The 2022 competition is less than four months away and all is quiet on the Northern Beaches.
Apart from the embarrassment of having an anti-vax trainer with a top knot, there have been no scandals, no useless internal reviews, no leaked details of brawls in the board room, no major player losses, no ‘sign and hope’ player acquisitions, no salary cap issues, and no coaching upheavals.
Just a club getting on with it and preparing for what could be one of their biggest seasons to date. Stability is the order of the day.
Manly will certainly be aiming for a better start to 2022 than the horror first month from last season.
Four losses on the trot at an average losing margin of 30 points a match saw them rapidly firm as everyone’s favourites for the wooden spoon, and coach Des Hasler looked to be just one more loss away from being publicly tarred and feathered on the Corso.
But Manly didn’t panic, they got their superstar number one back on the field and proceeded to light up the competition, finishing in a very creditable fourth place, until eventually running out of steam in the preliminary final when they were well beaten by South Sydney.
There’s a lot to like about how Manly are shaping up for 2022, and they will be serious contenders for the title. Here’s what I believe are the key positives that could just take them all the way next season.
Since he began his first grade coaching career in 2004, only Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy, with three premierships each, have been more successful than Des Hasler, who has two premierships to his name.
And no one gets Manly like Hasler does. He’s now coached the club for a total of 11 years, and apart from the two premiership wins in 2008 and 2011, has taken the team to the finals in every other year with the exception of 2004 and 2020.
Hasler has two years to run on his current contract and looks to be one of the least under-threat coaches in the NRL at the present time, which can only be a good thing for team harmony and stability.
Hasler has a good rapport with his players and has been able to develop quite a few players unwanted by other clubs into strong and improving first graders.
I fully expect that Manly will further extend his contract in 2022 unless something goes horribly wrong in the first half of the season.
Hasler is just the man to take Manly all the way in 2022.
While other clubs have been active, and some possibly hyperactive, in the recruitment space, Manly have shown faith in their current roster, and the only recognisable signing for 2022 is Ethan Bullemor from the Broncos.
At just 21, Bullemor is a likely lad and will certainly be a handy addition to an already strong Manly pack.
In better recruitment news for the Sea Eagles, they have shed some reserve graders who were taking up space in their squad, and have also re-signed a dozen off-contract players for 2022 and beyond.
Quite a number of clubs are currently spending more time dealing with the large chunks of their playing roster coming off contract in 2022 than they are in preparing for the upcoming season, and this has to have a destabilising effect on the team.
No such problems at Manly though, as the only key players coming off contract in 2022 are five-eighth Kieran Foran, who’ll be 32 by the time his contract expires, and fellow 32-year-old, front-rower Marty Taupau.
Manly can get by pretty well without Taupau, and I’d expect Foran to be extended for another year if his fitness holds up.
Interestingly, a number of fellow top-eight contenders in Melbourne, Penrith, South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters have all lost key players from their roster this year, and to date haven’t replaced them.
Souths have also lost their coach. No such problems at Manly, where the squad that got them to fourth place last year are ready to go in 2022.
These days, a team is only as good as its spine, and Manly shape up nicely in that department.
A gun fullback in Tom Trbojevic, experienced representative halves in Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, and a clever and hard-working hooker in Lachlan Croker all have both the skills and the combination to defeat any team in the competition.
They’ll need to hope for an injury-free season though, as their back-up depth in these positions is very thin.
The outside backs
Manly’s previously unheralded back line of Jason Saab, Morgan Harper, Brad Parker and Reuben Garrick went into last season with just 121 first grade games between them, with half of those notched up by Parker.
While they struggled at times, they managed to score 65 tries between them, and Garrick chipped in with over 120 goals. Not bad for a bunch of also-rans.
I’m tipping we’ll see further improvement from this quartet in 2022, as they’ll be much better for the experience and the confidence gained last year.
They can do the job for the Sea Eagles in 2022.
If it’s a big, aggressive, and skilful pack of forwards that gets you going, look no further than the Manly pack.
From skilful players like Jake Trbojevic and Josh Schuster, to a host of big, powerful forwards in Josh Aloiai, Sean Keppie, Marty Taupau, Haumole Olakau’atu, Taniela Paseka, Ethan Bullemor and Toafofoa Sipley.
That’s quite a line-up, and we’re all waiting to see Ben Trbojevic get some game time next season. Manly have the forwards to more than match it with any pack in the competition.
The ‘T factor’
Many clubs have an ‘X factor’ player to turn the team’s fortunes around when the chips are down. Players like Ryan Papenhuyzen at the Storm, Cody Walker at South Sydney, and Nathan Cleary at Penrith.
But only Manly have the ‘T factor’ that Tom Trbojevic provides.
I’ve been watching rugby league for a long time now and can’t remember a player who dominated the opposition the way ‘Turbo’ did in 2021.
If he stays on his feet in 2022, and the rest of the team do their job, Manly are in with a great chance.
Here’s a fun fact – Manly have won at least one premiership in every decade since the 1970s.
If they keep quietly flying under the radar for the next few months, and avoid the distractions of the silly season, they stand a very good chance of winning their ninth premiership in 2022.