Ben Blaschke, , NRL.com
Gains: Michael Chee Kam (Raiders), Richie Fa’aoso (Storm), Justin Horo (Eels), Esi Tonga (Eels), Brenton Lawrence (Titans), Ligi Sao (Warriors), James Hasson (Sharks), Ben Musolino (Dragons), Dane Chisholm (Wests Tigers), Jacob Gagan (Eels), David Gower (Dragons), Peta Hiku (Warriors), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Panthers), Kayne Lawton (Titans).
Losses: Tony Williams (Bulldogs), Darcy Lussick (Eels), Daniel Harrison (Eels), Dean Whare (Panthers), Michael Oldfield (Roosters), Liam Foran (Salford), Vic Mauro (Salford), Josh Drinkwater (Dragons).
The more things change, the more things stay the same at Manly as they look to add yet another trophy to their already glittering trophy cabinet. Premiers just two years ago, the Sea Eagles endured a tumultuous 2012 season that saw two-time premiership-winning coach Des Hasler choose to exit before a ball had even been kicked and his assistant Geoff Toovey rushed into the top job – the result being a somewhat disjointed season in which they never truly gained the traction they needed.
Despite the interruptions, the class of the Sea Eagles was still enough to see them finish the regular season in fourth and although they were ultimately humbled 40-12 by old rivals Melbourne in the grand final qualifier, they head into the new season far better prepared to launch another title tilt.
Sure, they’ve lost the destructive ball-running of strike forward Tony Williams and the impact of up-and-coming prop Darcy Lussick to Canterbury and Parramatta respectively, but their departures shouldn’t overshadow all the good work the club did retaining the majority of their squad last season.
Among those to eventually knock back big-money offers from other clubs to stay on the northern beaches were Brett Stewart, Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans and Steve Matai: not only do they head into 2013 with the same spine that won them the grand final in 2011 but 12 of the 17 players that downed the Warriors that day remain at the club.
Perhaps the greatest changes this season have occurred off the field. Given the opportunity to plan his pre-season – unlike 12 months ago – Toovey has brought in former Parramatta caretaker coach Brad Arthur as an assistant while legendary halfback Andrew Johns has also been appointed to the full-time coaching staff to work with the club’s halves.
It will be interesting to see what influence he has on the already dominant young halves pairing of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing over the pre-season. The Sea Eagles were named as one of six clubs of interest in the Australian Crime Commission’s investigation into drugs and organised crime in sport – an unwanted and hopefully unwarranted distraction a month out from their opening round clash with Brisbane – while they were dealt another early blow when star back-rower Glenn Stewart was ruled out for 10 weeks (including the first six weeks of the season) with a knee injury.
Still, this squad has repeatedly proven to be among the NRL’s elite and they remain one of a handful of clubs that can rightfully head into 2013 not hoping, but expecting, to be in the mix come the business end of the year.
How They’ll Play It
While coach Toovey has enjoyed a greater opportunity to put his fingerprints on Manly’s game plan over the off-season, it’s hard to see them moving too far from what has worked for them over the years.
Despite the class of their backline, it is the Sea Eagles’ pack that is the source of their grinding, relentless style, with no-nonsense props getting the hard work done and back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart bringing their own brand of footwork and skill on the edges.
Expect the left-side combination of Kieran Foran, Watmough and Steve Matai to again brutalise their opponents, while Daly Cherry-Evans, Stewart and Jamie Lyon look to slice holes on the right.
Expect HUGE Things From
Kieran Foran. It’s been a good three years since the Kiwi Test five-eighth enjoyed an injury-free pre-season but he is fit and firing in 2013 and keen to step it up.
It’s a big year for Foran – not only will he be a key player in the Sea Eagles’ push for a title but he will also be central to New Zealand’s World Cup defence at the end of the year.
Foran has perhaps harshly stated that he wasn’t happy with his 2012 season and will be looking to increase his involvement this time around as he continues his development in the NRL. The fact that he has spent the pre-season working with Andrew Johns can only benefit him and it will be interesting to watch his progress during the opening rounds.
Defence and the long-kicking game of their halves are Manly’s greatest strengths. Although they certainly have the ability to score points, it is their passion for strangling sides out of the contest that makes them so difficult to break down on their day. Last season they ranked third best in the Telstra Premiership for both points (403) and tries conceded (71), fourth best for line-breaks conceded (3.7 per game) and conceded the fifth-fewest metres (1339 per game) and offloads (10.4 per game).
They are also masters of field position. In 2012 they kicked for a total of 16,238 metres during the regular season – more than any other side – with Daly Cherry-Evans contributing the bulk of that with 9,604 at 356 per game.
The Question Marks
How will Manly’s pack cope with the loss of Tony Williams? Sure, their back row remains a representative force with Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and 2012 State of Origin debutant Jamie Buhrer still at the club, but no player in the NRL can damage a defensive line quite like Williams.
From his early days as a giant winger, he has developed into the ultimate impact weapon and the Sea Eagles will miss his ability to turn the momentum of a game. Plus, Stewart’s absence for the opening six rounds of the season will test their depth at a time when they’re looking to find some consistency of performance.
Williams averaged 119 metres per game in 2012 – often playing the full 80 minutes – as well as contributing 102 tackle-breaks and 34 offloads.
Who Needs To Lift?
Manly’s front row must up their metres this season given the absence of both Williams and interchange prop Darcy Lussick. Experience counts for plenty up front but there is no doubt that the likes of Jason King and Brent Kite were below their best in 2012. In fact, their average metres have been on a downward spiral since their impressive displays in 2010 when they ran for 105.8 metres and 105.7 metres per game respectively. In 2011 that had dropped to 93.5 for King and 90.4 for Kite and last year it was 81.4 for King and 88.2 for Kite.
If ever the Sea Eagles needed their veteran big men to step it back up, it’s now.
How’s Their Depth?
Manly has recruited heavily this season with a litany of promising youngsters arriving to bolster their stocks over the coming years while experienced campaigners Richie Fa’aoso and Justin Horo provide more immediate cover. The big question is how many of those youngsters will be ready to make the step up to first grade should injuries strike? Our guess is barely a handful at this stage – save perhaps former Raiders under-20s star Michael Chee Kam (centre/second-rower) who is almost certain to make his NRL debut at some stage during the season.
The first test of Manly’s depth will come straight away given Glenn Stewart’s knee injury and they will be desperate not to lose any more back-rowers. However, particularly problematic would be injury to either of their halves, Foran or Cherry-Evans, given that last year’s first-choice replacement – Kieran’s brother Liam – has been granted a release to join UK club Salford. The departures of Dean Whare and Michael Oldfield – proven fill-ins over the past few seasons – also leaves them a little light out wide.
A good run with injury is vital to the side’s success in 2013.
Dream Team Bankers
Manly fans can’t go wrong with Daly Cherry-Evans as one of their big money buys. The Sea Eagles halfback was one of last season’s most prolific scorers with an average 57.38 points from 24 games and should prosper again in 2013 under the tutelage of Andrew Johns. Also worth his weight in gold is hooker Matt Ballin at 44.08ppg and back-rower Anthony Watmough at 43.33ppg, while out wide Jamie Lyon is a certain banker with 982 points at 42.7ppg in 2012.
However, be wary of Glenn Stewart. Although a reliable performer in the back row, the knee injury that will sideline him for the opening quarter of the season means he might not provide enough value to justify his $305,100 price tag.
It’s difficult to see Geoff Toovey’s position coming under too much of a threat this season barring some sort of calamitous slide down the NRL ladder. One of Manly’s favourite sons, having played 286 games for the Sea Eagles and Northern Eagles, he did a respectable job under difficult circumstances last season when thrown the head coaching reins at the last minute.
Toovey will be looking to become just the third individual after Bob Fulton and Des Hasler to win premierships with Manly as both a player and coach.
After two largely forgettable years in which they finished 16th and 14th respectively, Manly’s NYC side has gone back to youth in 2013 – the club farewelling a large portion of their squad and opting for a much younger crop. In fact, so young is the current batch of juniors that four are still eligible to play SG Ball, the hope being that the squad stays together over the coming few years before the best take the step up to first grade.
Despite this, new coach David Heath – who replaces Luke Williamson – has insisted that he isn’t viewing 2013 as merely a development year, with the aim being to finish much higher than they have in recent seasons.
Keep an eye on fullback Clinton Gutherson – who played Australian Schoolboys last year – and prop Jack Trbojevic (150 metres, three tackle busts a game). Both have trained with the NRL squad in the pre-season and could be in line for a call-up should injury open the door.
They have been one of the most consistent sides of the past six seasons, with six top-eight finishes, three grand final appearances and two premierships and there is no reason to believe they won’t be there or thereabouts again in 2013.
Like any season, luck with injuries will play a part but provided they keep the core of their side on the field for the majority of the season, they will expect another top-four finish – with a premiership certainly not beyond them. Slot them into the top four.