Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
Take a look at the Sea Eagle's road to the finals as they prepare to play the Bulldogs in week one of the Telstra Premiership Finals.
1. Victory on ‘D’-Day
Despite kick-starting their premiership defence with a win over the Warriors in their grand final rematch in Round 1 Manly displayed plenty of ring-rustiness in their opening rounds. They looked to be in all sorts of trouble after suffering a hat-trick of losses from Round 3, plus a defeat to the struggling Titans that further sapped morale in Round 7. But they dug deep and turned their season around when defeating the Des Hasler-coached Bulldogs 12-10 in an absorbing encounter at ANZ Stadium in Round 8. That match went down to the wire and was only secured when Steve Matai crossed off a George Rose offload in the 75th minute. Certainly the relief on the face of new coach Geoff Toovey at winning bragging rights over his former boss was obvious. Crucially, the win sparked a return to form that saw Manly win four games in a row.
2. Rise of Jorge Taufua
Adam Reynolds may be the most talked about rookie in 2012 but there’s no question the form of Jorge Taufua on the left wing for the Sea Eagles deserves an avalanche of plaudits too. The retirement of Michael Robertson and departure of Will Hopoate at the end of 2011 left the Sea Eagles with no small degree of uncertainty out wide, but 20-year-old Taufua has allayed fears with a devastating debut season. He’s punched out more line-breaks than any of his team-mates (17) and has proven one of the toughest players in the NRL to contain when winding up – his 79 tackle-breaks rank him second to Akuila Uate among wingers! Whether he’s on the end of a Kieran Foran pass to score (eight tries so far) or is carving up the opposition laying the platform for Brett Stewart and others, rest assured Taufua will be fed plenty of ball in the coming weeks.
3. In for the long haul
Given the out-and-out speed of Taufua and Brett Stewart, the knife-like attack of centres Steve Matai and Jamie Lyon, not to mention the cunning of halves Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, it comes as no surprise to discover Manly are pressing Canterbury for the title of best attacking side from long range. The Sea Eagles have wowed the league with some spectacular off-the-cuff plays throughout 2012, with the side crossing for 13 tries from moves initiated on their own side of halfway. While Ben Barba has mostly hogged the highlights reels this season the Sea Eagles drew first blood in the razzle-dazzle stakes when Cherry-Evans finished off a spectacular long-range raid in their season-opening win over the Warriors. This should serve as a stark reminder to all semi-finalists about the dangers of allowing Manly to get the ball wide.
4. Cover story
When Manly won the competition last year they did so after utilising just 25 players all year – the fewest personnel deployed by any team. Wouldn’t you know it? This year Manly have needed just 24 players to carry them through. Sure, they’ve had hiccups. David Williams is gone for the year after playing just 16 games. Tony Williams missed 11 games, Steve Matai nine and Brett Stewart and Kieran Foran eight games each. But importantly they’ve got huge mileage out of Daly Cherry-Evans, Anthony Watmough and Matt Ballin who’ve played every game, while Jamie Lyon and Jamie Buhrer missed just 80 minutes all year. That continuity breeds confidence.
5. Against the odds
Two games were pivotal to Manly securing a spot in the top four, from where they are now guaranteed a second bite at the premiership cherry. They showed remarkable grit to plunge a dagger into the hearts of the Broncos with a last-gasp 24-22 win in Round 10; with a minute to play they looked down and out when pegged deep in their half but Jamie Buhrer, Steve Matai and Jorge Taufua carved out huge territory, culminating in David Williams scoring to snatch the verdict as the fulltime siren loomed. Then in Round 21 they reeled in an 18-point-deficit to defeat the Warriors 24-22, courtesy of two late tries to Daly Cherry-Evans inside the final eight minutes.
6. Right-edge brilliance
Is there a team to match Manly on the right side of the field when the Stewart brothers hit top gear? Manly boasted one of the best left-side attacks last year but they’ve shifted their focus to the right in 2012, crossing for 38 tries – with only Melbourne and North Queensland crossing for more. With Cherry-Evans calling the shots and their outside backs running great lines – not to mention Glenn Stewart’s skilful passing – Manly present a clear and present danger any time the pill heads right. It’s a quadruple threat: will it be Brett Stewart who slices through himself? Brother Glenn who creates the overlap? Jamie Lyon having a dig? Or a quick sweep wide for Dean Whare to score?
7. Captain’s knock
He has his reasons, but there’s no question NSW Blues fans remain dirty on Jamie Lyon for making himself unavailable for State of Origin – and even more so after his stellar individual performances in 2012. With a devastating running, passing and kicking game, Lyon has been hands-down the most dangerous centre in the game this year. When he hasn’t been scoring tries himself (nine) he’s been setting them up for team-mates (17 – most by a three-quarter). And when not bursting into open space himself he’s been putting team-mates through a gap (14 line-break assists – most in his position). Lyon’s wonderful ability to size up situations in the blink of an eye will hurt teams in the coming weeks.
8. Getting set
Set plays usually afford the tackling team the chance to regroup and structure their defence. Generally speaking, unless the attacking side is pressing inside the opposition red zone, the scoring threat is not huge. Unless that team is Manly – who have scored more times from tap kicks and scrums than any team in 2012. You simply can’t take them for granted – as illustrated by Brett Stewart’s try against the Storm in Round 15, charging through to gather a Jamie Lyon kick from 35 metres out. That’s tough to coach against.
9. Scary weeks ahead
Tony Williams ended last year’s Four Nations series with the reputation as the most damaging back-rower in rugby league but he hasn’t been anywhere near as dangerous in an injury-interrupted 2012. Likewise, playmaker Kieran Foran was a standout for the Sea Eagles late last season, in particular through the finals series; but injuries have curtailed his impact this year, too. In a huge relief for Manly fans the pair have rocketed back to form over the past month and look set to present a tandem threat on the left edge in the coming weeks. In particular Williams’ don’t-argue try against the Knights in Round 24, when he steamrolled opposition five-eighth Jarrod Mullen en route to the try-line, would warm their hearts – and make the blood of opposition fans run cold.
10. Cherry on top
Cynics who figured last year’s Rookie of the Year Daly Cherry-Evans was destined to suffer the dreaded ‘second-year syndrome’ that’s afflicted plenty of first-year wonders were dead wrong. The tough No.7 has created constant headaches for oppositions when running the ball, busting through more would-be defenders than any other halfback (90), providing 14 try assists for team-mates and initiating plenty of second-phase play (24 offloads). Crucially, he has the proven ability to chime in with a match-winning play – evidenced by his two tries at the death against the Warriors in Round 21. We’ve not seen his best yet, either.