The Sea Eagles were one of the surprise packets of 2017. After a couple of seasons out of the finals, a rejuvenated line-up jagged sixth spot on the ladder.
Daly Cherry-Evans was close to his best. Tom Trbojevic continued his impressive rise. His brother, Jake, did much the same as he earned his Origin debut.
Outside of their stars though, Trent Barrett managed to get his rag-tag support cast firing, particularly in attack.
On their day they could turn it on anywhere and really put a team to the sword – as evidenced by their 17-point win over the premiers, Cronulla.
Conversely, they could look sluggish and fragile, losing touch with some important matches.
Their exit from 2017 came in Week 1 of the finals, at the hands of the Panthers. After totally outclassing the Panthers in Round 26 at Brookvale, with a fast start and some enterprising play, they lacked the same style a week later at Allianz Stadium.
Some errors crept into their game, and they lacked the polish to put Penrith away, bombing a couple of opportunities.
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How does their squad rate?
Manly have a bit of a money-ball approach to their team under Barrett – it was about getting value for money out of each member of the team in 2017.
It has been well documented the impact Blake Green had, the Sea Eagles struggling for 2016 without a genuine five-eighth, but the likes of Api Koroisau, Curtis Sironnen, Marty Taupau and Akuila Uate hit the best form they have seen in some time.
Their squad is mostly settled, with no big names to rely on to improve in 2018 – although Joel Thompson is a very handy pick-up from the Dragons.
Green is their biggest loss, being replaced by Lachlan Croker from Canberra.
Their backs have some real class. Tom Trbojevic was one of the form fullbacks of last season, topping Billy Slater in tries, try assists, line-break assists and line-breaks. Uate and Jorge Tafua, who returns from injury, are two of the most damaging wingers on their day, capable of making some big metres, but also finishing nicely.
Dylan Walker will take one centre spot when he returns from injury, hoping to build on a solid 2017, as Brian Kelly and Matthew Wright compete for the other spot.
Cherry-Evans’ form had him mentioned in regards to Origin, but how much of that was facilitated by Green? Green had five 40-20s for the season, as his tactical kicking game complemented Cherry-Evans nicely.
Croker and Jackson Hastings are the men to pick from going into 2018, with their mandate to take control and take pressure off DCE.
The pack isn’t one to write off either. They have some real aggression in the front row in Taupau and Darcy Lussick, with value and size coming off the bench in Lloyd Perret and Addin Fonua-Blake.
Curtis Sironnen looked close to his best last season, while Jake Trbojevic was good enough to earn an Origin jersey and the vice-captaincy. Koroisau was more of a utility to start his career, used sporadically and off the bench, but he seems to have found his home at 9 – although can be a bit of a target in defence.
Goal-kicking was an issue at times last year – Wright was their best option, but is not necessarily guaranteed a spot in the team. Aside from that and the question at five-eighth, hooker is the main concern if Koroisau goes down.
Jack Gosiewski (Rabbitohs), Toafofoa Sipley (Warriors – 2019), Lachlan Croker (Raiders – 2018), Joel Thompson (Dragons – 2019)
Pita Godinet (Wests Tigers), Blake Green (Warriors), Brenton Lawrence (retired), Jesse Martin (Rabbitohs), Steve Matai (retired), Brett Stewart (retired), Billy Bainbridge, Jarrad Kennedy, Joey Lussick (released)
Daly Cherry-Evans showed he could yet return to the Origin fray after a promising 2017. However, with Green having departed for the Warriors, Cherry-Evans has to maintain his form for Manly to be a chance of making the finals.
As their highest paid player, he has to be the most influential on the field, whoever he has playing next to him.
DCE has the support he needs around him in the likes of Trbojevic and Koroisau, and they make up a strong spine. But in the big games, he needs to put his hand up. While he wasn’t poor by any means against the Panthers in the finals, he wasn’t front and centre.
While his haul of 19 try assists for the season was impressive, he had nine of them over three games. The other ten were over another 22 games.
Cherry-Evans needs to become the leader and influential player that his wage demands. The Sea Eagles put plenty into retaining him, and while 2017 was solid, 2018 needs to be better.
Where do they need to improve?
Defence wins premierships and while Manly were ranked third in attack last campaign, they were eleventh in defence – a result of poor attitude and lack of mental toughness.
Their big wins over the Sharks and Cowboys, both away from home, as well as getting over the second-placed Roosters twice are indications of what Manly could do.
But they could also clock off.
In consecutive weeks they had 40 and 52 points put on them by the Storm and Dragons respectively. In the last four weeks of the regular season, they lost to the lowly Tigers and Bulldogs, putting their finals spot in jeopardy.
This inconsistency demonstrates that they probably haven’t learnt to really get in the arm wrestle and grind out a win. If they are on in attack they can mix it with the best, but if they aren’t, they don’t seem to be able to stop the rot.
They were ranked in the top three for missed tackles, and the bottom three for tackle efficiency. Both worrying stats for a team.
If there are two players that personify these defensive woes, its Koroisau and Walker. Api missed an average of around five tackles a game. While he has found a home at hooker for now, the target he had on him for his size in defence will continue to be exploited. Whatever he might add out in attack, he has to be aiming to match with his defence.
Walker missed more tackles than he made in the final fixture against Penrith. He had plenty to say that night and scored the first try, but his efforts in defence just weren’t good enough. He seemed much more concerned with spraying the opposition than getting his head into the game.
Top five clashes
Round 2: Sea Eagles versus Eels, Lottoland, March 18
Fibros versus Silvertails. The Eels won their only clash last season, in Round 1, but plenty has happened since then. A sunny arvo on the Brooky hill, traditional rivals and the Sea Eagles’ first home game.
Round 4: Sea Eagles versus Raiders, Lottoland, March 31
Manly won both match-ups last year in golden point, each being games of spite and sledging.
The Raiders weren’t far off the finals, or from beating Manly. Will the Sea Eagles keep their run of close wins coming or will the Raiders strike back?
Round 16: Sea Eagles versus Panthers, Lottoland, June 30
All three games between these two clubs last year had big talking points. Many’s exit in Week 1 of the finals against the Panthers will still be fresh in the minds of both players and fans when the two sides meet in June.
Round 21: Sharks versus Sea Eagles, Southern Cross Group Stadium, August 5
It was the win that stamped Manly as genuine contenders last season, travelling to Cronulla to roll the premiers.
Round 25: Broncos versus Sea Eagles, Suncorp Stadium, September 2
The Sea Eagles journey to the cauldron for the second time in 2018 for the final round of the season. How often does it come down to the final round for the eight to take shape? Will Manly again be looking for a win to play finals football?
How will they go?
I put down 2017 for the Eagles as a bit of an anomaly. They flew under the radar for a long time, not really considered a contender by many for a finals spot until late in the season.
I tend to wonder if opposition teams treated them with the same respect they did others, especially early on.
Their propensity to clock off and lose some games by big margins, or to lowly teams, is a concern. The NRL is a game of inches and there might only be a couple of win or losses that define your season.
Manly can’t get much better for 2018. The same defensive deficiencies linger. A small hooker, some really flaky outside backs, they couldn’t seem to improve their defence as the season wore on, saving some of their worst performances for the last five weeks or so.
Similarly, their attack was on fire at times last year, but teams will be more alert to what they bring to the table. Tom Trbojevic will continue to entertain from fullback.
Their finishing spot lands in the lap of Cherry-Evans. He was over-hyped last year with the rest of the spine also providing plenty in attack. When they needed him most late in the season, his influence fell away.
He has only ever looked the goods when he has a good team around him. The Sea Eagles haven’t won a finals game since 2013, back when he was supported by the likes of Brett Stewart, Kieran Foran and Matt Ballin.
The Sea Eagles will struggle without an adequate halves partner for their number seven. Unless Lachlan Croker or Jackson Hastings can step up, there won’t be as much joy for Manly in 2018.
They will hang in, and get some wins on the board, but ultimately they won’t make the finals.