Did the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles not read the 2019 script?
How on earth have they actually managed to dig themselves out of the morass of salary cap breach punishments, boardroom chaos, coaching turmoil, a weak playing roster and the worst facilities in the NRL to all of a sudden be actual contenders again?
How is it possible?
While it’s never a point of pride to enjoy another side’s misfortunes, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that one of the nicer things about the previous four seasons is that the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles have been struggling.
When they finished second last in 2018 – and oh so close to getting their first-ever wooden spoon – you could be assured that the Sea Eagles wouldn’t be contenders again soon. Certainly not this season.
You could safely bet on it.
You could even feel sorry for them and write articles saying how much the NRL needed Manly and that relocating them to Perth – something that was openly being bandied around by many pundits not even nine months ago – was not a good option.
The detractors of the northern beaches club – of which there are so very many – were revelling in the really bad state of affairs at the dilapidated Brookvale Oval. Many thought the fairly severe punishments handed down to the club for their salary cap breaches should have been harsher than they were. The reality though was that the punishments were quite severe.
In retrospect maybe those penalties should have been a bit harsher because the Sea Eagles are already back in contention, even with a lower salary cap.
I’d put their good form earlier in the season down to a mixture of luck, poor opposition, generous refereeing and a few bits of individual brilliance.
However, now the dust is settling on State of Origin for this year, there the Sea Eagles are, sitting in fifth place.
And any side in the top eight after the Origin period and that features A-Grade cattle like Daly Cherry-Evans, Martin Taupau, as well as Jake and Tom Trbojevic are definitely contenders. Each of those players would be selected in any current NRL gameday 17 without question.
However, they’ve been ably supported by a band of players who many had not rated, let alone heard of, before this season.
With Api Koroisau out with an injured ankle, some bloke called Manase Fainu has stepped up into the hooker role and is causing all sorts of trouble for opposition defences. He has scored five tries, set up two and is a tackle-breaking and offloading machine.
In Round 7 against the Raiders, he caused havoc to lead his side back from a 12-nil deficit. Worse still, he’s the oldest of another clan of talented brothers, a la the Trbojevics.
Some young bloke called Cade Cust – Custy to his mates – is playing in Cliff Lyon’s old jersey and has four tries and six try assists to his name.
Another kid has turned up on their wing and has already scored eight tries, some of them very impressive indeed. Is Reuben Garrick yet another name we’ll be cursing for years to come? To add to that, Jorge Taufua has found his form again and is terrorising his opponents in attack and defence.
To add to all of this, Moses Suli may finally have pulled his head in and be starting to live up to his prodigious talent. And Dylan Walker – after a staggered start – is just starting to build.
Addin Fonua-Blake has been around for a few seasons now, but in 2019 he’s averaging 161 metres a game from 15 runs while busting nearly three tackles a game and two offloads. He’s in the top five forward metre eaters this season overall. He and Taupau are averaging 300 metres a game in the front row. That’s as good as it gets.
Journeymen Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen are doing a pretty good job in the back row too.
That’s a very competitive team.
With eight games remaining before the finals, their run home doesn’t look too bad either.
Sure, they have the Storm twice in that time. But they also have four of their games at Brookvale, and two games against sides well out of contention in the Wests Tigers and New Zealand Warriors. They’ve got the Newcastle Knights as well, against whom they have won eight of the last ten encounters. They’ve won four of the last five against the Raiders too.
Arguably the real test of their credentials will happen this weekend when they take on the Eels at Brookvale, the first of their two games against their old rival in the run home.
They need four more wins to make the finals and six to probably make the top four. And they actually could do it.
So how has this turnaround happened?
To find that out I asked an insider I am friendly with down Brookvale way. His first reaction was that he really didn’t want the Sea Eagles chances talked up. They want to be under the radar.
Too bad. We’ve noticed.
Apparently, the boardroom chaos has calmed right down since the Penns completely took over. All the management is now pulling in the same direction which has definitely helped in at least removing distractions.
The key, however, is the returning of Prodigal son Des Hasler.
Hasler, a Manly veteran of 256 games as player and 221 as a coach to that point – left Brookvale for Belmore while the celebrations were still ongoing following the 2011 grand final win over the New Zealand Warriors. He was sacked for allegedly trying to lure other staff to join him at the Bulldogs in 2013.
In his first year at the Bulldogs, he took them from ninth in 2011 to the minor premiership. While they lost the decider to the Storm, it’s fair to say that Hasler’s stocks were very high indeed.
Eventually, his tenure at Belmore came to an acrimonious end in 2017. After a year in the wilderness, and with his beloved Sea Eagles without a coach, he was brought home.
His success since his return has been astounding.
According to my source, he brought back many Manly people who wanted to be there, “in a “Des” environment. It’s gotta be more than just paycheck, there must be love there.”
While those of us in the media who have dealt with Des don’t really understand how he engenders love, apparently he does, and quite a bit of it too.
Hasler’s relationship with John Cartwright – who remained as an assistant coach after Trent Barrett’s departure – is very good. The two played together for NSW and Australia where they established strong respect for each other. You won’t find too many people with a bad word to say about Cartwright and certainly not the playing group that Hasler found on return.
The General Manager of football is John Bonasera. Previously with the Raiders and the Sharks before that, he is a league man to the core. Also a former police officer, Bonasera’s strong experience and skill has enabled Hasler to concentrate on the footy without distraction.
All of this allowed a smooth transition that has helped turn a playing group with potential into a competitive unit. Now they are fuelled with belief, Des is really starting to push them harder.
And it’s getting results on the field.
Further, they are being more inclusive, with more fan days and membership activities – bringing the faithful back to the cause in ever larger numbers.
And while they reject any mention of siege mentalities, you can bet your ass there is a very big one among the players, club staff and supporters that is fuelling this Prometheus rise of the club.
And who knows? If luck goes their way, who is to say that the Sea Eagles can’t go all the way in 2019?
And oh my lord, wouldn’t that just be an appalling state of affairs…