The easy way to frame Manly’s chances of success in 2022 stretch as far as Tom Trbojevic’s hamstrings can carry them.
It’s clear there’s a strong link between the troublesome muscles that put the Turbo in Tom and the Sea Eagles’ winning record but their rejuvenation under Des Hasler has been deeper than that.
Without going down the well-trodden path of Hasler being the mad scientist, the underlying formula to Manly’s success last season was the emergence of some top-quality prospects coupled with career-best years for a few journeymen.
The main element in the Sea Eagles finishing just one game shy of the grand final was of course the astonishing form of Trbojevic, who is easily the most influential player in the NRL in terms of one player’s impact on their team.
Second-rowers Josh Schuster and Haumole Olakauatu are representative stars of the not-too-distant future, if Jason Saab doesn’t become the quickest winger in the NRL he could definitely be one of the most dangerous while centre Morgan Harper’s rise meant a potential match-winner in Moses Suli was deemed surplus to requirements.
Going back to the Hasler lab cliche, Schuster would be the kind of player Professor Des would create if he could go full Dr Frankenstein.
As a former five-eighth, he has the skills of a playmaker with the new-found size of a forward. Going back to his first dual premiership-winning stint at Manly and during his time at the Dogs over six largely successful seasons, Hasler has loved having big guys who could pass skilfully before the line – Glenn Stewart, George Rose, James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Jake Trbojevic.
Schuster fits that mould and at 20 with his first full season under his belt, he is set to take another step in his rapid development, giving another point of attack to take the load off the Trbojevic brothers and captain Daly Cherry-Evans.
Olakau’atu relies less on skill and more on a combination of raw speed and strength to be more of a prototypical modern-day edge forward.
If you were asked which player had the best winning percentage with Manly last season, you’d be mad not to immediately think of Tom Trbojevic, the Dally M Medal winner who had one of the greatest individual years in recent memory.
But the correct answer is Olakau’atu. Manly won 13 of 18 games with Turbo in their team but their record with the now 23-year-old forward was 16 victories from 21 outings.
Manly have been plotting Olakauatu’s ascension to first grade for a few years and last season he proved their planning was spot on.
After missing the opening month with an elbow injury, he timed his return perfectly to coincide with their star fullback’s delayed start and was integral to their surge from the cellar into the playoffs, which ended at the preliminary final stage by South Sydney.
While young guns like Saab and Harper also fired out wide, Manly’s cast of journeymen and supposed has-beens were also part of their drive into premiership contention.
Kieran Foran filled his role at five-eighth as he was finally able to string together his first season of 20 games or more since 2014 – he ended up with 25. Dylan Walker accepted a role as a bench utility and despite still only being 27, he seems to have lost speed off the mark but has adapted to now be most suited as a lock in the loose forward style which is now back in vogue.
Throw in improvements from centre Brad Parker, winger Reuben Garrick, Lachlan Croker settling in at hooker and the Sea Eagles will roll into the new season with pretty much the same squad.
They should be genuine contenders for the title again but they can’t, and won’t, rely solely on Trbojevic – even if he is somehow able to recreate his stunning 2021 success, ideally over a full season, Manly’s chances of qualifying for their first grand final since 2013 depend on so much more than their No.1 gun.
Manly have been among the least active clubs on the market for the past couple of years and have only added Broncos forward Ethan Bullemor to their squad for 2022. They’ve lost some forward depth with Jack Gosiewski signing with the Dragons and Curtis Sironen heading to St Helens after an injury-interrupted end to his time at Manly. Centre Moses Suli has also gone to St George Illawarra and utility Cade Cust joined Wigan but neither player was in Des Hasler’s top 17 by season’s end in 2020.
Star on the rise
The third Trbojevic boy rolled off the production line into the Manly NRL side in 2021, with Ben getting four games midway through the season. A NSW representative at under-16 and under-18 level, the 20-year-old centre should get more opportunities this season now that Moses Suli has left for the Dragons.
Who’s under the pump
Josh Aloiai was at the centre of all kinds of drama when he engineered an early exit last year from the Wests Tigers to sign a three-year deal with Manly, who had high hopes of him filling the gigantic void left by Addin Fonua-Blake’s switch to the Warriors. His season was disrupted by a hand injury but when he was available, the prop started in only nine of his 16 appearances. Aloiai’s go-forward with fellow Samoan international Martin Taupau will be crucial to Manly’s chances of going further in 2022.
If you squint you could see Manly holding up the trophy on grand final night but for that to happen they would not only need Tom Trbojevic to replicate his Dally M season and Daly Cherry-Evans to continue his impressive late-career form, they’d need a rising star like Josh Schuster to take another leap and become an elite player in this competition.
The obvious answer here is that Trbojevic is again hampered by hamstring injuries and recent history shows, when he is out of the line-up, Manly struggle. With a top-heavy salary cap with DCE and the Turbo brothers chewing up a large chunk, coach Des Hasler needs to keep getting value for money out of the lesser lights on this roster.
1. Tom Trbojevic
2. Jason Saab
3. Brad Parker
4. Morgan Harper
5. Reuben Garrick
6. Kieran Foran
7. Daly Cherry-Evans
8. Josh Aloiai
9. Lachlan Croker
10. Martin Taupau
11. Josh Schuster
12. Haumole Olakau’atu
13. Jake Trbojevic
14. Dylan Walker
15. Taniela Paseka
16. Ethan Bullemor
17. Sean Keppie
Others: Morgan Boyle, Andrew Davey, Sione Fainu, Tolutau Koula, Toff Sipley, Jorge Taufua, Karl Lawton, Ben Trbojevic, Christian Tuipulotu, Alec Tu’itavake