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Sea Eagles' Road To The Finals

Chris Kennedy NRL.com Thu, Sep 12, 2013 - 2:35 PM

Brett Stewart has shown he still has the try-scoring smarts to ensure Manly will pose plenty of threats. Copyright: NRL Photos

1. O Brother where art thou?
Brothers Brett and Glenn Stewart lined up alongside each other just twice in the opening 15 rounds – with the side notching significantly better results with Brett in the team. Manly raced out of the blocks with five wins from their first six as Glenn sat out recovering from knee surgery. Even on his return he appeared to be hampered and as a result made himself unavailable for State of Origin selection. His Round 7 return coincided with a tough run through the draw as the side recorded one win, two losses and a draw in his first four games of 2013 – up against the year’s form sides the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Storm. Between Round 9 and 14, Brett missed five matches with a chipped bone in his back and the side won just once. The Sea Eagles went down to the Roosters in his return match in Round16 then went on a six-match winning run as he rediscovered his attacking form.

2. Not a contender?
Doubts were cast over the premiership credentials of the northern beaches club in the middle of the season as they recorded, at one point, just a single win in six matches, going down to the Roosters (twice), Warriors and Bulldogs, and drawing with the Storm. As mentioned Brett Stewart missed five of those six and for two of those games, Anthony Watmough and Daly Cherry-Evans were backing up from Origin duty. After Round 8 they sat equal third, just one win behind the ladder-leading Storm and Rabbitohs. After Round 16 they were left clinging to fourth place on 19 points – four adrift of third-placed Melbourne and nine points behind Souths. Meanwhile the Bulldogs, Sharks and Titans were all just a single ladder point away on 18 and Manly were a real chance of surrendering their top four aspirations.

3. Representative run
Despite having two key players called up to State of Origin duties, the Sea Eagles didn’t suffer anything like the woes of teams like Melbourne and North Queensland. With favourable byes, their only heavily impacted match was in Round 18 against the Cowboys, with Daly Cherry-Evans and Anthony Watmough both unavailable. However the Cowboys were wrecked by the loss of both starting props and Australian halfback Johnathan Thurston, with the Sea Eagles coasting to victory and Jamie Lyon deputising admirably in the halves.

4. A well-oiled machine
The Sea Eagles turned it all around from Round 17, rocketing out of the representative period with close to their best 17 available for an extended period. It helped that they got to flex some muscles against some of the weakest sides of 2013 – but you can only play what’s in front of you. Between Rounds 17 and 22 Manly put the hapless Eels to the sword twice, thumped an Origin-hit Cowboys side, and swept aside the Titans, Tigers and Warriors to cement first a finals berth then all but assure themselves a top-four finish.

5. The real deal?
That winning run came to a shuddering halt at the hands of the Rabbitohs, who recorded their second win of the year over the Sea Eagles. Throw in the two losses against the Roosters and the draw against Melbourne and Manly found themselves in danger of finishing the regular season without a win against a top-four side. Pundits were suggesting that while Manly may be too good for the also-rans, they didn’t have the firepower to match it with the big boys. Those calls were silenced as the Sea Eagles swamped the Storm 28-8 at Brookvale Oval in their most complete performance of the year, sounding a major warning to the other top sides on the eve of the finals.

6. Buy of the year?
For all the fanfare over the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and James Maloney at the Roosters, former Titan Brenton Lawrence added plenty of sting up front for Manly. The resurgent prop started every game of the regular season in the front row for Manly before getting a rest in Round 26. Lawrence upped his performance in every statistical category compared to last year, with more average minutes (46.5), metres (108.1) and tackles (28.7) per game. With just 1.2 missed tackles per game he can lay claim to being one of the competition’s most effective defensive props. Among regular props only George Burgess (nine) and Andrew Fifita (six) recorded more line-breaks than Lawrence (five). His performances meant the loss of injured club stalwart Jason King was felt far less keenly than it could have been.

7. Central to success
Are Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai the best current centre pairing in the NRL? Lyon in particular has had a vintage year. The ageless centre racked up 14 tries in 24 games, with eight line-breaks and 14 line-break assists. And Matai, whose highly aggressive, high impact style of play leads him to miss plenty of games through injury and suspension, also had one of his best seasons. Matai played 23 of 24 possible games, notching 11 tries and 10 line-breaks. Such a reliable, dangerous and effective centre pairing playing virtually every game and creating opportunities for their outside men is a key plank of premiership success.

8. Des who?
It’s easy to forget now, looking at Manly’s back-to-back top-four finishes, but there were real concerns the departure of long-term and premiership-winning coach Des Hasler at the end of 2011 may tear the heart out of a successful team. Although damaging back-rower Tony Williams followed Hasler to Canterbury the core of the side has remained and their success is in no small part due to the role of Geoff Toovey. As competitive as any man to play the game, Toovey has quickly shown himself to be a shrewd tactician and deserves every plaudit for the side’s continuing success. His animated post-match blow-up following the club’s second loss to Souths will remain on highlight reels for some time to come and left the club $10,000 lighter in the back pocket but it goes to show the determination of the man.

9. Halves come of age
They’re no longer ‘promising’ or ‘full of potential’ – Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are flat out one of the most dominant halves pairings in the NRL. The season stats tell part of the story – Cherry-Evans 10 tries, 15 try assists, 10 line-break assists; Foran 11 line-break assists and 20 try assists – but not all of it. A case in point is the gripping 90-minute 10-all draw with the Storm down in Melbourne in Round 10. Man of the match Foran was in absolutely everything with countless desperate, last-gasp try-saving tackles. Cherry-Evans threaded what is surely the most impressive 40-20 kick of the season at a moment when his side needed it critically and was drowning under mountains of pressure and camped in their own end. Moments and matches like these show why Manly will always be a force with these two in the halves.

10. Backline rampage
As the side clicked into gear at the back end of the season, Manly’s outside backs went on a try-scoring rampage. From Round 17 on at least two of Jorge Taufua, David Williams, Brett Stewart Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai scored in each game. The period saw three hat-tricks (Taufua once and Williams twice) and seven doubles (Stewart, Williams and Lyon twice each, Taufua once). All five men crossed in the Round 19 win over the Titans and between them they scored 41 tries in the final 10 games of the season – 13 of those to Williams alone.