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The beginning of the end for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Geoff Toovey was sacked for failing to make the finals with Manly, could he come back as an assistant? (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
30th August, 2015
24
3716 Reads

As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”.

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One of the greatest dynasties in modern NRL history has come to an end, with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles’ 46-10 loss to the Sydney Roosters on Friday night seeing the club eliminated from finals contention for the first time since 2004.

It was an era which saw the club win two premierships as well as produce numerous Test players, three Clive Churchill Medallists, one Dally M Medallist, one Dally M Rookie of the Year and a sustained period of on-field success.

The origin of this era of dominance can be traced way back to 2004 when Des Hasler was appointed as coach to lead the club’s rebuild after they reverted back to their original name in 2003 following the ill-fated Northern Eagles merger.

His first season as coach saw the club finish 13th ahead of only the New Zealand Warriors and South Sydney Rabbitohs, though there would be some slight improvement that was unknown to the fans at the time.

It was during this time that club icons such as the Stewart brothers and Anthony Watmough were only beginning to curve out what would ultimately be long and successful careers not only at club level, but also at representative level.

They would be joined in the ensuing years by experienced players such as Ben Kennedy, Michael Witt, Brent Kite, Matt Orford, Steve Bell, Jamie Lyon and Josh Perry, among many others.

The arrivals of these players, as well as the continual development of those already at the club, would set the precedent for a decade of sustained on-field success which would see the club win two premierships from four grand finals.

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Following two seasons of steady improvement in 2005 and 2006, which saw the club reach the finals for the first time since 1998, the club achieved a second-place finish in 2007 on the back of a stable playing list and an impressive 18-6 win-loss record.

The club, which had lured Jamie Lyon back to the NRL after he had walked out on the Parramatta Eels in 2004, then reached its first grand final since 1997, only to be heavily beaten 34-8 by a Melbourne Storm side which was later found to have illegally breached the salary cap.

They say that “you have to lose a grand final before you can win one”. That’s the approach the Sea Eagles took as they sought to go one better in 2008.

The club took a while to get going in rugby league’s centenary season, losing three of their first five matches as they tried to adjust to life after Michael Monaghan, who had left for the English Super League, but as the season progressed the club rocketed up the ladder and eventually finished second for the second year running.

In the lead-up to the finals, halfback and captain Matt Orford won the Dally M Medal after being voted the best and fairest player throughout the course of the season. Then, he led by example as the Sea Eagles knocked the St George Illawarra Dragons out of the finals with a 38-6 victory at Brookvale Oval.

They then defeated the New Zealand Warriors in the preliminary final to return to the grand final, where again they would be pitted against the Melbourne Storm, who this time were missing their suspended captain Cameron Smith.

The Sea Eagles’ smoother path to the decider, as opposed to the Storm which had to play over four consecutive weeks after they’d lost a home qualifying final to the New Zealand Warriors in week one, saw them enter the match as favourites.

After leading by only 8-0 at half-time, the Sea Eagles would unleash in the second half and, on the back of a hat-trick of tries to winger Michael Robertson and a best-on-ground performance from Brent Kite which saw him win the Clive Churchill Medal. The club achieved the greatest winning margin in a grand final: 40-0.

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Matt Orford also achieved what no player had done since Peter Sterling in 1986 – win the Dally M Medal and feature in a premiership side in the same year.

The Sea Eagles would then begin 2009 the way they finished the previous season, winning the World Club Challenge by defeating the Leeds Rhinos 28-20.

However, controversy would strike shortly after with Brett Stewart suspended for the first four weeks of the season after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl during the club’s season launch celebrations.

Suggestions of a premiership hangover then surfaced as the club lost their first four matches of the new season, thus becoming the first defending premier since the Melbourne Storm in 2000 to lose as many matches after Round 4.

Stewart would return against the Wests Tigers in Round 5 and scored a hat-trick of tries as the Sea Eagles finally got on the board in 2009, defeating the 2005 premiers by 23-10.

Unfortunately, Stewart would play only four more games for the season as the club eventually finished an underwhelming fifth at the end of the home-and-away rounds. This saw them pitted against the fourth-placed Melbourne Storm in a qualifying final that was to be played at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct.

The Sea Eagles were never in the hunt against the Storm, going down by 40-12. It was thought that the club would be safe for another week, but losses to two of the three higher-ranked sides would see the club’s premiership defence come to an end after only one match.

The 2010 season started disastrously for the Sea Eagles with Brett Stewart suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first round against the Wests Tigers. That, coupled with suspensions to key players close to the end of the regular season, saw the club finish eighth, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

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Had the Melbourne Storm not been punished for mass salary cap breaches which saw the club stripped of two premierships, three minor premierships and sentenced to finish the season dead last, the Sea Eagles would have finished ninth, which would have meant missing the finals for the first time since 2004.

As it turned out, the Sea Eagles were fortunate enough to play finals that year, but their season would come to its abrupt end when it lost to eventual premiers St George Illawarra by 28-0 in the first week of the finals.

In good news for the club, however, Stewart was exonerated over his sexual assault charge and his knee injury was close to healing, meaning he would be fit and ready for the 2011 season.

His return, as well as the emergence of halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, would see the club shoot back up the ladder in 2011, finishing second on the ladder for the third time in five seasons at the end of the regular season.

Following wins against the North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos, the club then advanced to their third grand final since 2007, where they would be pitted against the New Zealand Warriors who had upset minor premiers the Melbourne Storm in the preliminary final.

The Sea Eagles’ recent finals experience would see them enter as favourites, and the club justified it, winning their second premiership in four years with Glenn Stewart winning the Clive Churchill Medal for his best-on-ground performance.

Stewart had only returned from a three-match suspension which arose following his role in the infamous “Battle of Brookvale” match which saw him trade punches with Melbourne’s Adam Blair in the penultimate round of the regular season.

But as the club’s premiership celebrations started to die down, speculation then started to surround coach Des Hasler, who was strongly considering a deal to coach the Bulldogs in 2013.

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Six weeks after the club revelled in its latest premiership success, Hasler was sacked as Sea Eagles coach after it was revealed that he was planning to lure some of his staff to Belmore where he would have started in 2013.

Thus, Geoff Toovey, who would have taken over as part of a succession plan, was elevated to the head coaching role with Hasler starting work at the Bulldogs the following season, twelve months earlier than planned.

The Sea Eagles’ first season under Toovey kicked off with a loss to Leeds in the World Club Challenge, before the club finished in the top four for another season. Their premiership defence would then come to an end with a 40-12 loss to eventual premiers the Melbourne Storm in the preliminary final.

2013 saw the club achieve a fourth-place finish yet again, and after losing a tight and physical qualifying final to the Sydney Roosters by just 4-0, the club rebounded to defeat the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and the South Sydney Rabbitohs to qualify for their fourth grand final in seven years.

There, they would face the Roosters for a fourth time in the season (fifth if you also include a pre-season meeting between the two sides), and despite having won the premiership two years earlier, the Chooks’ impressive form throughout the season saw the Bondi-based club start as favourites.

After scoring the first try of the match, and then leading 18-8 ten minutes into the second half, the Sea Eagles would lose by 26-18, ending their hopes of a third premiership in six years.

Despite the loss, Daly Cherry-Evans would win the Clive Churchill Medal as he was adjudged to be the best player on the field. This was the first time since 1993 that the medal had been awarded to a player from the losing side.

The club then spent most of the second half of the 2014 season on top of the ladder, but surrendered the minor premiership in the final round of the regular season after losing to the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville, meaning they had to settle for a second-placed finish behind the Sydney Roosters.

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The season was, however, marred by news that Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough hadn’t been offered new contracts by the club, leading to them signing with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Parramatta Eels respectively.

That, and a straight-sets exit from the finals series whereby they lost to the Rabbitohs and the Bulldogs (in golden point), led to many believing that season 2015 would bring about the demise of the Sea Eagles as a powerhouse.

Indeed, the Sea Eagles would start this season poorly, winning only four games up to Round 16 to be sitting last on the ladder and facing the prospect of their first ever wooden spoon.

Coach Geoff Toovey was informed that his services would not be required beyond this season, while Kieran Foran also announced that he would be heading to the Parramatta Eels for the 2016 season.

However, seven wins in their next nine games, including one over then-ladder leaders the Brisbane Broncos would see the club surge back into finals contention before back-to-back home losses to the Eels and Roosters would see their finals hopes, and premiership dynasty, all but extinguished.

It means that, for the first time since 2004, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles will miss the finals, and the club will face some tough decisions as many of their players ponder a rare September holiday.

Premiership stalwarts such as Brett Stewart, Matt Ballin and Jamie Lyon, as well as journeyman Willie Mason, are nearing the end of their playing careers with all four of them on the wrong side of 30.

While Stewart has signed a one-year contract which will see him retire as a one-club player, Ballin’s future remains unclear; not only was he reportedly informed that his services wouldn’t be required after this season, he also recently suffered an ACL injury against the Eels in Round 24, and the club has also signed Api Koroisau from the Penrith Panthers for the 2016 season.

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Captain Lyon also appears to be looming closer to retirement as well, having led the club for so long throughout the club’s dynasty of on-field success.

However, there is some good news for the club, with Daly Cherry-Evans signing a deal for life that will keep him on the northern beaches after he had backflipped on a deal to join the Gold Coast Titans, while Maroons teammate Nate Myles will also join him in maroon and white for the 2016 season.

That will leave incoming coach Trent Barrett with a lot of work to do if the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles are to return to the finals in 2016, but with the futures of Brett Stewart and Daly-Cherry-Evans having been sorted out, that at least will provide Barrett with a template with which to start building another Manly dynasty.

But for now, let’s take a moment to reflect on what has been, without a doubt, one of the most glorious eras not only in the history of the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, but also possibly in modern NRL history.