Going into this year’s NRL Finals there is a great disturbance in the Force.
Something is dreadfully wrong.
I – along with so many others – am experiencing significant feelings of support for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. For the first time in my life I find myself wanting the team from Brookvale Oval to triumph.
It is just possible that in 2021 the despised Silvertails have become the People’s Team.
How could this have occurred?
Just last season they had plummeted to a 13th-place finish. In the off-season they lost the brilliant Addin Fonua-Blake to the Warriors, as well as having no idea when, or if, hooker Manase Fainu might be able to play again.
It was safe to say that the Sea Eagles were in a state. And didn’t we all love it!
Their team featured players who no one had ever heard of before. The likes of the unknown Josh Schuster, Morgan Harper and Haumole Olakau’atu were set to partner with meat and potato players who caused mirth and certainly not fear in opposition teams.
Makeshift hooker Lachlan Croker surely would struggle. Ex-Tiger Josh Aloiai would be found wanting. And Brad Parker’s only real value was his amazing similarity to Hank Scorpio of Simpsons fame.
Any chance the Sea Eagles had of being competitive in 2021 rested heavily on the four players taking a huge chunk of their salary cap: Martin Taupau, Jake Trbojevic, halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and wunderkind Tommy ‘Turbo’ Trbojevic. All excellent players, they might just make this rag-tag bunch of misfits and near-do-wells competitive on occasions.
But then on the evening of Saturday February 20, young Tom was on a night out in Manly and got baited into a sprint race down the Corso by a lad called Harry. While Trbojevic swears that he didn’t tear his hamstring in that race – which he got narrowly pipped in – there was lots of speculation that this bit of poor judgement had doomed the Sea Eagles 2021 season to being yet another pile of steaming crap.
And that is certainly how the script went.
After the first four rounds of 2021 the Sea Eagles found themselves without a win, sitting in stone, motherless, last place. They lost those games by a combined score of 34-156, That amounted to an average losing margin of 8-39.
So many of us wrote them off completely. This team was a total rabble. Des Hasler was so past his use by date that he needed to be bulldozed along with their decrepit ‘stadium’.
Even among the carnage of those opening rounds Des refused to concede to the obvious truth that his side were just awful. Having just seen them hammered 38-12 by the Dragons he was bullish at the post match press conference. “We’ll dig ourselves out of this. You just watch.”
Yeah, right Des. Sure you will…
Even the undoubted brilliance of Tommy Turbo – if he ever returned – couldn’t dig this awful team of that pit.
The knives were out. There was all sorts of speculation on the tenure of Cherry-Evans, Hasler, and a multitude of players.
But not at Brookvale. They didn’t panic. They stayed the course.
As is so often the case, those saying coaches or players should be sacked are from outside the clubs. In their positions it is a very easy call to sack someone. Mostly because they have no thought or care for who might be found to replace them. They couldn’t give a crap. They don’t support the side and frankly are fine with them losing while spewing their bile from the comfort of the cheap seats in front of their keyboards.
Their opinions are worth nothing.
And that is exactly how the brains trust at Brookvale viewed them.
When the Sea Eagles finally broke through for their first win in Round 5, it was by a solitary point over the Warriors. While it lifted them out of last place, it was hardly what anyone saw as the start of a comeback for the ages.
Then it happened.
Tom Trbojevic was named to return at fullback in the side to take on the Titans in Mudgee. The Titans had just beaten the Knights 42-16 and were rightly massive favourites with the bookies.
I watched on my Twitter feed as only the most devoted of my Manly supporting tweeps (I’m really sorry for using that term) made the trek to Glen Willow Oval with hope. I admired their devotion but I couldn’t see them experiencing anything but a long, sad drive home.
Retweet if your team has only lost to the top 4 and will now make a run to the finals ???????????????????????????????? https://t.co/bakG79UdB7
— Ella ???????? (@ellapk3) April 11, 2021
Even Tom Trbojevic wasn’t good enough to turn this teams fortunes around. He was good, but no one is that good.
Except he is.
He is brilliant. He is electric. He is nigh on unstoppable and he ripped the Titans to pieces.
In his first game in seven months the tall fullback made 189 metres from 16 runs, scored a try, created two line breaks and set up two tries.
And just like that the Sea Eagles were back.
And those meat and potato players were firing. Aloiai made 191 metres, Schuster 123 metres, a try assist and two line break assists and Brad Parker scored a try.
And of course it was not a long, sad drive home at all.
— Kylie Mitchell (@Kyliem001) April 17, 2021
In no time at all the Manly faithful started re-finding that obnoxious cockiness we all hate them for
Des is so smart, forever playing 4D chess. Putting us so under the radar that no one suspects our history-making charge towards a 2021 premiership pic.twitter.com/avMPAGx8IM
— Ella ???????? (@ellapk3) April 17, 2021
But surely that was just a blip, right? That was the Titans just being crap as usual. It wasn’t the start of anything for the Maroon and White. It couldn’t be.
But it was. And how.
After losing their first four games, the Sea Eagles have won 16 of their last 20 to storm into the top four for the first time since 2014. That 20-game stretch has seen them turn a -122 points differential into +322. In 20 games – four of which they lost – they have outscored their opposition by an average of 21 points a game.
Their only losses have been by two converted tries or less to Newcastle, Penrith, the Raiders and the Storm.
While this has been a whole team effort, there is no doubt that it has been sparked by one of the greatest seasons from a player we’ve ever seen.
Tom Trbojevic has played just 15 of the Sea Eagles’ 24 games and he is at almost unbackable odds to take out this year’s Dally M for the best player of the year. His stats make for some eye-watering reading.
Already he has scored 25 tries for Manly (along with his four for NSW). That’s the second most of anyone this season. His 30 try assists are second only to Cody Walker’s 37. His average of 188 metres a game is second only to Brian To’o. His 29 line breaks are third over all and he is fourth for tackle breaks.
It has been a joy to watch him play. He has eclipsed the rare run of dominant form that Jarryd Hayne had in 2009 and, unlike the convicted rapist, Trbojevic is an awesome human. Likeable, humble and intelligent.
It is impossible to dislike him. And that aura has totally rubbed off on the whole side.
Even Dylan Walker seems not so bad. How is that even possible?
I am regularly hearing people I know to despise the Sea Eagles announcing that they are on the bandwagon.
Somehow, the team we have all hated for so long has become the peoples team.
And it isn’t just those of us being pulled into their spell that are upset about it. Sea Eagles legend Geoff Toovey is railing about there not being enough hate for the team to draw on and feed their legendary siege mentality.
The universe is truly out of balance.
This Friday Manly play their most hated of opponents in recent times. There is zero love lost between the Storm and the Sea Eagles. And while the Storm have lost just three games for the whole season, with two of those in the first three rounds, there is a genuine feeling that the Sea Eagles could best them.
And if they do they’ll be just one game away from the most unlikely grand final appearance since the Cowboys in 2017. But unlike the North Queenslanders, the Sea Eagles could actually win it.
And if they do it’ll probably only take us all five minutes to start hating them again.
But right now, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles are the People’s Team.