THE ability to fill the crucial No.7 jersey for the second year running, as well as avoiding the horror injury toll that bit deep late into their 2010 premiership assault, loom as the major considerations for the Sea Eagles in 2011.

But more than offsetting these potential rain clouds is the tremendous confidence boost they’ve received through the return of representative pair Brett Stewart and David ‘Wolfman’ Williams after lengthy breaks with injury.

Try-hoarding fullback Stewart (98 four-pointers from 118 NRL games) has taken to the field only six times since the beginning of 2009, falling victim to two serious knee injuries – the latest when struck down just 76 minutes into Round 1. And iconic winger Williams suffered a year-ending shoulder injury in the 2010 pre-season. Without this pair the Sea Eagles were never the threat they were in previous seasons, including their 2008 title year.

Last year they unearthed a rough-cut diamond in halfback Trent Hodkinson, who filled in for veteran Matt Orford almost seamlessly. By season’s end he was a polished and multi-faceted gem; Hodkinson guided the side around the park with a deal of confidence, providing the perfect pivot link and easing the load on centre Jamie Lyon. But now Hodkinson is gone, off to the Bulldogs, and the maroon and whites again have to dig around for a new talent. They have big expectations for their first choice – rookie Daly Cherry-Evans. Certainly he is the key to their season.

How They’ll Play It… The Des Hasler game plan is based around gaining good field position, from where the backline strike power of Stewart, Williams, Steve Matai and co-captain Jamie Lyon can inflict damage.

Manly are most effective when minimising mistakes in their own half and pinning down oppositions with an accurate long-kicking game. Last year the kicking duties were shared evenly between five-eighth Kieran Foran and halfback Hodkinson, with some support from Lyon, but now Foran will be asked to take on more responsibility. The No.6 is aware his long kicking could have been better in 2010 (195 kicks for average 28-metre gain) and he has been working hard in the off-season to improve things.

Expect Plenty From… The engine room. While the Manly backs will surely attract all the glamorous headlines, they won’t be able to press their premiership claims unless the forwards fire, with co-captain Jason King, Brent Kite and George Rose expected to make a statement up front. And they’ll need to do so minus former Kangaroos prop Josh Perry, now playing in the English Super League.

Kite has had a mixed few years since winning the Churchill Medal in 2008. Last year he didn’t attract too many plaudits but his workload was very good – he averaged a 105-metre gain with 20 tackles and tallied 38 tackle-breaks, plus two try assists for good measure. Clubman of the year King played one game for the Blues and at club level matched Kite’s territorial gain, adding 25 tackles in 45 minutes on the field. Rose averaged fewer minutes (32) but still carved out 80 metres and made 15 tackles each stint.

If this trio do their jobs it will make it easier for back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart to leave their stamps.

Stewart had a quiet attacking season by his standards (just 23 offloads, six try assists) – having played for NSW and Australia, he dropped off the representative radar. Most observers put it down to the strain of the court proceedings that hung over his brother Brett; with that matter now decided and his brother back on the field he may really up the tempo this season.

They’re Going To Really Miss… Club rookie of the year Hodkinson. He was a massive success filling Orford’s boots last year, showing abundant creativity, an excellent kicking game and great strength and speed when taking on the line.

The stats show Hodkinson made 60 tackle-breaks in 2010 – the most by any halfback in the NRL and 10 more than second-best Chris Sandow. Also, he contributed 20 try assists.

Josh Perry was always good for 20 tackles in his 42-minute bursts and they may miss his starch.

It’s Time To Stand Up… Kieran Foran. Coach Hasler is too smart to lump great pressure on Daly Cherry-Evans too early. He’ll try to get the 22-year-old ‘newbie’ to settle into a groove and it will fall to his more “seasoned” team-mates to carry the banner early on – in particular Foran (who incredibly is only 20!).

Last year Foran ran strongly, making 35 tackle-breaks, and made the third-most try assists by any No.6 (15) – but he’ll need to up that figure, as well as his line-break assists (seven) and offloads (eight).

Centre Steve Matai needs to find a way to curb his aggression, which has led to several lengthy suspensions and some unwanted injuries recently.

Coach Watch: Des Hasler is an institution out Brookvale way and only a cataclysmic fall from grace would see his job threatened.

Hasler loves to play things “under the radar” but it will be interesting to see whether the Sea Eagles shed a little of the siege mentality they adopted last year.  

They’ll Be Boosted By… The fact that if the Cherry-Evans experiment fails they have another halfback option in Gary Riccardi, who had a standout season in Toyota Cup last year 35 try assists and a dominant kicking game that yielded his side an average 491 metres. First, though, he’s likely to follow the path trodden by Cherry-Evans last year playing Intrust Super Cup.

Predicted Finish: They have a strong ‘firsts’ team but they may lack a little depth, particularly in the forwards. Given an even break with injuries they are definite semi-finals contenders although with their two major strike weapons having been off the scene for so long they may take some time to hit their straps. With so many other talented teams in the comp, they won’t be able to give away a head start in this year’s premiership race. They’ll push for the finals. Probably anywhere from 7th to 10th.

Under-20s: The predominantly new squad is looking to put last year’s indifferent season behind them. After winning the minor premiership in 2009, they started 2010 solidly but managed just four wins from their final 13 games, which coach David Penna attributes to injuries and first grade call-ups that led to a lack of firepower and continuity.

Expected to lead the way again in 2011 is local product Magnus Stromquist. Last year the 102kg prop averaged 29 tackles and 110 metres a game. With boom youngster Lama Tasi off to the Roosters, former NSW under-18s rep Stromquist will he handed more responsibility.

It’s not known whether last year’s star halfback Gary Riccardi will again back up in the TC, or whether the baton will be passed to rookies Josh Drinkwater or Taylor Matthews.

Comings… Liam Foran (Newtown Jets), Daniel Harrison (Bulldogs), Tim Robinson (Eels).

Goings… Chris Bailey (London Harlequins), Ben Farrar (Les Catalans Dragons), Trent Hodkinson (Bulldogs), Josh Perry (St Helens), Lama Tasi (Roosters).