Home Record: 11 wins, 1 loss
Away Record: 7 wins, 5 losses
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 9-15)
Longest Losing Streak: 1 (Six times – Rounds 1, 4, 8, 16, 21 and 26)
Players Used: 25 (fewest)
Tries Scored: 4.1 per game (most)
Tries Conceded: 2.6 per game (third most)
Does it get better than this for the Sea Eagles? The answer, after a sublime 2011 season that ended in premiership glory, is a definite ‘no’. This year Manly showcased a complete all-round playing package and consistency throughout a measured, relentless and ultimately successful title assault.
In 2011 a refreshed Manly demonstrated why they qualify as one of, if not the greatest teams of the modern era – a professional unit determined to complete the job at hand no matter what the circumstances. And complete the task they did and more – throughout the season Manly displayed an unrivalled consistency throughout all facets of the game despite a range of off-field distractions. On the field, in attack the Sea Eagles were peerless, recording an average of 22.5 points scored (ranked first) and 4.1 tries scored (ranked first) throughout the regular season. In defence they were brilliant, too – in fact only once did a team score more than 24 points against Manly (the Rabbitohs beat the Sea Eagles 32-30 in Round 4). The Sea Eagles kept a close grip on their opponents throughout the regular season, conceding the fewest metres (averaging just 1270 per match – ranked first) alongside fewest points (averaging 13.8 – ranked second), tries (averaging 2.6 – ranked third) and missed tackles (averaging 30.1 – ranked second fewest). That outstanding combination of killer attack and deadly defence was something coach Des Hasler and his team brought into the finals series, choking, stifling and out-thinking the Cowboys, Broncos and Warriors to reclaim the NRL trophy that was last theirs in 2008.
Where They Excelled: The Sea Eagles showed once again they are a deadly unit with the ball in hand. Few teams truly contained the Manly attacking force – it’s often the case when a team wins almost 80 per cent of its matches! Only the Broncos (Round 26), Dragons (Round 16) and the Storm (Round 1) kept the Sea Eagles on the back foot during the regular season, conceding 10 points or less in their victories over this year’s premiership winners. But opposition victories were few and far between, and Manly methodically carved up a host of teams through the regular season and finals series.
Playing with style and substance, Manly used the dynamic attacking skills of experienced centre Jamie Lyon, electric try-scorer Brett Stewart, the size, skill and speed of Will Hopoate and Tony Williams, and the deft playmaking skills of new scrum-base combination Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans to rip through numerous opponents – the Manly mob scored 30 points or more against the Cowboys (Finals Week One), Roosters (Round 22), Knights (Round 19), Rabbitohs (Round 18), Bulldogs (Round 13) and Broncos (Round 12).
No matter where they were on the park and what the game situation, the entire squad’s range of skills – from front row to fullback – ensured they were a chance of scoring a try... and often, even against the run of play, they did just that. One only has to think back to the grand final, when lock Glenn Stewart grubbered across field inside his own territory to set up the try that broke open the decider.
Where They Struggled: Statistically, Manly struggled in no area in 2011. Throughout the season they performed in an ultra-consistent, always-more-than-competitive fashion. In fact, at no stage in 2011 did the Sea Eagles record back-to-back losses – such was their professional preparation, attitude and performance. They, on that basis alone, are deserved winners of the 2011 Telstra NRL Premiership.
Missing In Action: At various stages of the season Manly were impacted by injury and/or suspension; however, Jason King’s season-ending pectoral injury aside, thankfully for the Brookvale boys nothing proved overly serious. Unfortunately for King, he sustained his injury in August against the Roosters and missed the rest of his team-mates’ march to the title.
Most worrying for Sea Eagles fans were two incidents late in their 2011 campaign, which both occurred in the controversial Round 25 clash with the Storm. In that match-up popular winger David ‘Wolfman’ Williams sustained a serious neck injury – something even his opponents acknowledged and supported even as the former international searched for the try line. (The image of Billy Slater nursing Williams in his arms, after the tackle was complete, is likely one of the best examples of sportsmanship from this year’s competition.) Scans later revealed Williams had broken his neck after suffering a fracture of the sixth vertebrae, likely to sideline him until at least early in the 2012 season.
In that same match, Glenn Stewart and Storm star Adam Blair were involved in a nasty sideline punch-up that threatened to spill over into an all-in melee – an incident that attracted unwanted headlines for weeks. Stewart was suspended for three matches for his involvement in the Brookvale brawl, and would only return if his team-mates progressed to the grand final. Ultimately they did, Stewart put on another match-winning display and led his side to their eighth title triumph, claiming the Clive Churchill Medal as the best on field in the decider.
Turning Point: The Sea Eagles’ victory in their match with the Storm in Round 25 – where the league’s two standout teams quite literally went blow for blow – provided Manly with the confidence and motivation to go all the way in 2011. At that point Melbourne looked on track for premiership success, having shored up the minor premiership and beaten their closest rivals in Round 1 earlier in the season.
For Manly, this was personal – a measure of where the club was truly at and if each individual was good enough to get the job done with the finals series just two weeks away. In the match the Sea Eagles simply outplayed, out-thought and out-muscled their highly favoured (albeit Cooper Cronk-less) opposition – and they gained the belief that if they kept on track the 2011 premiership could very well be theirs if they wanted it.
Best Games: Manly were, as the statistics indicate, brilliant throughout the regular season, but it was in the finals series where they truly hit their straps and unleashed a world of pleasure for their fans and pain for their opponents. In Finals Week One against the Cowboys, the Sea Eagles overcame a slow start to score 42 points in the second half and earn a week off.
It was Manly at their blistering best – a series of brilliant backline movements, shifts via hands and deft ball-playing skills. North Queensland just couldn’t answer. It was a similar story against the Broncos two weeks later, although this time Manly’s defence was the biggest talking point, Brisbane battling to break through a line that at times looked impregnable. And, most importantly, Manly saved their best for last in the 2011 grand final – a dogged, disciplined and delightful effort in attack and defence that’ll have fans smiling until kick-off next season.
Worst Games: It’s very rare a team lasts an entire season without a few shocking efforts... but the Sea Eagles don’t have many performances to write up as ‘disastrous’. Manly’s largest loss in 2011 was their Round 16 defeat at the hands of the Dragons at WIN Stadium in Monday Night Football. In that game Manly uncharacteristically just couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities – they enjoyed 56 per cent of possession in total and made 60 fewer tackles than the Dragons. A poor performance, yes, but one that steeled the club in the run to the finals series and ultimately provided them with a reality check before the season entered crunch time.
Hold Your Head High: Not one member of the Sea Eagles’ squad had a poor season. Of particular mention are boom young playmakers Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans – during the season both emerged as classy creators as well as gifted generals. Foran excelled at stand-off – the No.6 relishing a role that saw him both challenge the line and provide quality service to his experienced outside men.
The Kiwi five-eighth in waiting clocked up 17 try assists and 13 line-break assists, a sign of unselfish play and quality service. Cherry-Evans, an inclusion in the Kangaroos squad, made his debut in Round 1 this season and took advantage of the opportunity to play every minute of the season. His game also revolves around a willingness to attack the defensive line (registering 111 tackle-breaks and nine line-breaks), as well as a deft passing and kicking game (resulting in 19 try assists and 10 line-break assists). Manly’s title success rested at the foot of those young stars who displayed a willingness to listen, learn and improve their games, as well as the tactical nous and intestinal fortitude to order their more experienced team-mates around the field.
The Sea Eagles were also well served by their other reliable regulars, including star strike centre Jamie Lyon, the ever-brilliant Brett Stewart, the complete footballer Glenn Stewart and tireless back-rower Anthony Watmough, who all played significant roles in their team’s title triumph. In fact, the overall Manly squad – arguably the most balanced side of the past 10 seasons – performed almost perfectly throughout 2011, the reason why five members of their line-up (Watmough, the Stewarts, barn-storming impact man Tony Williams and Cherry-Evans) were included in the 24-man Kangaroos squad for the upcoming Four Nations.
Coach Des Hasler says: “I can't fault these boys – great culture, great club. I'm so proud of this side and am so proud of the Manly club. Grand finals don't come around often. They are very difficult to make and very difficult to win.”
Conclusion: A great season for Manly who pushed aside a whole raft of controversies to take league’s most decorated prize. They came, they soared and conquered a wave of anti-Manly sentiment from across Australia and New Zealand. And with just a few off-season changes (outside backs Hopoate and Michael Robertson depart, as does forward Shane Rodney), the chances of them doing that again – and recording back-to-back premiership victories, the first in a unified competition since Brisbane in 1992-1993 – are very real.