Geoff Toovey and the Manly playing group must be experiencing such mixed emotions right now, although no doubt the predominant emotion would be one of great disappointment. It always is when you lose a grand final.
Yet in their more lucid moments when they are able to push aside the sadness and think about 2013 as a whole they would surely recognise just how much they achieved.
Ambushed early in the year by the sudden rise of two new title contenders in South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters, Manly spent much of the season flying under the radar with a top four spot safely in their keeping but minor premiership never truly within their reach.
In fact, as the season wore on a mounting injury toll had many predicting this squad of ageing warriors were bound to hit the wall. Certainly a series of gruelling encounters at the business end of the season provided plenty of excuses had they wanted to use them, but instead it seemed the greater the challenge the more the Sea Eagles lifted to tackle it.
Having not beaten a fellow top four side all season, they finally did so in style with a 28-8 thrashing of Melbourne in Round 25 to warm up for the finals.
A desperately tight 4-0 loss to the Roosters in Week 1 of the finals didn’t deter them and they returned the following week to score a highly impressive 24-18 win over Cronulla and move to within one win of their fourth grand final in seven seasons.
Given the brutal nature of those two games, few gave them any chance of knocking over South Sydney in the preliminary final – especially when they trailed 14-0 early – but Manly defied all the odds to score 30 unanswered points and become the first side into the 2013 decider.
And although they couldn’t quite raise the trophy in the end, they managed to play their part in arguably the most thrilling grand final of the past 10 years. Had it not been for a few unfortunate calls they might well be celebrating into 2014, but they have nothing to be ashamed of.
The Sea Eagles looked set to defy the odds again when two quick tries after half-time saw them take an 18-8 lead with 30 minutes of the grand final remaining but when it mattered most the Roosters showed why they have been the team to beat all year.
Still, the toll Manly’s run to the decider took was there for all to see in those final few weeks. After just holding on against Cronulla, captain Jamie Lyon and back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Jamie Buhrer were all in serious doubt for the clash with Souths and probably wouldn’t have played had it been an early season encounter. Watmough had already played through the pain barrier for months on end and it was no surprise to see the Sea Eagles medical staff rule him out of the World Cup in the days that followed the grand final. Glenn and Brett Stewart quickly joined him on the sidelines.
What 2013 really showed was just what a determined squad Manly has built. There is no doubt their big game experience told at some crucial moments along the way, but more than anything it was their willingness to go the extra mile and an absolute refusal to throw in the towel that took them so far.
And although they fell just short, who would doubt their ability to rise from the ashes and do it all again in 2014?
Where They Excelled: Manly’s attack was arguably the most rounded in the competition in 2013 although they were absolutely lethal on the edges. Whereas last season their right side combination of Daly Cherry-Evans, Glenn Stewart, Jamie Lyon and David Williams was clearly their main attacking option, this year the left side of Kieran Foran, Justin Horo, Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua also stepped up to the plate. The result was 42 tries scored on the left and 49 on the right.
Where They Struggled: If there is one regret the Sea Eagles will have looking back on 2013 it will be their inability to finish off the Sydney Roosters in their two finals meetings. And as the stats show, they had every right to win both of those games.
The two sides met in the opening week of the finals and engaged in a classic battle with the Roosters prevailing 4-0. But how Manly didn’t score the upset is a mystery. They ran for a whopping 1759 metres to the Roosters’ 1145. They enjoyed 53 per cent of possession. They produced 207 hit-ups to 160. And they made four line-breaks to zero. Despite all of this dominance, they couldn’t crack the try line.
The grand final was much more even with the Roosters enjoying 53 per cent of possession, although the premiers completed at just 63 per cent and again made fewer line-breaks than Manly. The Sea Eagles will be wondering how they let an 18-8 lead slip after enjoying all the momentum immediately after the half-time break.
Missing In Action: It was more a case of players taking the field with injuries rather than missing games altogether although there were some notable absentees. Co-captain Jason King again missed a huge chunk of the season, playing just four games, after undergoing should surgery early in the year while Joe Galuvao’s career came to a premature end after he snapped his Achilles in Round 6. The man who benefited most from his absence, Richie Fa’aoso, missed the grand final after breaking his neck in the preliminary final win over South Sydney. Fullback Brett Stewart played 19 games of a possible 28 thanks largely to a troublesome hamstring that had him sidelines during the run into the finals.
Turning Point: Having lost three games in a row up to Round 16, Manly hit top gear in Round 17 with a 50-10 thrashing of lowly Parramatta and didn’t look back from that point on. They won six in a row from there to cement their spot in the top four – scoring 225 points in the process – and scored their first win of 2013 over a fellow top four side when they thrashed Melbourne 28-8 in Round 25.
Best Games: Without doubt Manly’s preliminary final win over South Sydney was the cream of the crop. Already written off by many and trailing 14-0 following an early South Sydney blitz, the Sea Eagles proceeded to strangle the life out of their opponents as they stormed to a stunning 30-20 win. That included a run of 30 unanswered points. Trailing 14-6 at half-time, Brett Stewart sent Matt Ballin across soon after the break to close the gap to two and when Jamie Lyon strolled across soon after South Sydney’s resilience was broken. David Williams scored a stunning try out wide to make it 24-14 and when Tom Symonds scored after charging down an Adam Reynolds kick the Sea Eagles had qualified for the decider.
Two big wins over Parramatta in Rounds 17 and 21 were pleasing to the eye as they produced a combined score of 90-16 from those two games.
Worst Games: Consecutive losses to the Warriors and Bulldogs in Rounds 13 and 14 were far from the performances coach Geoff Toovey has come to expect from his side. Leading 12-0 in Auckland and doing it easy, Manly took the foot off the pedal as the home side roared back into contention. Scores were locked at 12-all at the break and Konrad Hurrell then embarrassed the Sea Eagles defence as he brushed off five defenders to score the winner. Even more disappointing was the side’s sluggish start a week later as they fell behind 18-0 against the Bulldogs after just 15 minutes in a game they should have been up for given the rivalry. Trailing 30-12 with 15 minutes remaining, the Sea Eagles fought back late and incredibly levelled the scores at 30-all to send it into golden point but a penalty to Trent Hodkinson saw Canterbury come away with a 32-30 win.
Hold Your Head High: There were plenty of star performers for the Sea Eagles in 2013 but none was better than halfback Daly Cherry-Evans. The brilliant playmaker is only in his third season in the top grade but is already challenging Cooper Cronk for the Queensland and Australian No.7 jumper – not to mention his Clive Churchill Medal win in a losing grand final side.
Cherry-Evans produced 19 try assists and 11 line-break assists in 2013 but he was most impressive at the business end of the year where his cool head played a key role in the run to the grand final.
Credit must also go to both centres Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai who were an ever-present danger on the edges while a surprise packet was prop Brenton Lawrence who joined from the Gold Coast in the pre-season and quickly secured his spot in the starting side.
Coach Geoff Toovey says: “It’s a fantastic effort. I spoke to the boys and said how proud I was of them. No-one gave us a chance this year. We’ve had some really tough football, we’ve had a lot of injuries. We’ve had three middle men taken out for the [grand final] and two of them were missing all year. It’s great for those blokes to have stepped in all year and do a fantastic job. Everyone lifted to get us to where we are. All in all it was a fantastic season but we just fell a little bit short at the end.”
Conclusion: For a side that so many tipped to begin a downward slide in 2013, Manly proved to all and sundry just what a champion side they are. Despite facing a number of hurdles through the course of the season – from a lengthy list of injury woes to the ASADA investigation which threatened to become a significant distraction at times – they managed to grow in stature as the season progressed and when the big games were there to be won at the back end of the year their experience shone through.
Like any quality side, their failure to top it all off with a win in the grand final will rankle over the off-season but premierships were never meant to come easily. For now, they should look back with plenty of pride and satisfaction at another brilliant season in which they proved they are one of the NRL’s real power clubs.
Position: 2nd (4th after Round 26)
Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses, (=3rd)
Away Record: 7 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw (3rd)
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 17-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds13-16)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 97 (3rd most)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 54 (2nd fewest)