When Des Hasler returned to Brookvale for the 2019 season, there was a sense of renewed optimism in the Manly Sea Eagles club.
After a difficult few years under Trent Barrett that saw the club narrowly avoid their first wooden spoon in 2018, it was time for a change. Due to a salary cap penalty, Manly were unable to play a big part in recruitment for the 2019 season so expectations were quite reserved.
Most fans were simply hoping for an improvement and looked at the season as a chance to rebuild for future years. Des Hasler had other ideas. His squad had a number of representative players, but also had a number of unproven players and rejects from other clubs.
They surprised all to finish sixth and could have finished higher if it weren’t for a number of injuries to key players. They would go on to make the second week of the finals series and were unlucky not to progress further, going down to South Sydney in controversial circumstances.
With the 2020 season on the horizon, Manly are quietly going about their business. There is very little change to the squad and they have been working tirelessly at their Narrabeen base under the watchful eye of Hasler.
Much of the squad returned to training earlier than required and have been putting in additional work. The stability in the squad and coaching structure has allowed for a seamless transition for the upcoming season.
Things, of course, didn’t quite go to plan, with talented hooker Manase Fainu unlikely to feature in the 2020 season after a serious off-field incident. Manly considered a number of options as his replacement but with no other recognised hooker in the squad, ultimately made the decision to sign Danny Levi from the Newcastle Knights.
This is an astute signing – he is a player with unlimited potential who has already represented New Zealand and will only improve under Hasler. With so many other attacking options in the team, Levi will be able to focus on his running game and will get plenty of opportunities on the back of the dominant Manly forward pack.
There is a question mark over the availability of forwards Addin Fonua-Blake and Jake Trbojevic to start the season after both underwent shoulder surgery in the off-season. Both players are back in training and working hard to be ready to go for the season opener. It is looking likely that Fonua-Blake will be available in Round 1 while Trbojevic will likely be held back until Round 2 or 3, despite his protests to play. His brother Tom has recovered from his season-ending torn pec injury and will be hoping for an injury-free 2020.
Manly are notoriously slow starters and haven’t won a Round 1 game since 2013. It doesn’t get any easier in 2020 as they come up against the Melbourne Storm followed by the Sydney Roosters in the opening rounds. With some injury concerns and limited depth in the club, another slow start to the season is possible.
However, if this does eventuate, it won’t deter Hasler and the squad from quickly getting back on track. The efforts of 2019, overcoming a tough injury toll, will hold them in good stead and they will fight through the adversity.
Many of the unknowns and rejects have now cemented their places in the team and will improve. The unlikely centre combination of Moses Suli and Brad Parker will be intriguing to watch. Suli is looking fitter than ever and should cause havoc with his speed and size, just as he finished the 2019 season. Parker is no-nonsense – he just runs hard, hits holes at pace and is improving his defence all the time.
Reuben Garrick on the wing is a talent to watch and will be up there with the NRL’s top try-scorers for the season. Dylan Walker will play a key role at five-eighth and is finally settled in the position. With Daly Cherry-Evans running the team at halfback, Walker can focus on his running game but has already showed glimpses of tremendous skill as a ball-player, and he possesses a clever short-kicking game. After signing on for a further two seasons, he can now focus on his game and will be striving to make a return to representative football.
The greatest strength in the squad is the forward pack, which is up there with the best in the competition. Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau have the ability to steamroll the opposition while the back row of Jake Trbojevic, Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen are both skilful and tough. There are also huge wraps on some of the young forwards at the club including Sean Keppie, Jack Gosiewski and Toafofoa Sipley who all offer something unique and will provide an impact off the bench.
With the big men laying the platform, Manly’s talented back line will get plenty of opportunity to score points. Tom Trbojevic and Cherry-Evans will see an abundance of space to attack and will be difficult for the opposition to contain.
Manly fans are clearly optimistic for the 2020 season. Membership numbers are steadily growing and should comfortably exceed last year. The proposed centre of excellence at Brookvale Oval is another positive for the club that will generate great excitement once construction commences.
With a bit of luck with injuries, the Manly Sea Eagles will be a force in 2020. They boast a strong, balanced squad and a dedicated coaching team and should be able to compete with the top teams. The media will focus most of their attention on the likes of the Sydney Roosters, Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs, and that’s just the way Des Hasler likes it.