weeks prior to the playoffs. Although they weren’t expected to crack the conversation, it actually ended up a disappointment Manly finished outside the top four. They didn’t grab their chances when they came up and were forced into tight contests in their last two regular season games just to qualify. You can’t leave your run that late, especially with easy chances to avoid it presenting themselves much earlier.
Both franchises are blessed with great young talent, the most apparent lining at fullback for either side. They still have some growing to do: both Tom Trbojevic and Valentine Holmes fluctuated under the bright lights before falling to pressure. Some very reckless — and often out of character — errors cost their teams dearly in the finals, with both young custodians dropping the ball in the clutch.
Holmes is now a representative staple and proven game-breaker still learning his trade, but without the necessary growing pains, expect him to take a huge leap in production. That may be dwarfed by the expected improvement from ‘Tommy Turbo’, who is primed to enter the game’s elite earlier than anticipated. Don’t be surprised if he challenges for the best fullback title next season.
Manly will be counting on his development, and with DCE at the helm (and the growth of exciting rookie Brian Kelly) the attack will be fine. They’re depending heavily on the improvement of Lussick, Perrett and Fonua-Blake to shore up what was a relatively weak forward pack, hoping one of them emerges as a surefire starter. Manly looked far better with Luissick starting; his defensive edge is a perfect match for the explosive Taupau. They tried it too late in the season and Lussick is far too unreliable.
Alongside Holmes, rookie hooker Jayden Brailey offers Cronulla real upside for the future, one that looks especially bright. Even Chad Townsend is on the upswing, and if he is able to crack the top half of halfbacks in the game, this team is set in the spine for years to come. That is sans James Maloney, who remains a question mark at five-eighth moving forward. Maloney continued to get a pass from critics for his lack of defence or discipline, but both reared their ugly head when it mattered most. If the rumoured Moylan/Maloney swap is even slightly on the table, they should absolutely take the deal.
Their elimination holds consequences past their own fates. Parramatta will be happy with the Cowboys upset — a chance to take down a spirited but limited side far from home rather than attempting to cool down the reigning premiers fresh off a win in front of their own fans. Brisbane may have matched up better with the relatively vertical Manly attacking, now left to plan for the whirlwind that is the Panthers. Both sides will be disappointed with their finishes in 2017, but now turn their eyes to the future with some lofty expectations set for next season.